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A bad connection

Posted: April 28, 2011 5:21 p.m.
Updated: April 29, 2011 5:00 a.m.

This started out to be a feel-good story, one of those you read and then say to yourself, “Well I’ll be doggone. What about that?”

It didn’t end up that way.

First, the good part:

Unless you’ve turned a blind eye to the news during the last few years, you understand that things have changed rapidly in the print world.

Newspapers, magazines and books are all wrestling with a changing marketplace and new technology. Big-city papers have been especially hard hit, and some have gone out of business or are on their way as people turn to the Internet for their news.

Newsweek magazine, once a proud presence, is a thin, former shadow of itself and was recently sold for $1. That’s one buck. Worthless.

Electronic readers such as the iPad and Kindle are biting off an increasing share of the book market.

Business experts say print companies that can’t change with the times, those that can’t use technology to keep their readers engaged, will face an increasingly difficult task staying in business.

And in the midst of all this economic uncertainly, in a turbulent print market that shifts each day, there’s one name that you would never, ever think of as being aggressive enough to not only survive but thrive. There’s a company that you might think of as a buggy whip maker or a typewriter manufacturer, totally bypassed by time and certain to eventually fail.

But you’d be surprised by this adaptable and thriving company, a name you might not have spoken in years but will probably recall from your childhood, a name that in no way conjures up thoughts of Apple or Micrsoft or other techno-successes.

It’s My Weekly Reader.

The little newspaper, which was founded in 1928, has been distributed to school kids for more than three-quarters of a century. Chances are good you read it in your third-grade class or studied one of its maps in sixth grade.

I hadn’t thought of it in years, but my mother and I were recently discussing the unique ecosystem of the Galapagos Islands off the coast of Ecuador, and she said, “When I was teaching, I remember reading about that in My Weekly Reader.”

My mother’s almost 93. She taught school during World War II, and it was that time period when she distributed My Weekly Reader to her students. And she happened to recall a solitary article about those islands almost two-thirds of a century later.

My curiosity piqued, I went to the Internet and discovered, to my surprise, that My Weekly Reader (now known simply as Weekly Reader) is alive and well.

I decided to ask the folks there how they’d managed to remain relevant in a digital age, how they’d continued to be a viable financial entity while many of their counterparts are breathing their last.

That turned out to be not so easy.

From their website -- yes, Weekly Reader is digital as well as print -- I found a phone number and called it. Turned out it was their New Jersey location, a customer service center. The corporate headquarters is in White Plains, N.Y.

Some of you might be thinking, “Hmm-m-m-mm, White Plains, I think that’s where Reader’s Digest is located. Maybe Weekly Reader is now owned by Reader’s Digest.”

And you’d be right.

But when I reached the receptionist there -- it might be that “receptionist” is now a politically incorrect term, I don’t really know -- she turned out to be rude, haughty and completely unhelpful.

 “Media relations department?” she fairly seethed. “If you don’t have a specific person to call, I can’t connect you.”

 “Well, I don’t know anybody in your media relations department. But I’m trying to write a positive newspaper column about Weekly Reader, and I just need to speak to someone who can tell me something about how this publication has thrived in a difficult age. I want to write something nice about your company.”

That really set her off. Her mood went from unpleasant to nasty.

I won’t bore you with the rest of the conversation, but I managed to remain cordial in spite of her, though I did consider telling her I felt sorry for her husband.

And that’s the good and bad side of Weekly Reader. I guess it just goes to show that no matter how much you want to be nice to somebody, sometimes they just won’t let you.

Next time I have a question about the Galapagos Islands, I won’t be calling her.

 

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