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So What Do You Do, Peggy Northrop, VP/Global Editor-In-Chief, Reader's Digest?

This global brand champion is shepherding a print institution toward a lasting, multiplatform future

By Rebecca L. Fox - August 5, 2009
The collective gasp, quickly followed by a multi-person whoop, that resounded when Reader's Digest was named the winner of a General Excellence award at this year's National Magazine Awards pretty much encapsulated the response of editor-in-chief Peggy Northrop. In the masthead's top spot for less than a year at the time of the win, she'd gone against the grain of collective industry wisdom when she handed over the EIC reins at More to try and help newly installed Reader's Digest Association president and CEO Mary Berner (a former Condé Nast colleague of Northrop's) update Reader's Digest to ensure it remained an institution for a new generation of readers.

Contrary to recent coverage, Northrop denied that RD would go in a more right-leaning direction in a recent sit-down with, describing the real deal behind the company's attempt to grow its readership and expand its content offerings across multiple channels, detailing the ins and outs of her new appointment to global editor-in-chief, and explaining why the survival of newspapers and media's move toward paid content (she's in favor) are matters of not just professional, but great personal import to her.

Name: Peggy Northrop
Position: Vice president and global editor-in-chief, Reader's Digest
Resume: Senior editorial jobs at the San Francisco Examiner, Health (then called Hippocrates), Vogue, Glamour, Redbook, Real Simple; editor-in-chief, Organic Style, More.
Birthdate: August 6, 1954
Hometown: Washington, Pa.
Education: BA, University of California, Berkeley
Marital status: Married
First section of the Sunday Times: "'Business' (because whoever gets up first gets the A section)."
Favorite TV show: "Mad Men... just watched the whole first season again. And I'm loving Nurse Jackie so far."
Guilty pleasure: "Online Scrabble at midnight."
Last book read: "I have several going, including Netherworld, Lark and Termite, and Rapt; just finished the new Lee Child, Gone Tomorrow (this counts as a guilty pleasure), which is the first book I bought on my new Kindle; next up on my Kindle list is Lisa See's Shanghai Girls."

At the National Magazine Awards this past May, the feeling in the room when the General Excellence Award was announced for Reader's Digest was one of excitement and, I think, some surprise. Were you surprised?
I was sitting next to my husband, and I turned to him and my mouth dropped open. It was a surprise, as much because I'd only been there for less [than a] year. I felt as though we'd made some really good changes and we'd done it rapidly, and I was very pleased with what we had done. But still, [winning in the] first year out is a surprise -- a happy one, I'm not complaining. We were up against the big guns: How many times has National Geographic won? [Ed. Note: 19] They're so good, so to go up against them, and Time in an election year, and Martha Stewart Living, with the consistency and the quality; and Real Simple, where I used to work and where I think Kristin [Van Ogtrop, editor-in-chief] is doing just an amazing job -- it was a great company to be part of, too.

In your acceptance speech, you dedicated the award to friends who "thought you were crazy for going ahead and taking the job at Reader's Digest." What was causing their concern?
It wasn't just my friends who thought I was crazy, it was my family. I remember when I told my father about the job he said, "Oh, you're kidding." [laughs] My dad was a newspaper publisher for most of his life. I think part of it was this feeling that Reader's Digest has lost its relevance, so why would you want to do that? I loved my [editor-in-chief] job at More -- I had been there for three and a half years; we'd been nominated for a National Magazine Award in the General Excellence category. I was really enjoying myself there, so why would I want to make a move [to RD]? It was seen as a really big challenge in the business. I guess what people don't really realize is that's what motivates me -- the bigger the challenge, the more attracted I am to it.

Not that it was easy to get me to come to Reader's Digest -- Mary [Berner, Reader's Digest Association president and CEO] really had to try hard, and I'm glad about that. But it was ultimately the chance to take on something really big. I had made a vow to myself: "I want to run something big." It's great to be at a flagship [like RD] where everybody has a stake in your success, so you have a lot of help -- you have a lot of resources. And you have a lot of urgency about making it happen. That was the experience that I wanted.

What was Mary telling you as far as what challenges you would be coming into and what you needed to do in the position?
You always want to talk with a new boss about what success is going to look like. I think that for [Mary] it was, "Come in and make the magazine better. We need to sell more advertising. We want to grow newsstand [sales]." I haven't done that -- nobody's done that in the last year. It's not something I'm especially happy about. We certainly talked about the fact that it was kind of a tired old culture up at Reader's Digest. I knew Mary a little bit from my days at Condé Nast, so I knew that she was a leader of women and men -- I knew that grass was not going to grow under her feet, and I knew she wasn't going to fail.

