Helen McCabe reinvents a magazine

I now have no fear of getting sacked | Photo: Damian Bennett

Brave moves keep The Australian Women’s Weekly contemporary and relevant in the digital age.

This article is from the October 2014 issue of INTHEBLACK.

Journalist Helen McCabe took over as editor-in-chief of iconic magazine The Australian Women’s Weekly five years ago without ever having read the publication.

It’s an admission that goes against all the principles of applying for a new job.

But the 81-year-old magazine – which boasts more than 2.3 million readers each month and has long been the most influential women’s magazine in Australia – was on the cusp of becoming irrelevant to its readers.

The publishing executives decided a young, ambitious journalist with a strong nose for news was just what “The Weekly” needed to see it into the digital age.

McCabe has since taken remarkable risks in shaking up the publication’s content, tackling issues such as women in leadership, body image and the art of Photoshop.

She put Julia Gillard on the cover of the magazine the month after Gillard was named Australia’s first female prime minister and personally interviewed Gillard’s main opponent, Tony Abbott, who became prime minister himself last year.

McCabe has launched a scholarship program for young women leaders, put much-loved local model Sarah Murdoch on the cover without using the magic of Photoshop, photographed another, Deborah Hutton, nude on her 50th birthday and recently featured burns survivor Turia Pitt.

McCabe wears a Victoria Beckham dress from David Jones, with Jan Logan jewellery

Some commentators said the Australian public would reject the image, but McCabe took a punt, judging that she knew her reader better than that.

She discussed those choices – as well as finding fearlessness after being “sacked by fax” earlier in her career – with former CPA Australia chief executive Alex Malley.

Alex Malley: Helen, tell me about Hamley Bridge, where you grew up, and its 600 residents.

Helen McCabe: It’s a really small town [in rural South Australia] that had a strong beginning because the train line used to go through.

It had a number of pubs and was a thriving community, but then they moved the train line around Hamley Bridge, so it went from a dynamic town to a small farming community.

My family were the original settlers and two of my brothers and their families still live just outside the town, and farm.

My brothers work together, they run the property and co-coach the local football team.

It’s a small, close-knit, down to earth, very unpretentious, very unremarkable town.

As soon as you pull into Hamley Bridge it’s quiet. You hear the birds and not much else. It’s kind of beautiful. 

"You set the tone in your office. If you walk in and you’re grumpy, that upsets everyone." – Helen McCabe 

Malley: You’re the only girl, the elder sister of three brothers. Tell me about the domination of men that perhaps set your skill set very early.

McCabe: I’ve never had any problems with working with men or being in an all-male environment.

Well, I’ve had the odd challenge because there is sometimes a slightly inappropriate camaraderie that exists in an all-male environment and you have to slap that down.

I’ve got three very old-school, football, cricket, boys in my life who are my brothers, and I learnt from an early age how to defend myself and argue with them and not be dominated. They are really good, decent men.

My family also sent me to an all-girls boarding school and that means I can actually work with women.

My mum is a powerful personality so she’s always dominated the family, and my grandmother was the same.

Malley: Dad it seems had some political DNA in that he would order copies of Hansard [the minutes from the Australian Parliament’s Question Time]. Did that translate into political conversations at home?

McCabe: Political conversation is everything in my family. We fight and it gets very rowdy. We can fight about sporting events and personalities with exactly the same levels of passion and enthusiasm, but politics dominated.

As for Hansard, I had this overwhelming desire from a young age to read a newspaper. I wanted to read everything I could get my hands on, so Hansard was just something to read.

Malley: Talk me through the scenario in 2009 – you’re deputy editor of the Sunday Telegraph newspaper in Sydney, and Ian Law from ACP [Australian Consolidated Press, now owned by Bauer Media] calls you and says, “I want you to take over at The Australian Women’s Weekly.” You’d never read the magazine prior to that.

McCabe: Neither had my mum.

Politics came to the cover with Australia's first female PM, Julia Gillard
Malley: You’re an ambitious young person who is doing well in her own right, why did you make that decision and who were some of the people you spoke with to help you make the call?

McCabe: Originally I said no. I went for the interview and they wanted newsier content – Ian Law, who sadly passed away last year, was an old-school rural journalist and he thought content was the thing that was going to matter in this new era, quite correctly.

[Former News Limited CEO] John Hartigan was really powerful in helping me make the decision.

He didn’t hesitate, he said: “You have to take it. Of course you have to take it. It’s a brilliant job. Come back in two years.” That hasn’t quite come yet …

I also spoke to Angelo Frangopoulos [head of Sky News Australia] and my parents who said: “Really? Women’s magazines?” They didn’t quite get it but they soon did.

Malley: In all of the journeys of leadership there are character-building moments and that was one. In your younger days in television, so the legend goes, you were sacked by fax by Channel Seven. Take me through that moment.

McCabe: I’ve always defined myself a bit by my job, which is not a great thing to do.

Jobs are fleeting and you don’t really have any control: someone can just not like you, it doesn’t matter how good you are.

I’d had a successful television career, I’d been in Adelaide, I had gone to Canberra under a news director who was a supporter and he and I had talked about going to London as a correspondent.

At that stage women didn’t go to London, so it would have been a ground-breaking thing. But then they changed everything.

[The news director] got sacked, it was Christmas time and my boss couldn’t really deal with it so he just said, “I think you should read this”. It was the fax that said here is your payout. I was out of the building that day.

Everyone tells you these things happen for a reason and you know that logically, even as a 26-year-old. But it doesn’t make it great.

