Forbes Elbows Weekly Reader Aside

How does Forbes stack up against the popular children's magazine? Not very well, it turns out.

For that perfect combination of intellectual gravitas and good old-fashioned fun, we usually turn to the decades-old and always reliable Weekly Reader magazine. The most recent issue was especially well-rounded, containing not only a very interesting spread on the Ivory-billed Woodpecker, but also an opportunity to color in Whiskers the Cat and vote on such issues as, “Should fifth-graders be allowed to wear pajamas to school?” (Try to find that question being asked on, say, “Meet the Press.”)

For our money, there’s only one other publication that can match the Reader for tempering hard news with a whole lot of rip-roaring entertainment, and that’s Forbes magazine. The only question is, which one’s better — the Weekly Reader, or Forbes?

Let’s consider the recent offerings. Without question, Forbes’ online edition had this week’s best single item: a 615-word profile of C. Montgomery Burns, the elderly gentleman who manages the Springfield Nuclear Power Plant on “The Simpsons.” Forbes provides plenty of amusing facts, noting for example that Mr. Burns’ office “has a ceiling-mounted suction tube that ships unwanted visitors to Morocco.” Ha! We forgot about that. In any case, there’s nothing comparable to this in the Weekly Reader, which contains not a single reference to a cartoon TV personality.

And what’s with the Weekly Reader’s cover story on Chief Justice John Roberts? It was well-written and informative, but let’s face it: Most people read magazines while sitting on the throne. And that is no place to be learning about the Supreme Court. We preferred Forbescover, a light-hearted, seven-article laxative all about collecting things, such as pictures of cowboys and Indians, baseball jerseys, and old airplanes.

Forbes’ online edition also had some terrific stories about all the cool features you can find on new cars. We especially liked the article advising readers on which gas-guzzling SUV to buy. That was a real public service, because a lot of people think that SUVs are passé, what with oil prices and global warming. The Weekly Reader, by contrast, published a preposterous article suggesting that fuel efficient “hybrid” vehicles are the “cool cars of the future.”

Fortunately, the Reader redeemed itself with a fast-paced article about the destruction in New Orleans. But then the Forbes Web site surprised us yet again with an even better article noting that now is the perfect time to go on a luxury vacation in the Big Easy. A Forbes writer did just that, and came back with this report:

“The Soniat House, a member of the Small Luxury Hotels of the World, where we stayed, was charming and quiet. … Wrapped around two tropical courtyards, the antique-filled rooms have towering ceilings and simple elegance (and, blessedly, after a long day walking around this ruined city, an oversized Jacuzzi).”

Hot-tubbing at night in a largely empty city — and national disaster zone to boot! A most excellent idea, we think. But for those who prefer to stay home for the holidays, Forbes also has a nice story on its website about what to buy for the busy executive. Apparently, it’s either bourbon, cigars, a Bruce Springsteen album, or a Mercedes SL55 AMG convertible. The Weekly Reader, to its great discredit, had no stories at all this week about Christmas gifts for kids. (We suggest some red, green and white Kool-Aid, a chocolate cigar, and a miniature pedal-powered Mercedes SL55 AMG convertible small enough for a five-year-old to drive around the house but large enough to make an impression when you run over Dad’s foot.)

Weekly Reader also completely failed to deliver a yucky tale about going to the doctor. Forbes published one of those on its Web site. Its columnist had to get an echocardiogram, and this turned out to be expensive. “Well, anyway,” he said, “I ‘only’ paid $217.43. My insurer paid the rest.” So, what’s to complain? Well, the columnist wrote, “let’s examine that for a moment.” And what he found was this: “My insurer paid, but my company paid the insurer. With a lot more echocardiograms like that, our insurance rates will go up …” Frankly, to our mind, the columnist left a lot of unanswered questions. For example, “Did he get a lollipop?”

No doctor stories, and a dumb car story. Well, at least the Weekly Reader had some fun games. And, we figured, this would be the one area in which the Reader would certainly outshine a business magazine for old people. Silly us. Forbes had the best game by far: Business executives reading the Web version were asked to vote on which fictional character they envy the most. The 15 choices, some of which were extensively profiled, included Santa Claus, Richie Rich, Scrooge McDuck, Lex Luthor, and Willy Wonka.

“In our attempts to explain the ultra-rich — and their super-inflated bank accounts,” wrote the editors of Forbes, “we are often guilty of reducing real people to mere caricatures. … With the Forbes Fictional 15, we have taken the opposite approach — fiction’s caricatures are elevated to the status of real people.”

Forbes — a magazine that has a real impact on its readers’ lives. Take note, Weekly Reader!

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Mark R. Mitchell wrote the The Audit column in 2006.