"It can be fatal to change a magazine too suddenly. It is important that we move with the times, but evolve so that current readers do not notice much change while we win the interest of new readers. If people like the magazine they don't want to find they have suddenly lost it. Radical change can mean that before gaining new readers you've lost the old ones."
It was May last year and I had been at the helm of the
New Zealand Woman's Weekly
for just three months when I read these words from Jean Wishart - a woman who was synonymous with the Weekly as its legendary editor for 32 years.
People had been full of advice since I took up the new job, but these four simple sentences were the wisest words I'd heard and they stopped me in my tracks.
As a new reasonably naive editor, I was keen to make my mark on the magazine and I was also being pushed from all directions to make changes. The fact the former editor Nicky Pellegrino had left the magazine in great shape - garnering excellence awards and raising circulation - was not considered enough. No one wanted to hear the "if it ain't broke" theory.
As I was just getting to grips with what the job entailed, building my own team and re-establishing a network after five years in Australia, I was under pressure to make changes and to do it fast.
I was in the midst of a redesign I wasn't comfortable with when fate - actually, my PA - handed me a story that contained the above quotes from Miss Wishart. I read her wise words, took a deep breath and finally allowed myself to apply the brakes and relax into a job I now relish, evolving the magazine at a pace I thought my readers would handle.
The last thing I should do, advised Miss Wishart, was to give my readers any nasty shocks. Well it was too late for that. I'd already made a few doozies, which brought a flood of letters from Weekly loyalists - Paris Hilton sticking her tongue down the throat of Val Kilmer was totally unacceptable, thank you very much - but it did teach me that my readers had a voice, and it could be very loud.
I desperately needed to get to know my readers, and not just the lovely ladies who wrote to me every week without fail. I needed to understand the ones who made that weekly trip to the dairy every Monday and chose to buy this magazine above all others. I needed to know the 23,000 who opted to subscribe so they could be first to read it every week.
I went to the archives and read old magazines and history books about this treasured publishing icon. I asked questions of former editors.
Then one day it dawned on me: I am my reader. I am a 36-year-old woman who is fiercely proud to be a Kiwi. I am a mother and a wife (well, nearly) and I love my career. And I relish the 30 minutes I get to put my feet up with a magazine that entertains me, informs me and above all, understands me.
This isn't too far off the mission that was printed in the very first issue of the
New Zealand Woman's Weekly
on Thursday, December 8, 1932: "...to go forth among New Zealand women rich and poor, young and old and preach the gospel of usefulness, cheerfulness and happiness. Its mission is to teach, to entertain to assist and to amuse; its objection, to become a national family journal in the truest sense of the word."
It's a formula that works. The national weekly magazine for women was launched in the middle of the Depression, the realisation of a dream of two people. Mr Otto Williams (managing director) and Miss Audrey Argall (editor), who launched the Weekly on a shoestring budget in Auckland, with the help of typist Miss D.M. Walsh. Their printer was the well-established firm of F.S. Proctor.
It had a rocky start because of money troubles and was sold after three months, then handed between several owners before being sold at the end of 1933 to the Brett Print and Publishing Co - later reorganised as New Zealand Newspapers. And it was off. With the resources of a large newspaper behind it, the magazine began to grow and by the end of 1934 the circulation had risen to 22,000. The
was here to stay.
By the 1950s, under Jean Wishart, the magazine reached a circulation of 100,000, in the 60s it reached 200,000, and in the early 1980s when a certain Diana Spencer arrived on the scene 250,000 copies were sold each week.
The circulation took a serious knock when two sassy women's magazines from across the Tasman - New Idea and Woman's Day - arrived in New Zealand but the Weekly still stands proud and today has a circulation of 98,000 (a six-month increase of 1.48 per cent in the latest circulation audit) and readership of 954,000 per issue, thanks to its high pass-on rate. (My grandmother says she gives her copy to all her friends at the retirement home - great for readership, not so hot for circulation).
An issue can vary by 20,000 in retail sales on the strength of a cover, but the Weekly has a huge loyal base who enjoy the entire magazine. The variety of content includes local and international celebrity stories and gossip, real-life stories about ordinary Kiwis with extraordinary stories, recipe pages, fashion, beauty, home, gardening, family and health pages, puzzles, letters and, who can ever forget Over the Teacups (removed under editor Michal McKay in the 1980s, causing a national outcry and reinstated under Jenny Lynch when she took over).
How do I choose what is on the cover? We have the weekly circulation figures to guide us and look at overseas trends. We worship celebrity engagements, weddings and babies, which are always sure-fire winners. Eight out of 10 of my top selling covers last year were local stars, while mostly it's international stars who top my Aussie competitors' lists.
The royals are winners for the
, but magazine sales have never returned to the height they reached when Princess Diana graced the covers.
But often with covers, it comes down to gut instinct. Or as Jean Wishart more politely said, "I think if something interested me it will probably interest others".
Taking risks has been crucial to my learning. There was much debate about whether to put Jools Topp on the cover last year when she revealed she had lost her breast to cancer, but I fought for it on the grounds it was a news story and Jools is heartland New Zealand. That cover was one of our top five sellers last year, and Jools and sister Lynda have appeared again this year (with another big sale). I'm proud to have Jools on the cover of the 75th anniversary issue, along with Keisha Castle-Hughes, Trelise Cooper, Adine Wilson, Suzanne Paul and April Ieremia.
I still make mistakes - my readers really didn't need to see Matthew Ridge and Rebecca Loos cavorting half-naked on a beach - but I'm learning every day and they're happening less often. I respect that the magazine and its readers are one.
I know I must keep a gentle but firm hand on the tiller of the
and try to guide it in the right direction, continuing to keep it contemporary, but never forgetting the readers are the most important - they've been with the magazine a lot longer than me.
As I was planning the 75th anniversary special issue I felt confident enough to ring Miss Wishart, inviting her to join the past editors of the
for a photoshoot. There have been 11 editors in its 75-year history and eight are alive today. I was nervous about meeting Miss Wishart, worried she'd remember every time I'd handled her precious baby clumsily.
But, of course, she was charming and I was greatly relieved when she said she still enjoys reading the
has had five editors in the past 10 years and increasing competition has made it a tough job. But as we approach the magazine's 75th anniversary the editor's chair is feeling much more comfortable and I'm already thinking about how to celebrate the 80th.