I knew there was going to be a big cultural change -- that was probably the biggest thing that we were going to have to take on. I was convinced that I could do all the editorial stuff; that was not an issue for me. I thought I had a pretty good shot of making [RD] relevant to a new audience.

How did you go about changing that entrenched culture?
I did make a lot of changes to staff -- in the first four to six months, I probably turned over 25 percent of the staff. I brought over several people who had worked with me before. One of the things that I am most happy about is that the people that I've worked with -- not just at More, but at Real Simple and at Organic Style -- were willing to follow me to a new place. That's fun because once you get the people who you know work [well] together, there's a bit of shorthand so you can move quickly. Of course, you can't just bring in new people and not pay any attention to the folks who are there. It's building a team and having everybody reach this new standard.

"We're a heavily researched company and we did a lot of research around the redesign, but ultimately I thought about all the people that I know who have experienced huge amounts of change in their lives. The changes in their magazine are never their big problem."

These days, what is the Reader's Digest brand meant to deliver?
We have this enormous audience of people who those of us in New York tend to think of as folks in the fly-over zone. I know those people really well, partly because I grew up in western Pennsylvania. I grew up in a newspaper family, so I am accustomed to that kind of community journalism. Reader's Digest is really close to a lot of the things that I have done in the past, and I respect those readers. I respect what they're going through right now; I know what their orientations are.

They're looking for a little bit of inspiration. They're certainly looking for unbiased information; they're incredibly time-pressed, so they want it in a way that's easily digestible. [RD's] roots really go back to that. Now, we can't compete with the news organizations -- I'm not on a 12-hour cycle or a one-hour cycle, like a lot of people are. But we can offer context for stories that are affecting everybody and tell [them] from the point of view of somebody who's like our readers. We can do it all with a sense of humor, which is key to who we are. There's that sense of a real hometown, what life is meant to be about, in our pages.

Given the brand recognition and loyalty among Reader's Digest readers, what were the challenges you faced with the redesign?
People have gone through a lot of change -- they're accustomed to seeing visual redesigns. If you respect the core DNA of the product, you can kind of do anything you want with the packaging. I don't mean to be flip about that; of course, we're a heavily researched company and we did a lot of research around the redesign, but ultimately I thought about all the people that I know who have experienced huge amounts of change in their lives. The changes in their magazine are never their big problem. We live in a much more visual culture now. We want information in different ways -- you've got to break it out, and you've got to pay attention to the little pieces and sidebars. I felt that was missing from the magazine, and that it also fit with our DNA.

Your promotion to global editor-in-chief: How does that alter what you're overseeing and how does it affect your day-to-day?
I've been running [around] more than usual. I will still be editing the U.S. magazine. I'm going to be delegating more to Tom [Prince] and Barbara [O'Dair], my executive editors. There are 50 editions around the world and there are a couple of editors who run regions -- a lot of my contact will be through them. What [the promotion] allows us to do is have one brand champion around the world for what Reader's Digest is. It has local expressions, but there are certain things we can collaborate on.

Think about how many stories are really global stories now; how interested are people in what's going on in the rest of the world? We do "Around the World in One Question" every month. We're able to call our [international RD] editors and say, "Your country had this result, why? Go out on the street and ask somebody a question," and I can do that in a day and a half or less, fun little packages. We can collaborate on the big stories, too. Think about what travels around the world right now. Information about the environment -- there's a global problem we all have to worry about. Information about the [swine] flu -- that's something people in every country are concerned about. So, I'm going to have a more direct pipeline to [international RD] editors -- they will hear sooner what the U.S. edition is planning, and I will hear sooner what they're planning so we can do more collaboration.

These days, how would you describe the prototypical reader of the American edition of Reader's Digest?
I think about my sister-in-law who lives in Washington, Pennsylvania, where I grew up; her mother, who's been reading [RD] for years; and my niece, who lives here in New York. [They're] all big readers, all well-traveled, all women with college educations, all interested in a little bit of uplift. They want to approach life in a particular way, and they want to have stories that they can share among themselves.

You say "they want to approach life in a particular way" -- which way is that?
They're always looking for ways to make their experience of life better. When I first came to [RD], I had a phrase I used constantly that came from a meditation teacher I once had: "It's really hard to meditate unless you can first find some brightness in the mind." This is part of the function that Reader's Digest fulfills for a lot of people: Before you can think about the issues that face us, the problems that we all share -- how are you going to get hold of your finances, how are you going to raise your children -- first you have to be in the right frame of mind. Underneath it all, that's what we're doing.

