AWW editor McCabe: I learned my lesson on the Gillard knitting pic
In an interview to mark the 80th anniversary of Australian Women’s Weekly, editor Helen McCabe said that although the feature on Gillard had been negotiated months in advance, the changing political situation in the days close to publication left her reconsidering how her readers would react.
McCabe has been editor of AWW for four years. While some publications have seen their circulations halve in that period, AWW has held steady – dropping only slightly from around 490,000 when McCabe inherited the title to just under 460,000 in the most recent numbers.
McCabe was originally from a TV and newspaper background and has aimed to publish agenda-setting stories as part of the Bauer media-owned title’s mix. She said: “There’s no doubt my interest is the stories and my news background comes to the fore.”
Asked about her toughest decisions and what she had learned in the last four years McCabe nominated the furore over the Gillard picture which hit the public domain days before Kevin Rudd ousted Gillard. But she said that she had learned to pull back on her hard news instincts in the magazine’s content mix.
She told Mumbrella: “I have certainly made some mistakes. I think that light and shade… women’s magazines are very much about entertainment. You pay $6.95 for a magazine and you don’t want to be smashed over the head with worthy stories.
“Sometimes my interest in policy and issues and who’s running the country probably means I’ve popped one too many political stories into the magazine at times.”
But whereas newspaper editors are often happy to get exclusive access to any high profile politician, magazine editors need to be careful how their readers perceive such articles, McCabe said. “The general public are really hot on perceived bias and opinion. They don’t want to see it in their magazine at all.”
Readers’ reaction to a previous article on Gillard in 2010 in the run up to the previous election had made McCabe nervous, she said. “If you do one big piece on Julia Gillard in the lead up to 2010 election they perceive that as bias in her favour. I did it again this year with the kangaroo.”
The photoshoot saw Gillard pose with knitting in hand and the magazine published the kangaroo knitting pattern for its readers. The idea was proposed long before by Gillard’s communications team.
However, as Gillard attacked Abbott for sexism and Rudd began to manoeuvre for another attempt to take back the Labor leadership, McCabe began to worry about how the article would be perceived. She said:
“I could see the play. We’d done it months in advance but I could see where it was headed. The week it was going to go on the stands I could see there was going to be a fair chance she was going to lose the job.
“There was a dreadful position to be in. We’d done a long interview with her as well. Do we pull the whole thing? Run the whole thing? Run a truncated version of it? And we had enormous internal debates about how to do it.
“Then it leaked, then it went crazy. Then she lost her job, on the same day the magazine hit the stands.
“It got even worse because the PM’s office tried to claim it was a stitch up, we were trying to set her up. Then they claimed we came up with the idea of the knitted kangaroo, then we released the emails proving it wasn’t us, it was them. It just turned to a mess.
“I know politics well to know when it goes bad, it goes bad.”
She added: “I tied myself up a little bit in knots trying not to be seen to be in favour of Julia Gillard even though we were running a puff piece. That seemed to confuse the readers, then upset them.
“So I didn’t win any fans. The pro Gillard people were offended, the anti Gillard people were confused and probably offended.
“We only ran one page and the knitting pattern. By then half the country thought I’d put it on the cover, the other half of the country thought I’d been dreadfully awful to her.
“I just wanted to do the right thing by the reader. I’ve said I think I got the tone not quite right. I got enough letters to know I didn’t get it quite right. When you have a crack sometimes you are going to overreach.”
However the edition, which featured Prince William on the cover, sold well.
McCabe said: “It was a very strategic way of addressing the 80th anniversary. I decided what I wanted to do was to push forward and think about the magazine in the future so that’s why we launched a scholarship program for young women to engage a new audience.”
The title also held a series of sold out High Tea events in Adelaide, Brisbane, Sydney and Melbourne for readers.
Asked about the success of the title over the years, McCabe said: ““The masthead has such resilience. It’s gone through lots of different phases. It stands for integrity and fairness and decency.”
But she revealed: “And yet during one of the royal weddings (in 1981) the whole cover was the cover of a Benson & Hedges cigarette. Brought to you by B&H with the actual logo on the cover. It’s done some quite outrageous things.”
She added: “The custodians of the masthead for the past 80 years have done a damned good job as positioning it in this country as the dominant voice of Australian women.”
McCabe said that what she felt to be her biggest risk to date was 2012′s cover image of a naked Deborah Hutton. She said: “That was a hold my breath moment. That was really high risk. it was the craziest thing I’ve ever done. I thought people might cancel subscriptions en masse.”
A major focus for the magazine now is building its digital following, something that former owner ACP had little interest in, in the months before being sold to Bauer. Asked how much time she spent thinking about digital, McCabe said: “When I came in almost zero. We were owned by a bank there was no appetite to spend and no real revenue stream coming from that side of the business. In the last 12 months, AN enormous amount of time. It has incredible potential. We own women in this country and we need to do so online. We’re not there yet. Internally we’re having lots of discussion about that.”
She also revealed that she has signed a new contract. She said: “I’m definitely here for another two years. I committed just recently to another two years. We’re taking it in bite sized chunks.
“When you walk in and the figures aren’t in freefall, it’s not a bad place to be.”