In an analog era, DeWitt Wallace pioneered the aggregator start-up.
DeWitt Wallace loved to take notes. Every night after coming home from his tedious bank job in 1909, he would flip through magazines, jotting down anything he found interesting or important on small index cards. Compiling the cards was a therapeutic way to absorb information.
His quirky habit hinted at the revolution he would lead in journalism, aggregating articles to save readers time. The notecards foreshadowed the editorial vision of Reader’s Digest, a publishing empire built on the idea of finding the best content.
Reader’s Digest was ahead of its time. Wallace’s unique capsulized approach was a harbinger of the aggregation of the digital age and the democratization of magazines to a wider audience. Aggregators ranging from the Drudge Report to the Politico Playbook have their roots in Reader’s Digest.
From the start, Wallace devised a formula for finding the right content for his broad audience. He would ask himself – and later have his writers and editors do the same– three simple questions when looking for content:
The immense popularity of the magazine, with 70 million readers at its peak, shows that Wallace met an important need.
“Second only to the Bible in its worldwide readership and, many would say, influence, the Reader’s Digest has been the prime exemplar and exporter of middle-brow American culture to millions of readers,” wrote John Heidenry in the Wallace biography “Theirs Was The Kingdom”.
Peter Canning, in his Wallace biography “American Dreamers”, notes that beyond these few questions, “nothing would be too taboo in his magazine except despair and defeat.” Wally, as he was known by friends and colleagues, was determined to inject hope and brightness in an America he assumed, like him, was chronically pessimistic.
His formula worked.
William Roy DeWitt Wallace (1889-1981) was raised in a tumultuous and strict environment that biographers think contributed to his creative genius.
Born in St. Paul, Minn. to Janet Wallace and James Wallace, a preacher and professor, Wally grew up a troublemaker and general headache for his parents. Early in his childhood, his mother struggled with mental health issues while his father advanced to President of Macalester College.
Despite his family problems and rebellious tendencies, Wallace excelled in elementary school and was advanced two grades. His parents sent him to Macalester Academy for boarding high school, where his mischievous side flourished.
“Like many a hyperactive boy from a troubled household,” wrote Heidenry, “Roy quickly found his true academic calling in playing pranks.”
Wallace’s rebellion escalated as he grew older, ranging from getting in brawls with rich kids to running away to New York with friends. He was expelled from two high schools and was “asked nicely” to leave his father’s college as a sophomore undergraduate.
After his short stint at Macalester, Wallace took a job as a bank teller under his uncle in Colorado, where the restless young man would spend his free time writing down his ideas on note cards.
“These long earnest, youthful memorandums to himself–full of aphorisms and quotations, lists for self improvement, ideas for making money were the embryonic stirrings of what was to become the Reader’s Digest,” wrote Heidenry.
Wallace took his index cards seriously, once musing in a letter home: “One reason so few men succeed is that they don’t make a business of acquiring new ideas and information of practical value. I direct considerable reading toward this end.”
Despite being bounced out of school, Wallace was determined to make something of himself. He decided to try college again, enrolling in the University of California at Berkeley as a freshman in 1910.
This time, he stayed in school for two years. However, after receiving an offer to work at a publishing company back in St. Paul, Wallace once again dropped out.
The publishing house, though small in its reach and opportunities for Wallace, gave him the practical skills he needed to eventually publish his own magazine. His first idea, an aggregated booklet of government reports for farmers called “Getting the Most Out of Farming” didn’t sell. But its failure didn’t shake his belief that people would buy a digest of news and other content.
At Berkeley, he became close friends with Barclay Acheson, who introduced Wallace to his sister, Lila. An avid letter writer and voracious reader, Lila immediately captivated Wallace, who wrote in a letter to his parents that she was “so confident, so full of laughter and fun.” He quickly discovered she was already engaged.
Years later, Wallace ran into Barclay in New York, only to find out that Lila was single after breaking off her wedding. The two were married in 1921.
Lila played a key role in the birth of Reader’s Digest in her continued support and reassurance of both DeWitt and his idea. When he told her that every publisher had shot him down, she challenged him to be his own publisher. When he struggled to find a solid base of readers, she implored him to appeal to women (“That is where your market is!” she told him).
The pair lived in Greenwich Village, N.Y., with DeWitt spending their newlywed days poring over magazines to find articles to condense and add to his publication. After collecting enough support, money and good content, he and Lila sent out the first issue of Reader’s Digest in February 1922.
After publishing a few issues to praise but little profit, DeWitt and Lila decided to relocate to a quieter, more work-friendly neighborhood outside of the city — the wonderfully named Pleasantville. The couple lived in a garage and rented a small pony shed as the magazine’s office. The tiny room would remain the national headquarters for the next three years.
As the magazine grew, the Wallaces moved their home and office to a larger campus near Chappaqua, N.Y. The magazine had 290,000 subscribers and was sold on newsstands by 1929. The annual profit was more than $900,000, which would be $12 million today.
The magazine was a roaring success and Reader’s Digest was now an American tradition. But Wallace thought something was missing. And then, after talking to an auto mechanic about the rise of driving deaths in America, it hit him: original content.
Wallace introduced Reader’s Digest first original article, “And Sudden Death,” in 1935. With graphic details, it told about the tragedy of car accidents and “hit the country like a runaway truck”, Canning wrote. The article helped inspire seatbelt reform and more awareness about auto safety. It showed that Wallace not only knew his readers, but his work could provide a public service.
As a publisher, Wallace was always ahead of his peers in his knowledge of what Americans wanted and his ability to turn a profit. His jottings on notecards had become a publishing empire.
“When Mr. and Mrs. Middle America sat down on their front porch to read,” Heidenry notes, “the magazine that brought a smile to their faces was Reader’s Digest.”