David Hill: Lifestyles of the rich and fatuous dominate weeklies

Some years back, my mother hit the bookshops every Monday to pick up her NZ Woman's Weekly.

The Weekly then usually had something nice about the Queen Mum. Something about Selwyn Toogood at home and young Kiri at work. A fresh approach to marmalade. But the bulk of its features recorded and celebrated average New Zealanders. Reading the Woman's Weekly then meant reading a broad affirmation of the nation.

What do it, and competitors such as Woman's Day and New Idea hold now? Let's get ugly and produce statistics.

A count through one copy each of the three titles finds 35 news/features stories. Of these, 22 are about media stars and scandals. (The magazine's patriotism is commendable: Shortland Street actors feature in at least one sensation per issue.)

Royal wrangles - usually involving Di dead or alive - make up another seven. Sports figures make up two. That leaves four stories about people who could be called ordinary (three of them had eating disorders).

So what happened to our weekly women's magazines? What turned them from windows into real life to escape hatches into fantasy?

Holmes - "these were our people today" - happened. The growth in newspapers' magazine sections happened. Above all, the quality monthlies happened. Metro, North & South, Next and others upmarketed the ordinary New Zealand stories which the women's weeklies once provided.

The old mixture of reportage and recipes wasn't selling. Where could our women's mags go?

They could go thoughtful. Or crusading. Or parental or domestic. Instead, they went for the lifestyles of the rich and fatuous. They became non-news magazines. Articles now average about 250 words. Many have just 150 - print-bytes, not articles.

The writing squeaks with euphemisms: "sassy" (meaning promiscuous), "raunchy" (meaning promiscuous), "flirty" (meaning ... )

One glorious example came as war threatened in Iraq, the Columbia space shuttle exploded, and bushfires, drought and cyclones racked the South Pacific. What did one weekly pick as the week's crucial event? "Posh Spice's Shock Hair Loss".

During the past few months, another of them has even been able to defend itself against a contempt of court charge by claiming that its article touching on a current trial was not meant to be information - it was gossip.

You can sympathise with the editor's dilemma. A week is a long time in politics and an awkward time in journalism. Too long for dramas, too short for analysis.

The response of Woman's Day, the Woman's Weekly and New Idea has been stunningly simple. Even the best journalism is ephemeral, but these magazines have used ephemera to abolish time. Their media glitzies inhabit universes where reality hardly impinges. And the treatment of them has a curious timelessness.

"X's Diet Hell", "Y's Sassy Romp With Z", "P and Q's Facelift Agony". It could be last year, this year, any time, any place. Only the names change.

I've been told that our women's weeklies have seen off the patronising male agendas that assumed women would be content with a fresh approach to marmalade. Certainly, all of them are shrill with the schlock of the new. But like most tabloids, they are hugely conservative beneath the hype. Same obsessions. Same sensations. Once again, only the names change.

I have also been told that it's all harmless froth and light relief. Maybe. But the message I get from such magazines now is that ordinary lives and achievements aren't worth recording. You're not meaningful unless you're rich, royal and/or randy. If you live in Levin or Lumsden, you have no significance unless you run off raunchily with someone sassy from Shortland Street.

Paradoxically, women's weekly magazines do not value their luminaries much, either. Paparazzi journalism means that the subject quickly becomes an object.

New Idea, Woman's Day and so on keep exclamation marks in employment. Two of them also publish a quantity - if not quality - of fiction that shames other magazines. And they still have their columns and crosswords and doctors' advice and garden diaries. Over the Teacups and Mere Male live on. So do fresh ways with marmalade.

But when I remember the NZ Woman's Weekly that was such a focus of my mother's Mondays and compare it with today's ... then sic transit gloria Monday.

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