The Magazinist
Critical Thinking for Publishers

Weekly Reader

All of us here were saddened to learn of the death of the Weekly Reader, a victim of terminal impatience on the part of its latest owners, Scholastic Corporation.  Scholastic purchased the Weekly Reader from the Reader’s Digest Association in February (reportedly paying between $10 and $20 million) and decided to  pull the plug in May, a mere three months later. Of the 60 employees at the Weekly Reader, 55 were laid off.  What’s left of the Weekly Reader has been folded into Scholastic News.

The Weekly Reader, which first appeared on September 21, 1928, was an offshoot of Current Events, a magazine for high-schoolers founded in 1902 (and still published).  At its peak the Weekly Reader had 13 million readers, and it could still claim one million as recently as 1990.   In its last year total readership had dipped below 700,000.

Cue the soundtrack:  “How dear to my heart are the scenes of my childhood…”

Here at the Magazinist, thoughts of the Weekly Reader carry us back to classrooms brightened on Fridays by the arrival of the cheerful little magazine with its engaging stories and puzzles. The Weekly Reader was not afraid to tackle an occasional controversy: for example, it was one of the first national periodicals to suggest that baseball great Roberto Clemente might have more fans if he wasn’t Puerto Rican.  The Weekly Reader appealed to its readers’ imaginations and addressed their interests, and it made readers think while it entertained and informed them.  You can’t ask much more from any magazine.

The Weekly Reader was produced in seven editions written for grade levels ranging from preschool through sixth.  Its founding owner was the American Education Press of Columbus, Ohio, which was sold to Wesley University Press in 1949.  Among the Weekly Reader’s owners since then have been the R. J. Reynolds  Tobacco Company and the Xerox Corporation. 

First Dick and Jane and now the Weekly Reader!  How can today’s children hope to learn anything?

Certainly, the Weekly Reader ranks among the best-loved American children’s magazines.  Humpty Dumpty, Jack and Jill, Highlights, and Boys’ Life are still with us, but they don’t seem to generate the same affectionate loyalty as the Weekly Reader.

You have to look a little farther back into journalism history to find magazines that generated similar passions and were mourned at their passing as much as the Weekly Reader is today.  Some American children’s magazines made a serious contribution to the country’s literature. 

Two of the most successful children’s magazines of the early 19th century, Parley’s Magazine (1832) and Merry’s Museum (1841), were founded by the same man, publisher and writer S. G. Goodrich.  After the two magazines combined in 1844 they were edited for a while by Louisa May Alcott. 

Youth’s Companion, launched in 1827, grew to become one of the largest magazines in the U.S.  Its publisher, Daniel S. Ford, didn’t use his own name on the masthead—instead the magazine was published by the imaginary “Perry Mason Company.”  Erle Stanley Gardner, who read Youth’s Companion as a boy, borrowed the name for his fictional detective. 

Youth’s Companion was sold to the the Atlantic Monthly Company in 1925—Publisher Ellery Sedgwick of the Atlantic had worked at Youth’s Companion 30 years earlier—but it closed in 1929 at the age of 102.  One historian said, “Probably no other magazine was mourned so widely.”

St. Nicholas Magazine was launched in 1873 as a companion to Scribner’s magazine.  Its visionary founding editor, Mary Mapes Dodge, gave St. Nicholas appeal and charm that lasted until the magazine closed in 1940.  One of its last owners was the same company that launched the Weekly Reader, the American Educational Press.

St. Nicholas encouraged its young readers to submit stories, and on the long list of writers who were first published in St. Nicholas are Bennett Cerf, William Faulkner, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ring Lardner, Edna St. Vincent Millay, and E. B. White.

St. Nicholas and Youth’s Companion outlasted most of their competitors, among whom were some wonderful, charming, well-written, and beautifully illustrated magazines.  Copies of Harper’s Young People, H. O. Houghton’s Riverside Magazine, Ticknor & Fields’s Our Young Folks, and Lee & Shephard’s Oliver Optic’s Magazine are every bit as captivating today as they were in the 1870s.

Some of these old favorites can be sampled at MerryCoz which is rapidly becoming one of our favorite sites.  

In the meantime, what will replace the Weekly Reader?  Is it possible that 50 years from now some old curmudgeon will be griping about the great children’s Web sites of 2012?  Somehow we doubt it. 

There was a special joy in reading a magazine printed just for you and your classmates.  To possess it—to hold it, roll it up, and carry it home—was part of the experience.  Whether they were solving the puzzles, reading the stories, drawing mustaches on the pictures, or tearing pages into spitballs, all the kids in the classroom were engaged with the Weekly Reader, learnng (among many other things) that magazines can be a lot of fun.

Houghton launched the Riverside Magazine because he knew that the pleasure of reading would last a lifetime and that a magazine for children would help create a larger market for adult books.  Today’s publishers don’t seem to connect the dots the same way… but it’s not impossible that many of the teenagers buying Scholastic’s  wildly successful Hunger Games books were encouraged to learn reading by the Weekly Reader.

You’d think that Scholastic might have dug a little deeper for resources to help move the Weekly Reader into today’s digital world… not for the sake of nostalgia or because it would be the right thing to do, but because it would help protect the franchise—for all of us in the business of serving readers.

August, 2012