Farewell to a Canadian Print Icon

Sad but not unexpected: The shuttering of Reader’s Digest Canada was bittersweet. My first big freelance client and my byline made the last edition, in a round about way.

The last edition

Ian Harvey|Principal Curator

The news was sad but not unexpected.

After a long, slow but inevitable decline, Reader’s Digest Canada published its last edition December 2023.

To be honest, I was surprised they lasted this long. It was a throwback – quality mind you – of a bygone age and their core readership has been dying off for decades. They tried to keep appealing to younger demographics but it just wasn’t there.

The good news was that they had devoted 16 pages of their 122 page magazine to a condensed version of Terry & Me: Inside Terry Fox’s Marathon of Hope by Bill Vigars and myself.

Back in the day that would have been the golden ticket to book sales. Alas, book sales, like magazine sales are not what they used to be. Still, it was a proud moment for Bill and myself when we saw the magazine. Bill rushed out to buy 10 copies and I was gifted three when I posted on Facebook that I couldn’t find any for sale locally.

If you haven’t already bought the book, which you can find here in print, Kindle and audio versions, or you can read the Reader’s Digest version here and get an idea.

It was especially bittersweet for me to get a byline in the last edition because although I haven’t written for them for quite a while they were one first major clients when I went freelance in fall 2004.

I’d spent my career in journalism at three newspapers, starting right from journalism school at 20 years old with the Peterborough Examiner in 1977 moving up to the Scarborough Mirror later that same year and then getting on at the Toronto Sun Jan. 1, 1979. I’d exited the Sun as director of web operations at their Toronto entertainment and news web platform fyitoronto.com when it became apparent Quebecor couldn’t float an IPO and decided to shutter the chain, throwing 62 of us out of work.

My Freelance Career Launches

From there I went to work at marketing and loyalty card giant Air Miles, bailing in 2004 when I realized the corporate cubical life wasn’t for me. After a five month sojourn at the Canadian Film Centre’s Digital Media program I launched my freelance career in September that year.

I was lucky to catch on with RD Canada in 2004 when I first launched my freelance business.

I was teaching part time at Centennial College and banging out stories for the National Post and the Toronto Star.

I found that getting myself on the freelance roster was a matter of hustle. I’d emailed the Post’s Toronto editor with a story idea about the summer that was (I think it was either very hot or very cold, can’t recall) and did what used to be a standard Labour Day

It was the usual wrap round up. You called various weather dependent businesses and asked them, how did the summer weather affect you. I called the Docks, local Ice Making business and few other standards. They loved it. And I started landing freelance pitches after that.

Shortly after I cold called Dennis Morgan who had founded the Wheels section and was then the Special Section editor at the Toronto Star.

I introduced myself and right away he knew my byline. He was happy to send an email out to his editors introducing them to a newly minted and quality freelancer. He did and the assignments started rolling in.

My confidence building I noticed that former Calgary Sun editor Peter Stockland, whom I’d briefly met, had just been appointed editor at Readers Digest. So I started emailing and then calling.

I thought maybe he was avoiding me until on my third try he picked up and said: “Ian. You’re just the kind of writer we want to bring in! Meet me in Toronto next week and we’ll have breakfast with our Toronto editor. She’ll be assigning and working with you.”

Boom. Royal York breakfast, met Bonnie Munday and the assignments started to come.

The Ride of a Lifetime

And boy did they pay well. $1 a word at least. That was pure gold at a time when everyone else was cutting freelance rates. Even today 20 years later the last of my clients are pay just 50-cents a word and that’s considered pretty good.

It was a good run. Stories on real life drama, the great Canadian politeness test, cannabis legalization, male friendships and bonding, Testosterone Replacement Therapy (that one ended up being translated and running in RDs around the world. I found it in English at RD India. And so many more great people stories. I’d share them here but I never kept my work once it was published. I was too busy moving onto the next assignment.

I did some great interviews with interesting people and worked with some high level professionals, from assigning editors like Bonnie Munday and Liz Compton, to copy editors to fact checkers. Yes, back in the day there were fact checkers at quality publications who would check and confirm every quote and statement of fact.
That went out the window years ago at most places.

When I first started dating Suzanne she told her mum I was a freelance writer and wrote for Readers Digest. Wouldn’t you know it they had a copy of the magazine at their Coquitlam home and guess what? One of my stories was in it.

Man I was golden in that house. LOL.

Ironically, when we chatted over Christmas and said Suzanne would bring a copy of the magazine when she would visit the response was: “Oh, that’s great. We used to subscribe. I really enjoyed reading it. I don’t anymore.”

And that, in a nutshell, is why Reader’s Digest died. People stopped subscribing and their demographic never got replaced.

Still, while it was hot, I had a great ride, until, as it does, it all changed about six years later.

Peter got bounced. The new guy brought in his crew and I got frozen out. C’est la guerre mes amis.

Since then I’ve watched RD Canada spiral down, getting gaunt and pale. The last magazine was a shadow of what it used to be. The end was inevitable. But still sad.

And that’s the Reader’s Digest version of my relationship with that iconic magazine.

It was the best of times. It really was. And nice, in a way, to see my byline made the last call.