In terms of modes of content delivery, formerly print-centric organizations are thinking a lot about the Internet and multimedia. How are you bringing content to the Reader's Digest audience through those channels?
We have the advantage of never having been just a magazine -- we always also published books, we made music available to people -- we publish in a lot of different channels. We are in the process of integrating our print and our Web editing teams so that it's one content creation group. We've been on the Kindle for about two years -- however long it's been out -- we were one of the first magazines on there. We are launching a new suite of products that you'll hear about in the next six to 12 months under the "Reader's Digest Version" banner. You hear more and more that people are overwhelmed with information: "Give me the Reader's Digest version." I'm embarrassed that it took me a year to come up with this idea; it's an opportunity for us to say, "Yes, this is a traditional strength of ours," and it's infinitely adaptable on these new platforms: mobile, Web, mobile apps, e-newsletters.

Does the Reader's Digest audience want to consume the content digitally?
Yes. It's a misperception about who our readers are: that they are somehow not up on what's going on in digital media. Their consumption of digital products is extremely high. Ever since we introduced [RD on] the Kindle, we've been in the top three or four magazine downloads from the very beginning -- people really like it. Many of them say, "I remember reading Reader's Digest when it didn't have any advertising, and if you like that, you can go to the Kindle and get it that way."

"Hot-button conservative ideas don't resonate, even with the people who identify themselves in surveys as very conservative. What they want from their media products is different."

The "brand transformation," as you call it -- what is Reader's Digest in light of this?
I don't think that the brand itself has changed that much -- we have always aimed at a particular customer. It's much more about leveraging all the assets we have so we can slice and dice them in new ways. How do we make sure that the reputation for authority and trustworthiness comes through on what is often seen as the Wild West of the Internet? Transferring that sense of trustworthiness and authority [to online] is going to be a challenge because I have lots of fact-checkers working on the magazine, and the Web publishes like this [snaps]. When people are saying, "give me the Reader's Digest version," you know what they mean. They don't mean "give it to me dumbed-down," they mean "give it to me quickly because I don't have time for the long, complicated version."

An article in The New York Times early this summer suggested there was a conservative shift happening at RDA, and that there would be an increasing amount of content aimed at a more niche readership. What do you have to say about that?
Let me ask you a question: When you think about conservative, what do you think?

There's conservative as in a conservative dresser, a modest dresser. Then there's politically conservative, with right-leaning values and interests. It can mean different things.
Right. My big issue with the New York Times story was that it put [RDA] in a context where it seemed to say we are moving right politically. It was very easily misinterpreted. The context made it sound like we were aiming for Obama-haters or we're aiming for people who are angry conservatives, when indeed what we've always done -- it's not really a big shift -- is aim at a middle American audience. Yes, a lot of them care deeply about faith, but they are very tolerant people who don't necessarily want to read about faith in a magazine. They are people who support the troops -- they don't necessarily support the war. It's a more nuanced view of who that reader is.

We survey our readers constantly, and what I find is that hot-button conservative ideas don't resonate, even with the people who identify themselves in surveys as very conservative. What they want from their media products is different. Again, they're looking for a sense of humor and optimism. Our readers are interested in examples of people who are living meaningful lives, who are doing good things, who are giving back to their communities. Those are the kind of hometown values that, if you call them "conservative values," it sounds like "if you are politically liberal, you don't have them." I reject that. Ultimately, I think that's insulting to our readers.

There's obviously a lot of industry contraction: Reader's Digest itself has decreased circulation and frequency, dropping to 10 issues a year from 12. What's the strategy to offset the downturn in advertising and other factors diminishing revenue?
For a long time, Reader's Digest didn't have any advertising -- advertising was almost an afterthought for many years. We have diversified our advertising, we've introduced advertising into some properties that never had it before, so I think we are bringing new things into the company. All of us in this business are trying to figure out: How do you make money on the Internet? I'm thrilled that people are starting to talk about pay models for content. I'm now back on the board of my family newspaper in western Pennsylvania, and little newspapers around the country -- if they don't have a pay model, they will go out of business. So it's a quite an urgent question for me. The rule on the Internet has always been you're trading dollars for dimes, yet there is a desire for people to consume content on these different platforms, and new pay models are coming up. I'm convinced it will be part of our strategy -- it won't be the only strategy, but we'll be ready.

So you're saying there are plans to introduce paid content at certain levels?
Yes, absolutely -- we're already doing that. Kindle is one paid content model. My editorial budget gets richer by the month because of the subscriptions we're selling to the Kindle. We are experimenting with digital downloads that we'll not charge very much for, but that will be around specific content areas -- like SIPs ["single issue publication," or single-topic issue], but digital. We've got a couple of those on deck.

