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The Press: Digest Suspended

2 minute read

Forty-eight years ago March 1, Isaac Kauffman Funk and Adam Willis Wagnalls, both Lutheran pastors, brought out the Literary Digest, “a repository of contemporaneous thought and research as presented in the periodical literature of the world.” Such a review, thoughtPartners Funk & Wagnalls, would be especially handy for theologians and educators. The Literary Digest amended its formula in 1905 to include newspaper comment on news more mundane than “thought and research.” In ten years its circulation stepped up to 400,000.

In the early 20s the Literary Digest had become one of the greatest publishing successes in history. Its weekly juxtaposition of contrary newspaper opinion and cartoons had won it 1,400,000 readers, made it a national institution, a schoolroom textbook, a gold mine for its publishers, Funk & Wagnalls Co. No small part of its prestige came from its famed straw votes, whose ballots were accompanied by profitable subscription appeals. For the best part of a generation these polls forecast national election results with great accuracy. But gift premiums added to straw votes were not sufficient to offset growing public apathy toward editorial opinion. In vain the Literary Digest attempted to make itself over from a digest of opinion to a digest of news.

By 1936, with circulation hovering at 600,000 Funk & Wagnalls hoped that another Presidential poll would prove a salutary shot in the arm. Instead, that poll mistakenly put Alfred M. Landon in the White House. Last June, the magazine having scraped bottom long enough, Funk & Wagnalls sold it to the Albert Shaws, father and son, for what was reported as a generous $200,000—only one percent of what the Literary Digest had been valued at in its prime. Merged with the Shaws’ Review of Reviews as The Digest it did no better, was taken over four months later by Magazine “Doctor” George F. Havell and a syndicate of friends. They restored the old name Literary Digest, but little of its old revenue or prestige. Last week it suspended, paid up its employes,announced that it hoped to reorganize and resume publication in a fortnight.

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