Helen McCabe: ‘Audiences are alive to the sanitised, talent-approved version of events’

Journalism’s adversarial approach to content and journalist’s lack of respect or trust in each other is leading to a “crisis of trust” in the profession amongst audiences, according to Helen McCabe.

Olle 2015

McCabe: ‘the proliferation of native advertising poses a threat.’

Presenting the annual Andrew Olle lecture in honour of the iconic ABC broadcaster Andrew Olle, the editor-in-chief of Australian Women’s Weekly also took aim at the “proliferation of native advertising”, warning that the audience had “lost interest in celebrity profiles”.

“The proliferation of native advertising – i.e. product placement – poses the same threats,” said McCabe. 

“They are all press releases in disguise, prepared, edited and commissioned by people with an agenda to push or product to sell.

“It’s understandable but our audiences are alive to the sanitised, talent-approved version of events.”

The senior Bauer magazine editor also told the room filled with with many of the country’s most senior journalists and editors: “Audiences are demanding more facts and a less adversarial approach”.

Referencing comments made by political journalist Laurie Oakes that a “free press needs to be a respected press” McCabe added: “He is dead right. There is a crisis in this regard. Besides, truthfully, we don’t really respect or trust each other.

“When we read stories quoting ‘senior sources’ we suspect they are really junior sources. When we see a ‘drop’ in the weekend papers, we roll our eyes. We complain to each other about opinion disguised as news. We rip off each others’ exclusives, claiming them as our own. And we wince at the most vicious commentary.

“So it follows that our audiences are sceptical.”

McCabe admitted that while the Weekly “is a much-loved institution” they have felt “the anti-media backlash”.

She highlighted the constant accusation of bias from audiences.

“Of course the loudest claim of bias at The Weekly was about a cover,” she said.

“The historic elevation of our first female Prime Minister was for me a natural fit for the nation’s largest women’s mag. And she benefited from a beautiful cover, which accidentally hit newstands at the start of the 2010 election.

“This was the first time I’d really noticed this trend, where the mere choice of a subject is seen as evidence of one’s voting intentions.”

McCabe then highlighted the second cover featuring then prime minister Julia Gillard knitting a kangaroo for Prince George.

“Regrettably, things went wrong for us during a second story about Ms Gillard just as Labor plotted to oust her,” she said.

“She was affronted by our story, which, as requested by her office, depicted her knitting a kangaroo for Prince George. This time she lost office the very same day the story hit the stands.

“And later, in her memoir, she wrote that I treated her ‘shabbily’. Were we trying to get her elected with the cover? No. Were we trying to bring her down with a knitting pattern of a kangaroo? Of course not.”

McCabe also highlighted the need for reform around legislation involving domestic violence, telling the room: “A culture of suppression orders, designed to protect our children, is doing more harm than good”.

She cited NSW family laws which prevent naming a child who dies in the state, or the parents or anyone or anything that would identify the child, even if the child is dead.

“So if Luke Batty had died in NSW, we could not publish his name of photograph. We could not name Rosie Batty,” she argued.

“Pixelated faces and redacted names are significant barriers to storytelling.”

Focusing again on the trust crisis she said: “To achieve change, we need the public onside. And to achieve that, they need to trust us.”

McCabe urged journalists to continue to tell stories of family and domestic violence even if the clicks, or the sales, are poor.

Citing two separate stories, a year apart, on Rosie Batty and on Rachael Taylor who was bashed by her boyfriend, McCabe admitted the “sale figures on both …were disappointing”.

“I urge you all to be vigilant, long after its fashionable, to keep those stories central to your news-lists,” she said.

McCabe reflected on her six years of editing the women’s magazine and its shift from celebrity-focused magazine to one that aims to tell the stories of women – both celebrities and the non-celebrity, women like Rosie Batty.

McCabe explained how she “immersed” herself in Bauer Media’s consumer research when she first joined the title – something she continues to do to this day – in an effort to choose the right cover.

“Although the more research you do the more you understand that instinct is vital to unlocking a truly surprising cover or campaign,” she said.

“Even so, I am always uneasy when I open the research. I fear my training, my ‘gut’ if you like, will be proven wrong. Readers are like voters. They are always right.

“And bad research usually leads to someone from “upstairs” throwing the results on your desk and saying ‘Darlin’, they just want diets’.

She added: “Sorry to break it to the women in the audience but even in mags, it’s always a bloke upstairs. But that’s a whole other speech.”

McCabe suggested it is important to listen to what the audience wants.

“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.”

Concluding, McCabe said: “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.”

Miranda Ward


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