I think I was pretty shocked. I was already planning to go to Vietnam on holidays so I extended the holiday.

The best thing about it is that I now have no fear of getting sacked. And frankly that’s a good thing when you’re editor, because the inevitability of getting sacked gets greater the higher you go in your media career.

If you are going to change things and make a difference you have to push pretty hard, and that can go wrong.

It taught me about not defining myself by my job. It pushed me out of television and it allowed me to then go and work in newspapers, which is where I always wanted to be.

Malley: Tell me about Helen McCabe today, the leader, the person that has led a team, has taken a magazine to a different place.

McCabe: I’ve got the best team and I let them do their jobs. I accept that people have bad days.

One bad day from one member of staff doesn’t mean they are not really good at their jobs the rest of the time. I play a long game in terms of my management of staff.

One thing I’ve learned from working with some very big name newspaper bosses is you set the tone in your office.

If you walk in and you’re grumpy that upsets everyone. If you walk in and you’re happy, they follow your lead. You’ve got to communicate a lot.

We are going through this massive change now and the only thing I know to do to keep anxiety levels down is by giving them the information.

"I am affronted at times by the superficiality of magazines and probably always have been." – Helen McCabe 

Not knowing is actually more stressful for staff when there’s reform or change going on.

Malley: When you first came to the magazine there was virtually no digital aspect to the publication.

But through Bauer and through the direction the world is going, this whole area of digital is clearly far more relevant. What are you thinking, what does it look like?

McCabe: Apart from who is going to be on the cover [of the magazine] next month, it’s pretty much filling the rest of my time.

I will be judged by how we navigate this period. I have a responsibility to try and get it right. Lots of work has gone on in the past nine months and how it goes from here is crucial.

For The Weekly, where we are invested in quality journalism, we have a reputation for presenting unbiased, independent, quality stories.

We need to translate that into how we tell the stories in the 24-hour news cycle, from a female-friendly perspective. I think there is a real opportunity for us.

It’s fascinating at the moment because we have 1 million unique browsers online and [the magazine] has 2.3 million [readers], but there’s only a 10 per cent crossover – so you’ve got this 3 million figure of engagement and that’s before you do anything else.

Malley: Is this your toughest leadership challenge?

McCabe: Well it would be if I couldn’t see through it. I see the future on this title because we are not a niche title.

We are all of Australia, so we can sit very comfortably in that zone. If I had a fully-fledged internet team I would say: “Here’s five angles from a female-friendly perspective. Let’s just do all five of them today and I want them online by midday.”

That’s where we can do something really exciting.

Malley: The women leaders concept in the magazine is going well. What have you learned from the scholarship program? [The magazine’s Women of the Future initiative, co-sponsored by Qantas, provides scholarships to young women who are building Australia’s future through their entrepreneurial ideas.]

McCabe: One is that women from a very young age need to contribute to society. The young girls who have applied for the scholarship program, what they are doing for other women all over the world is inspiring.

The other thing [I’ve learned] is quite different. I think women are incredibly time-poor and they are incredibly stressed. Right now there is a rise in anxiety levels to a point that is crippling.

Their lives have changed as they’ve gone to work. They no longer debate about whether they should work – everyone is working.

What that means is that women are now still doing the lion’s share of the housework and then they’ve got the pressure of when they get into the office – they don’t want to take time off to do something with the children because they feel very awkward about it.

So they are just stretched to the limit, and that is one of the really big social phenomenons happening at the moment and not really talked about. 

McCabe's admired leaders

Readers embraced the image of burns survivor Turia Pitt, who appeared on the cover of the July 2014 issue
I learned about fearlessness from Chris Mitchell, the editor-in-chief of The Australian. I learned about believing the story and getting your facts right.

You will upset a lot of people and there will be a lot of fights but over the long game, that is what we do, and truth matters.

David Gyngell, CEO of Nine Entertainment Co. – he has incredible people skills. Incredible relationships. Incredible honesty and frankness.

He is one of those people who manages [staff] by just picking up the phone.

The thing he says which has always stuck in my mind is, “I’ll stick when the going gets tough.” I really like that. In the end your loyalty, trust, your integrity is really all you’ve got.

Neil Breen [former Sunday Telegraph editor, now Nine Network Australia sports reporter] because there is nothing passive aggressive about Neil Breen. He just tells you what he thinks.

I’ve become increasingly fond and close to [Australia’s former governor-general) Quentin Bryce.

I’ve never had a woman I could say fulfilled that kind of mentoring role, but every time I sit down with her I learn something. She is utterly fascinating.

Annabel Crabb [ABC journalist] is another. She is a personal friend and it’s a friendship that I value incredibly highly. I never have a conversation with Annabel where there isn’t a sharing of ideas.

Number one concern

I am affronted at times by the superficiality of magazines and probably always have been. So I have tackled it head on. I think the reader is fed up with the superficiality of magazines.

Let’s give you what you want: you don’t want Photoshopping? Let’s give it a shot.

It’s become complicated though because celebrities want to look incredible and the photographers want their work to look incredible.

Mission Australia does a survey every few years and the past two surveys have shown the number one issue concerning young women is the body issue. The number one issue!

It’s not their high school or their netball or their family. It’s the body issue. That’s completely crazy and do magazines have a role in that in media? Yes we do.

This article is from the October 2014 issue of INTHEBLACK. 


October 2014
October 2014

October 2014

Each month we select the must-reads from the current issue of INTHEBLACK. Read more now.

Table of Contents