Do you envision micropayments working? Do you see tiered subscription models working? Any ways into paying for content you expect to be more successful than others?
One model I think is promising is for us to be more like a cable channel -- where you buy certain access to information, and then you might have to pay a little extra for premium. I think that can work for a lot of us. I think [online publishing] is a technological shift for a lot of people in my position, but it's not one we can't master -- I'm convinced that we can. It will allow us to be much more nimble. It will certainly change the shape of who's doing what.

There have been staff cuts at RDA -- a company statement early this year said there would be 280, and they would wrap up in June. Have they been completed?
I think they have been [completed]. I mean, I'm speaking about my division -- given this economy, nobody wants to say "That's it -- we'll never have to [cut] again." But we took a hard look at staffing, we took a hard look at our costs, and we did what we needed to do. We did it pretty fast, and we're doing okay -- I feel like we're right where we need to be.

"The people who survive through this next year or so are going to be just an incredible group of journalists and editors and packagers."

You mentioned combining the print and online effort -- was that part of those earlier cuts?
No, it's something that we are deeply engaged in right now. We literally put a team of people together that we're calling our "print and Web editing integration team" where we say, "Okay, so what do you do? How can I work with this person in a slightly different way?" to understand our processes and figure out new ways to work together. You've got to start at the beginning: "We have an idea, which platform does this make the most sense for?"

Will combining Web and print efforts, finding these new ways to work together, create additional redundancies, with further cuts as a result?
I don't think so but, to be perfectly honest, I don't know the answer to that question.

How do you keep morale up as you're trying to enact substantial change -- you're doing a lot of retrenching, and there have been changes within RDA…
It helps that I was an anthropology major in college. Culture's really important; what you say is really important -- knowing what you want, communicating clearly, then saying it again: "Here's where we're going, here's why it's good, here's how you can help me/us do it" -- then being able to turn around and say, "Now, how can I help you?" My style of management is not so much top-down, but, "We have a problem -- let's all solve this together." For the most part, people respond to that with great energy and enthusiasm.

Any launches or new products you're excited about?
One goes back to what you said about user-generated content, how you're starting to see things posted online inside magazines. We're doing similar things by going out to our readers and asking them, "Give us the Reader's Digest version of --?" For example, in August it was "the best advice you've ever received." People take it very seriously and yet they're really funny -- we got everything from "never go to bed angry" to "never cut your hair after three margaritas." In the July issue we had the six-word contest, [which asked]: "Tell us what you love about America in six words or less." So there's that -- bringing more user-generated copy into the magazine itself.

Then, we're going to take over Best You, a magazine launched under the health and wellness group. We did a very successful newsstand test, and we're going to give that a full launch next March. It will be quarterly the first year, then we have plans to ramp it up quickly after that. It's a lifestyle magazine aimed at women in their 40s and 50s, and I'm really excited about it.

Who are some people in the larger media world doing things you want to try, things that you are finding interesting -- who are you looking at?
I look at people in our industry who've managed to make alliances with television; they come up with their own show the way my old friend Joanna [Coles, editor-in-chief] at Marie Claire came up with the show Running In Heels. That's a great brand extension and it gets you into a platform where people can really see your brand in action. I would love to do something on TV.

Are you talking or thinking about that at RDA?
Of course -- we're always thinking and talking about it. These things take a long time to pull off, as I have learned. I would love to do something like that.

Where are the pockets of growth and opportunity within the media industry for people, as they're looking at their careers?
Anybody who doesn't get themself some digital experience is going to be left out in the cold really fast. [If] you're in a company where you have the option to work on some digital stuff, you should take it. Working harder, working smarter, serving your readers better; being more fun, more accessible, more responsive is really going to help you succeed in the marketplace. That's a good kind of pressure to be under -- I think the people who survive through this next year or so are going to be just an incredible group of journalists and editors and packagers.

Coming from a family immersed in newspapers, what do you think newspapers have in front of them to stay viable?
Newspapers that are able to really figure out what their readers need -- not simply [saying] "we're the journalists, and we are telling you what to think" -- are going to be the ones that survive and thrive. You've got to be really local and serve that local audience. The idea that that is cheaper is just wrong -- it takes a lot of time and energy to report local news. The easy, cheap thing is to put a bunch of AP reports in your paper. There's a lot of talk in the newspaper business about how hyper-local is going to save us all, [but] not if you don't give it any money, it's not. A number of nonprofit investigative reporting arms/ groups are starting up; the Center for Investigative Reporting in San Francisco, ProPublica, there are a couple others. There will be that kind of enterprise reporting -- whether it's privately funded, or funded by universities. There are a lot of people who have to get over the idea that what they produce is something on paper.

Rebecca L. Fox

[This interview has been edited for length and clarity.]

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