Helen McCabe’s six years at the helm of the country’s most influential magazine has been impressive, with agenda-setting journalism, and circulation outperforming the market. As she prepares to leave Australian Women’s Weekly as the Publish Awards reining consumer magazine editor of the year, we offer Credit Where It’s Due.
When Helen McCabe joined the Australian Women’s Weekly at the end of August in 2009, her ambition was clear.
AWW picked up three trophies at last year’s Publish Awards
She wanted to turn what was a women’s magazine into a magazine for women filled with exclusive news content and covers that grabbed people’s attention.
At the time she told Mumbrella: “The challenge is to find fabulous stories that inspire the readership. I’m a news journo’s journo.”
Six years down the track it is fair enough to say she has achieved that, and remains the journo’s journo.
Despite being a viciously competitive industry, when McCabe picked up the editor of the year trophy at the Publish Awards last October, she was loudly applauded by the whole room.
Just 2015 alone was a big year for The Weekly and McCabe – garnering praise for putting ultra-marathon bushfire survivor Turia Pitt on the cover in July 2014, upping the ante with a world exclusive cover featuring Oprah Winfrey as well as persuading Tony Abbott’s chief of staff Peta Credlin to open up.
Oprah: The cover McCabe chased the hardest
The Oprah edition was the cover that nearly got away for McCabe as an editor.
“We had tried to get Oprah forever. She’s been one of those on the list of pie-in-the-sky interviews that you want alongside Hilary Clinton, Michelle Obama, Ellen DeGeneres, Princess Mary and we’ve slowly been picking them off,” McCabe told Mumbrella in September.
Inside that same edition of the magazine, McCabe published the magazine’s Power List featuring Credlin who she had secured to speak at the AWW’s Women of the Future Awards. It was the first time Credlin had spoken at a public event since Abbott was ousted from the top job.
The magazine also helped crack the Belle Gibson story, with Clair Weaver picking up a Publish Award for her interview with the controversial wellness blogger.
McCabe told Mumbrella later: “Our interview with Belle Gibson was probably the best story of the year for us.”
McCabe turned the Australian Women’s Weekly into a magazine that put hard-hitting journalism alongside recipes. Indeed McCabe has been criticised for ignoring the values of the magazine, replacing celebrity stories with political profiles. The most controversial an infamous shoot of Julia Gillard knitting a kangaroo for Prince George.
It was this cover – which hit newsstands the week that Gillard was ousted as Prime Minister – that taught McCabe to pull back on her hard news instincts in the magazine’s content mix.
She later 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 while she made mistakes, it’s clear that McCabe knows what women want and the circulation figures prove it. And she learned as she went, telling Mumbrella one year into the job how she was coming to love women’s fashion, a topic she previously had little interest in.
When McCabe took over the title after a period of instability, it had a circulation of 493,055 (for the January to June period of 2009).
The most recent audit numbers put the title’s circulation at 416,117, amounting to a circulation decline of a around 3 per cent each year – or over the six years a decline of just over 15 per cent- a figure other editors would kill for in the tough print environment.
The magazine is also further along the road to a digital future than most of its rivals, including the launch of a brand new website a few months ago. During December, AWW – the only major consumer female title to have its digital audience audited – delivered 2,074,390 page impressions, according to data released last week by the Audited Media Association of Australia.
So McCabe is going out on top.
McCabe: Going out on top – does a move into politics beckon?
Where she is off to next remains an open question as she embarks on her six months gardening leave. Speculation suggests at least two possibilities: a move into politics, with some suggesting McCabe be tapped on the shoulder to stand at the next election, or a return to former employer News Corp in a senior role. Prior to AWW, McCabe, who has also worked in television, was deputy editor of The Sunday Telegraph in Sydney.
McCabe’s own words in her Andrew Olle address last year sum her up as well as any:
“I don’t always get it right. But I have learned, when readers say they want more of something – in our case – women who have achieved something, they mean it. Today, The Weekly shines a light on women who have achieved.
“Reinventing The Weekly has been about using all of these levers to beat rivals to the new stories we most want to tell. Finding new heroes. Being less judgemental, more generous, and as I said, more collaborative.
“Taking our readers seriously. And giving them variety. Building relations, restoring trust and playing the long game.
“Respect and trust, of our readers and our subjects, has underpinned the longevity of The Weekly.”
Her successor – as yet unnamed – has a lot to live up to.