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Women's Weekly Editor in chief Helen McCabe on diversity

03 November 2014

Helen Mccabe Medium

Helen McCabe’s (pictured above) less shocked than she once was to find herself at the helm of The Australian Women’s Weekly. Fifty-eight covers later, and with more to come, she still remembers the day the press release went out announcing she’d been appointed the Weekly’s new editor.

“The industry went nuts. In magazines no one knew who I was and the guys I’d worked with since I was 26, who knew me as a hard news journalist, thought I’d gone mad and that it was the worst appointment ever made,” says Helen with a laugh.

“It was John Hartigan [News Limited’s former boss] who got me thinking about the position when it was offered. He said, well, that’s the best job for a female journalist you can get.

“At the time, I was deputy editor of the Sunday [Telegraph] paper and had been there for three years. Reading between the lines, he obviously had nothing for me at News but could see I needed my own gig. He was right. It’s the sort of job that’s hard to know what’s better than it,” explains Helen in the quiet calm of her sixth floor office at Bauer Media, formerly Kerry Packer’s ACP magazine stable on Park Street in Sydney.

Helen’s print media career began following her sacking by fax as the chief political reporter for the Seven Network’s news. She was 26 years old.

“There’d been a number of sackings at the time. I was the last in a string of women. I just thought, well, that’s the end of my TV career. It was the best thing that could have happened. I was able to move into print, which is what I love and where I should have been all along.”

Growing up in South Australia from a close knit family of farmers, Helen remembers when she was about 15 years old seeing a job description for being a journalist at a school careers counselling session: “The skill set was as long as your arm. I was fascinated by it. In the end I could tick every box. I wanted to be a journalist that much.”

The day we meet, some 19 years or so later, she’s on deadline with her next issue of the country’s oldest magazine. A testament to her management skills and ability to delegate successfully - no one likes a deadline and they are always fraught with last minute dramas - she’s been able to take the morning off from her desk to attend a feature shoot for an upcoming issue of the Weekly.

The shoot is with five traditional young Muslim women.

On the way out to the location in the Sydney beachside suburb of Coogee, Helen thought she’d tackle issues such as IS, burqua wearing in Parliament, the choice to adopt head gear - only to find one of the first questions to tumble from her mouth was: “so, what’s it like to eat in a burqua?”

“I felt like a doofus. Then one of my staff asked one of the women, who’d told us she swam a lot with her husband, what she wore. A burkini was the answer.

“Apparently, she and her friends are often approached by lifesavers at the beach, asking them in loud, slow voices if they are going to be okay. Their answer in plain old Australian English, many of them are second and third generation Australian, is an exasperated Yes.”

Before long, says Helen, they were all ranging over topics like beauty, inner beauty; children and education and how to build a place for children in Australia; educating boys and girls to give and demand respect, and to rework divisions of labour to create greater equality.

The very same conversations, Helen remarks, she’d have with any of her friends.

“I’d love to put one of these young women on the cover,” says Helen, “but it wouldn’t work – none of them has a media presence. We need more voices and faces on our covers, but to do that successfully we need to build media profile. There’s no point sticking someone on a cover without the audience having some idea about their story. It would be gratuitous.”

Her October issue’s Power List of 50 women, which is to become an annual event, further exemplifies her quandary over the need to diversify and the restrictions of media presence. At the top of the Power List are Federal Liberal Government politician Julie Bishop, and the Prime Ministers Chief of Staff Peta Credlin, along with Telstra chair Catherine Livingstone, Westpac CEO Gail Kelly and Deputy Leader of the Opposition Tanya Plibersek.

The panel of judges included Sue Cato, the media and crises issues specialist; Henry Tajer, Global Chief Operating Officer & Executive Chairman, Australia, IPG Mediabrands; Ann Peacock, PR and Corporate Affairs Crown Casino; Lucy Turnbull, business leader and company director; Alex Malley, CPA Australia head and sponsor of the Power List and, of course, Helen, as editor-in-chief of the Weekly.

“We decided power was not so much who takes your call but who rings you for advice. If you’re being rung by the PM for advice, or whatever, then you are quite influential in this country. We wanted to celebrate women’s success and power. The list gave us the opportunity to tell the story of women who don’t get photographed for covers and who are celebrities in a different way. I look it as our ‘leaning-in’ thing,” says Helen, indicating the work of author and Facebook executive Sheryl Sandberg.

As part of a cross-platform campaign, the venture also included a list of Women of the Future, young women who are doing amazing things in society. The finalists included 100 Women of Influence winner Annabelle Chauncy and her School for Life project in Uganda, as well as Laura O’Reilly and her not-for-profit, Fighting Chance. Laura was voted a winner by judges and Annabelle won the People’s Choice, which was voted for online.

“Every other week I get asked what I’d do after the Women’s Weekly. We’re all thinking about print media and the changes it’s undergoing because of online. What that means for careers in media, personally, and for those who are following or would like to follow us, is difficult to guess,” says Helen, who nevertheless believes quality journalism will survive and that magazines have an interesting place in the space at the moment.

“If you’re producing stories that are independent, fair, balanced and interesting, the platform and business model exist for continuing success. Of course, our online cross platform work is important and we still have a lot to do there, but at the heart of it all is quality journalism.”

As for newspapers, her old stomping ground, Helen agrees, they’re bleeding money. Counterbalancing that is the fact “their eyeballs are amazing, and they set the agenda in this country and you cannot underestimate that”.

No matter where you are in media, you begin with The Australian and then move onto the others, says Helen, who believes “It feeds every conversation for the day.”

Recent readership figures reveal that at 9.3 percent, the Weekly has remained flat but in the industry now, “flat” is seen as the “new up”. With a reach of more than 2 million readers each month, the Weekly is the most-read magazine in the country. However, with online growth at around 40 percent, it’s easy to see where things are headed and that structural change is happening.

Getting the Weekly read means making decisions about stories that can be controversial - something Helen has experienced in various forms over her career. The 2009 decision to publish nude photographs wrongly claimed to be Pauline Hanson in The Sunday Telegraph would be one such controversy in which she found herself a player, and more recently, but less dramatically, the decision to do a story in the Weekly on Toni McHugh, Gerard Baden-Clay’s mistress, copped some media and reader backlash.

“My view was it was a great story. Why wouldn’t you want to hear all sides of the argument,” questions Helen?

“It’s not my place to judge,” she continues.

“I am here to tell the stories of the women of Australia in the most objective, balanced and fairest way possible and as the reader, you can then make an informed judgement.

“The real problem was the suspicion we paid for that story. I have mixed feelings about cheque book journalism. It compromises everyone and I am uncomfortable in it. I don’t tend to pay people who get themselves involved in criminal trials. I do pay women and families who need it: Rosie Batty, the Morcombe family.

“If I am going to write the cheque, I want to write it for people who need it. It is a balancing act and it is a reality of this job,” she admits.

Asked if she would do Toni McHugh again, she’s uncertain, “but I know this, if any other media outlet had been offered the story they would have published it.”

(Below, one of the covers and issues of which Editor in chief Helen McCabe is most proud was the interview with Turia Pitt.)

Turia Pitt and Helen McCabe image