Interview with Prime Minister Stephen Harper is a major coup for the Montreal-based monthly magazine

With its regular fare, such as “Life’s Like That,” “Laughter, the Best Medicine” and “Quotable Quotes,” reader anecdotes, assorted lifestyle tips and “Dramas in Real Life” feature top of mind for people when thinking about Reader’s Digest, the monthly Montreal-based Canadian edition is earning some extra attention this month with its exclusive, more newsy, cover story on Prime Minister Stephen Harper.
Ottawa-based columnist Paul Wells wrote about it in the July 31 issue of Maclean’s. Peter Stockland, editor-in-chief of Reader’s Digest, and yours truly (who, with the boss, interviewed the PM in his Centre Block office) have been interviewed on live radio about our half-hour sit-down with Harper.

“We’re out there kind of leading the news, as difficult as that is for a monthly magazine,” says Stockland, the former editor-in-chief of Montreal’s The Gazette.

“We’re making some waves.”

In the question-and-answer feature, Canada’s 22nd Prime Minister talked about continuing to build the Conservative base in Quebec, while balancing such hot-button political issues in the province as Canada’s role in Afghanistan and the Kyoto Protocol to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

He disputed claims that he’s a micro-manager. “I didn’t sit around negotiating the softwood lumber agreement myself. I certainly didn’t write the budget,” Harper said.
“But obviously I provided the appropriate direction and authority for those who did.”

Perhaps the most interesting remark during the interview came when we asked Harper if any comparisons offend him. “Yes. The Bush comparisons,” he said candidly. “And not because I have any kind of personal dislike of George W. Bush. I don’t. It’s that the comparisons generally are not thoughtful.” “Bush has SUVs in his motorcade, and I have SUVs in my motorcade – ‘Ha, ha, he’s just like George Bush.’ Well, of course, this is actually the decision of the RCMP, and I’m sure George Bush didn’t pick out the cars in his own motorcade either.”

“That kind of thing bothers me because it’s just a stereotype designed for polemical purposes.”

While Harper accused the leadership of the Parliamentary Press Gallery (of which this journalist is a member) of causing the skirmish with his office over who gets to ask him questions at his news conferences, it was Harper’s press secretary, Carolyn Stewart-Olsen, who suggested he would be interested in talking with Reader’s Digest.
“It was a coup to get the prime minister of the day willing to sit down with Reader’s Digest,” explains 50-year-old Stockland, who has known 47-year-old Harper for the past two decades when they both first arrived in Ottawa.

“Harper’s become a recognizable face and we wanted to put him on the cover to signal to people that not only did we have the interview but that we are a magazine that is part of the zeitgeist, part of the culture – part of what’s going on politically in this country.”

So within weeks, not the normal months it takes to plan an issue, production was kicked into high gear and Harper became the August cover story. (Canadian Baywatch babe and animal-rights activist Pamela Anderson, who was going to constitute the celebrity profile, was bumped to the November issue.)

When he took over the helm at Reader’s Digest in September 2004, Stockland says that a process was in place to ensure that Canada’s “most-read, most-trusted” magazine (with a paid subscriber base of over one million and an estimated 8.5 million readers, including the French-language version, Sélection Reader’s Digest) is “relevant” and is “perceived” to be so.

“What I’ve done is carry that process forward by trying to find things that just signal to people that it’s a magazine that is part of their world – that is plugged into their world.”

“Having a sitting prime minister on the cover is really about saying, ‘Look inside this magazine. It might not be quite the magazine you thought it was.” For instance, the periodical has long been saddled with the reputation of running condensed articles from other publications.

Indeed, Reader’s Digest began its life in 1922 to do that very thing when American First World War veteran DeWitt Wallace and his Canadian-born wife, Lila Bell Acheson, created a magazine that would feature abridged stories from other magazines on a variety of subjects.

But after over 1,000 issues published in the United States from RD’s global headquarters in Pleasantville, New York, and the spawning of more than 30 foreign editions (including Canada’s French and English versions that were launched after the Second World War) in 21 languages, it’s clear that Reader’s Digest is not just spinning short stories from other sources.

In the August issue of Reader’s Digest in Canada, there a couple of reprints: one from The Washington Post Magazine on MRI for pets and another from the Toronto Star on the effects of a gunshot. The rest, including the Q and A with Harper (that was translated into French for the August issue of Sélection), a feature on friendship, and another on a decidedly opposite theme – psychopaths – is original material.

In last month’s issue, RD ran a cover story based on a “global courtesy test” conducted by correspondents from all of the magazine’s editions to determine people’s politeness. (Toronto placed third, Montreal 21st.)
There were also stories on baseball in B.C., Shanghai, The Lord of the Rings musical in Toronto, and one story each on what Canada – and our kitchens – will look like in the future.

No reprints were featured in the July issue.

Says Stockland: “In the last year, about 90 per cent of our content has been both original and Canadian.”

“People also always think that we have short articles.

But the length of many of the articles we regularly run are equivalent in length to a broadsheet newspaper at about 2,000 to 2,500 words,” says Stockland, who has spent almost all of his 28-year career in journalism working for newspapers, including stints at the Calgary Herald as editorial page editor and at The Calgary Sun as its editor.

Sometimes, RD stories are even longer, such as a Q-and-A with Joni Mitchell that filled about 20 pages as the July 2005 cover story.

Book excerpts, which appear at the back of the magazine, can run as long as 8,000 words – or more. Says Stockland: “People think Reader’s Digest stories are short, but that’s because they’re well written, unlike a lot of stuff in newspapers.”

“Now there’s a lot of brilliant stuff written in newspapers, but a lot of it is long because the writer indulged himself or herself and made it long.”

“Our goal is to write long so that it reads short.”

That good writing, he explains, is another aspect often overlooked by people not familiar with today’s Reader’s Digest. “We do some first-rate journalism in this magazine and have some really good writers writing for us,” says Stockland, who has been actively recruiting new contributors from across the country.

But the one reputation that RD does live up to, and which Stockland highlights, is as one of the most carefully edited magazines in Canada and around the world.

He explains that an assignment group, composed of about half-dozen editors in Montreal meet every week to review the first drafts of stories. “They ask questions and make comments about it and all of that goes back to the writer,” says Stockland.
“It might go for another two drafts before the story is deemed acceptable.” Once the final copy is filed, senior content editor Mary S. Aikins in Vancouver, Toronto-based senior editor Bonnie Munday and Stockland review it.

The story is then passed to RD researchers, who “meticulously” check every fact and quote and essentially “re-report the story,” according to Stockland.

“It’s a very, very complex and lengthy process.”

Once that’s done, the article goes to the copy desk where it’s tightened for space to fit on the pages upon which it will appear in its final version.

In Stockland’s view, that rigorous process results in editorial excellence and makes him not miss covering breaking news from his daily newspapers days as much.

Certainly not after getting the interview with the PM “that nobody else got this summer in the way that we did,” he says.

Comfortable enough in his relationship with Harper that he called him by his first name during the interview, Stockland has been fielding interview requests to talk about that exclusive encounter in the Prime Minister’s Office.

“I was really impressed with how at home Stephen seemed there. It’s just like he walked in and took the office over,” Stockland tells The Montrealer.

“You get the feeling of a guy who gets up in the morning and says, ‘What am I doing again? Oh yeah, I’m the Prime Minister. Okay, let’s get on with it.'”

Has Harper changed over the 20 years that Stockland has known him? “He always has carried himself as someone with a level of self-possession, of self-awareness – of someone who knows his place in the world.”

RD’s editor-in-chief hopes that when Canadians think of Reader’s Digest, they will see a magazine that knows its place too.

Related Posts