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02 August 2011
It seems most women experience a stage in their life when (for whatever reason) their bodies and fitness levels streamline. Jeni O’Dowd, who spent seven years as the editor of The Sunday Telegraph, has been there.
“I ran every day. On Mondays that was 20km. I was super-fit and super-thin. Then I met my second husband, put the weight back on, had three children and am 100 percent happier,” she says with a laugh.
Having stepped down from her editing role at News Ltd in 2006, she returned to the company on a part-time basis after the births of her children. She is now editor-at-large of The Daily Telegraph. (Jeni, whose four-day week begins at 7am and finishes around 5pm, also puts the Saturday edition of the ‘Tele’ to bed.).
Journalism meets her need for variety, and she counts editing newspapers among her top three passions, alongside her children and Sydney: “Everyday brings something different,” and in the end that amounts to “never having the same day”.
“Newspapers are entertainment but they also allow you to have an impact in people’s lives and in improving people’s lives,” says Jeni, citing a previous Sunday Telegraph/Planet Ark campaign to ban plastic bags in supermarkets as proof of this.
“We had a really strong outcome from that,” she adds.
Other campaigns have had more specific community focus, including one that highlighted the number of children injured or killed because of the lack of proper lighting systems at school crossings. It expressed the concerns of parents, putting pressure on the government to act.
“It’s about improving people’s lives and the paper has the power to help that. People also have a right to know what governments may not necessarily want them to know,” explains Jeni, who believes her early interest in government has also been an enormous help to her career.
Cadet with ambition gets results
Hired as a general news cadet in South Australian regional newspapers, Jeni moved to The Australian in Adelaide, and discovered a passion for politics.
“I broke a few stories and that set me up. I was moved to Sydney as state political reporter, then Canberra, then back to Sydney as bureau chief, national chief of staff, then managing editor.”
She then landed the gig as an assistant editor on The Sunday Telegraph and moved up the ranks to become editor in 1999.
“When I got the job a lot of people asked whether this was what I had always worked to be. [At the time] the answer was no, this is just how my career unfolded,” explains Jeni.
It was a version of events she was eventually forced to revise, after she discovered an old letter she’d written applying for the position at The Australian’s bureau in Adelaide. In it, she said her aim was to become the editor of the paper one day.
“I was very young… success has been about hard work,” says Jeni, pointing out that many of her mentors have been men because that was very much the nature of the industry when she began.
“I’ve never been treated any differently because I’m a woman and have never tried to be part of the boys’ club. All an employer wants is someone who can do the job; it doesn’t matter whether you are a man or woman. You have to avoid the politics and perceived slights and just get on with the job. I know many people are very political but at the end of the day your boss just wants someone who can do a job well with little direction.
“It’s the same now as it was for me 20 years ago: Ignore the office politics and work hard at getting the results your employer wants. If you do that, you will be noticed and you will be rewarded, there is just no other way.”
Editor closes gap with women
At the time it might’ve seemed an impossible ask: increase the circulation gap between The Sunday Telegraph and its direct competitor, The Sun Herald, to more than 200,000.
But Jeni had one ace up her sleeve: women.
“I began by looking at the research. I am a great believer in research and it showed there was a gap in the amount of women reading The Sunday Telegraph, especially young women. They were simply not reading it,” she says.
One of the strategies Jeni and her team developed - and convinced News Ltd management to back – was the body + soul liftout. Its target was 18-to 35-year-old women and the aim was to deliver stories that addressed the serious health and mental health issues faced by many. Until then, such issues were really only being dealt with in research and medical publications. body + soul would also tackle lifestyle questions all women face, says Jeni: “How to fit into that Little Black Dress in three weeks time”; “How to get over a hangover”; “How to look better naked”.
“These are all issues you would never see in the news pages; but they are issues women talk about and want answers to. It wasn’t just body + soul that attracted women, although that was a big statement about how the paper had changed and that attracted new readers. It also came down to the tone and choice of articles throughout the whole paper and it’s something we concentrate on with The Daily Telegraph.”
Why women are from Venus
Women, Jeni believes, are interested in the same things as men: politics, science, health, business. However, the subject matter (or the approach) may be a little different when it comes to the question of engaging them.
News on what to eat and why, healthy eating for children, or the debate on the use of BPA in baby’s bottles are scientific stories that traditionally would not have been the kind a paper would lead on, Jeni believes. By addressing those issues, the paper appealed to a large market that may not have previously found something in the product. Capturing it would make a substantial difference to the figures.
“I think it is fair to say there are still barriers to women. Some workplaces are not family-friendly. There is also a distinct boys’ club at some companies when women get to the top level, which is just best ignored. You can never be one of them. I don’t think women should be afraid of being women; we do think and act differently to men and that’s great as we bring a whole new perspective to a solution.”
Jeni’s ‘You could have bowled me over’ moment
“When I was editing The Sunday Telegraph, James Packer’s marriage with Jodhi Meares ended. It was the talk of Sydney and everyone wanted an interview, but they were not talking. I wrote a letter to Mr Packer requesting an interview, and nearly fell off my chair when a few days later he rang me personally and gave me one. The paper on the following Sunday sold out.”