ReadingRoom

Sleeping beauty: the dear old Woman’s Weekly

Former Woman’s Weekly editor Jenny Lynch on the Bauer-exterminated magazine that may yet rise again.

It was born in 1932 at the height of the Depression and laid to rest in 2020 the middle of a global pandemic.  In the intervening years the New Zealand Woman’s Weekly became a national institution, reflecting the lives of millions of New Zealand women – and men.

Audrey Argyll was the magazine’s first editor.  Four women followed her  into the editor’s chair, each adding her own stamp on the modest newsprint magazine with its tightly-packed pages of fashion, fiction, features, social chitchat, recipes and knitting patterns.

Then in 1952 the heads of NZ News made an inspired decision.  They appointed Jean Wishart as editor. She’d joined the magazine as an 18-year-old office junior - and went on to edit the Weekly for an astonishing 32 years.

She knew exactly what she was doing. At the beginning of 1957 circulation reached 100,000. Under Wishart, the Weekly became the biggest selling women’s title in the world per head of population. Her basic philosophy differed little over the years. She aimed at producing a friendly family journal that mixed topical stories, self-help and "diverting" features with reader contributions. She actively encouraged the latter in the belief that they helped forge a bond between the Weekly and its readers.

Wishart designed the covers herself, and wrote the coverlines. Examples during the 1960s were WELL, WHY AREN’T YOU MARRIED? and WHAT SORT OF PEOPLE GO TO A MARRIAGE BUREAU?   Until the late 1970s the cover pictures themselves were those of anonymous overseas models although the royals and occasional film star sometimes got a look-in. But with local broadcasters kicking in with personalities such as Judy Bailey, cover possibilities widened and celebrities of one sort or another took over. Selection was crucial. People could be fickle with their favourites. A sure-fire winner one year could be a dud the next. Only the royals were consistently bankable.

Under Wishart’s guidance the Weekly’s circulation kept on rising. In1983 it reached a peak of 250,000. Then it hit a speed bump. Sales began to track downhill. Head office became twitchy. The tired old mag needed a shot in the arm. Preferably from one attached to a younger, sexier editor. Wishart was due to retire on her 65th birthday in October 1995. She was eased out in April that year in favour of the stylish Michal McKay.

She wanted to modernise the Weekly, make it sharper, easier to read. She thought it should provide an ‘educational uplift.’ The magazine went upmarket. Readers objected. Their trusted old friend had deserted them. In two years circulation fell by a whopping 70,000.

Jenny Lynch onboard the Johan van Oldenbarnevelt wearing the parting gift from her job at News Weekly, "a daring bikini". Photos from her new memoir Under The Covers: Secrets of a magazine editor.

When McKay left in 1987, the task of recovering lost readers fell to me. At first, thanks to careful tweaking here and there and several new features, I lured some of them back. But in 1989 the Australian magazines Woman’s Day and New Idea launched New Zealand editions and that changed everything. Enter the Magazine Wars.

The celebrity-driven Aussie invaders awakened an unexpected Kiwi appetite for glitz and gossip. They also introduced cheque-book journalism. The Weekly had no option but to compete – on both counts. From the start we were on the back foot. Woman’s Day, bolstered by the might of the Packer empire, could outbid us for coverage of superstar stories. I felt desperately uncomfortable. I feared that emphasis on celebrity threatened our identity as a trusted family friend. But if that was what people wanted that’s what they would have to have. Within several years we had turned ourselves into a virtual clone of our Australian competitors. It worked. Sort of. Readership hit a million. But sales at the newsstands didn’t reflect that gain. The Weekly had a high pass-on rate.

In 1994 I handed the editor’s chair to Sarah-Kate Lynch. She was succeeded in turn by a clutch of editors – three of them, former Weekly staffers – all continuing to butt heads with Woman’s Day and New Idea. And then came Bauer. The German media conglomerate stepped in to snaffle a raft of trans-Tasman magazine titles, the Woman’s Weekly and Woman’s Day among them.

I was not alone in fearing that one of the warring titles would have to go. But neither did. Bauer boss Paul Dykzeul saw that the two magazines could co-exist provided they became clearly differentiated. While the Day continued on its sassy, tabloid-style way, the Weekly morphed into a updated version of its traditional more conservative self.

Although no 21st century women’s magazine could hope to emulate the kind of support  enjoyed by the Weekly in its heyday, there was nothing to suggest at the start of this year that the magazine could be for the chop. But in April Bauer delivered a fatal blow. Staffers got the news via Zoom. Within hours, devastated editor Alice O’Connell and her colleagues were out the door.

Can the Weekly be reprieved? Bauer closed the bidding for its New Zealand titles on Friday. The Weekly may be among them and, if ever there was a case for resurrection, this icon is it. Figures released by Nielsen this year showed that in 2019 the magazine had added 15,000 readers. It beggars belief that a publication that attracts an audience of more than 525,000 each week could be consigned to the pages of history.

The new memoir Under The Covers: Secrets of a magazine editor by Jenny Lynch (Mary Egan, $38) is available in all good bookstores. "We were hardly angels," she writes of her years at the New Zealand Woman's Weekly. "There was booze. Some people had permanent hang-overs..."

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