America joined World War I in April, 1917. With tensions building since 1915, President Wilson finally determined that American interests and lives, increasingly threatened by unrestricted submarine warfare on the part of Germans, required military action. War was declared on Germany, and within a few days America joined its allies in the struggle. However, it would be several months before sufficient troop strength could be mobilized. By March of 1918, only 318,000 Americans had arrived in France, and they were severely overmatched at first. The British and French commanders, tired and depleted after two years of fighting, were eager to supplement their lines with the fresh, though largely untrained, American troops.
At the same time, Germany was winning their war against Russia to their East. When the Bolsheviks took power in November, 1917, part of their “campaign promise” was to bring an end to the fighting, immediately. A three-month truce was arranged between Germany and Russia. By March, a formal treaty had been reached and the conflict was successfully brought to a close. This allowed Germany to transfer thirty full veteran divisions to their Western front, bringing clear numerical superiority over their adversaries. This, too, served as motivation for Pres. Wilson to take steps.
So in the early months of 1918, more and more Americans were shipping out to Europe. By August, those numbers would reach nearly two million, and German General Ludendorff was more than aware of what America’s involvement would mean. He decided to use the massive influx of troops to launch a series of offensives designed to bring a quick resolution to the war and force the surrender of France and Britain before America would have time to bring their strength to bear.
Ludendorff’s attacks were swift and actually quite successful, initially. Using bursts of troops, rolling up the French lines, the Germans were able to break through and actually got closer to Paris than at any other point since 1914 (see the blue dotted line in the “Western Front of World War I graphic). But with this success, German forces and supply lines became even more vulnerable. Losses were heavy and overextended troops became subject to supply problems. By July, the attacks were slowed and as constant reinforcements from America were arriving, and Germany and her allies continued to take losses they could ill afford, the tide of the battle, and the war, turned.1
It was during this time that a young man from St. Paul, Minnesota found himself in the middle of this mess. 28 year old DeWitt Wallace enlisted in the Army when America joined the war, and by early 1918, found himself in the thick of fighting in France. During one of Ludendorff’s offensives, Wallace was injured near Verdun.
Fortunately, though the injury was serious enough to keep Wallace out of the remainder of the war, it was not mortal, and he had to spent a significant amount of time in a French hospital. While there, Wallace had very little do beyond reading the poor selection of magazines available.2
As it turns out, DeWitt Wallace had some experience reading and editing magazines. After graduating from UC Berkeley in 1912, he went back to St. Paul and was hired by a publishing company that specialized in farming literature. The company would receive information and documents from federal and state agencies, and Wallace would review them, compile them, and add his own comments. By 1916, the results were published in pamphlet entitled, “Getting the Most Out of Farming.” Wallace sold tens of thousands, mostly to local bankers who used the content as a promotional device for their own farming clients.
So, when Wallace was sitting in that hospital, reading old American magazines, he began to envision a new publication. He noticed that many of the articles were interesting, but too long or poorly written. He devoted his hours to removing superfluous words and other editing, working to summarize, review and revise the articles.
Once discharged, Wallace retuned to St. Paul and spent six months poring over the magazines and articles within the Minneapolis Public Library. He looked for “evergreen” content – articles that, even ten years later, would still be applicable and interesting to readers. By January 1920, he had compiled his first issue of his new publication, Reader’s Digest.
Wallace described Reader’s Digest as, “31 Articles Each Month From Leading Magazines, Each Article of Enduring Value and Interest, In Condensed and Permanent Form.” It achieved wide success due to the fact that it provided readers with succinct access to hard facts and information.3
This format of curating and compiling interesting articles allowed the magazine to grow and expand readership globally for decades. It wasn’t until the Internet began to kill print magazines that Reader’s Digest fell out of favor.
Today, bloggers and content marketers are learning to embrace the same philosophy that DeWitt Wallace pioneered 95 years ago. “Content Curation” is a new buzzword, even though the concept obviously isn’t new.
What Wallace might be surprised to see though is the number of ways that businesses can and do curate content today.
On blogs everywhere, businesses are finding great articles from other sources and using their own blogs to introduce the articles to their readers. Some may curate one article at a time, while others may collect and compile a series of articles on one topic or another.
Additionally, new tools are being advanced regularly, like Scoop.it and List.ly, which are there simply to make the process of content discovery, curation and distribution easier. With a tool like Flipboard, now anyone can collect and curate interesting articles and content, and actually present that content as their own magazine.
But interestingly, that’s not where the most and sometimes best content curation is going on. That’s where social networks come in, particularly Pinterest.
Every minute, people are sharing links to articles they’ve found to Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn and Pinterest. The best instances are when the person interjects their own opinion or spin on the topic. We’ve talked about this before, and referred to it as adding commentary. By introducing a post and suggesting why someone would be interested in reading it, you add value to the post, and encourage not only readership but discussion as well.
On Facebook, this is practically a requirement. Simply sharing links without any introduction, all the time, is actually frowned on by mainstream users. And it’s also considered poor taste to only share your own content. So users are encouraged to find, summarize and review articles that other people have written, just like DeWitt Wallace did with Reader’s Digest. By taking the time to add your own commentary and opinion, or ask a question, you’re providing far more value and interest.
The first issue of Reader’s Digest, which appeared in February, 1922, was printed on plain white paper stock, and included no illustrations or advertisements. Inside, the opening article was “How to Keep Young Mentally.” This was followed by such diverse selections as “Love–Luxury or Necessity?” “Watch Your Dog and Be Wise,” “Whatever Is New for Women Is Wrong,” and “Is the Stage Too Vulgar?” The enormous success of this issue, and those that followed, demonstrated the thirst readers had for interesting and succinct articles and information. Some of the most successful businesses today are following this same model on social media. Are you?