Many people imagine that women’s magazines in Australia started with the Australian Women’s Weekly in 1933, but while this may be the most significant Australian magazine for women, it was not the first. Imported British examples preceded the first locally produced instances. Two very short-lived examples targeted ‘cultivated’ women: the Spectator: Journal of Literature and Art, which ran for 13 issues in 1858, and the Interpreter, which managed just two issues in 1861.
Subsequent examples, like the Australian Woman’s Magazine and Domestic Journal (1882–84), aimed to be more entertaining. Louisa Lawson published and edited the Dawn (1888–1905), combining arguments on women’s rights with domestic matters and (eventually) fashion, and attracted middle-class readers— both rural and urban. Although not specifically targeted to women, the Lone Hand (1907–21), published by the Bulletin, argued for women’s rights, noted unfair working conditions and acknowledged that women read more than just the fashion notes.
Not all magazines took this view. Generalist mass market magazines like the monthly Australian Journal (1865–1962) and the weekly Table Talk (1885–1939) saw themselves as catering to women readers by carrying what Frank Greenop referred to as ‘departments at the back of the magazine catering to the private interests of its readers’. Here were located recipes, fashion and ‘family matters’.
New Idea was started in 1902 by the Fitchett Brothers, explicitly as a magazine for women, but although the title continues, it has not had an unbroken run. In 1911 its title was changed to Everylady’s Journal and this ran until 1938. In 1928, the New Idea title was revived and has persisted, although it was sold to Southdown Press (now Pacific Magazines) after World War II.
The Australian Woman’s Mirror (1924–61) was an early example of the mix of topics that are now regarded as standard for a generalist women’s magazine: fashion, craft, recipes, beauty hints, occasional articles on prominent professional women and pages of children’s activities. It made a feature of readers’ letters, soliciting them on domestic topics (overwhelmingly relating to marriage) for a highly popular section called ‘Pen Parliaments’. During the 1930s, it also published articles from a female solicitor on women’s rights and gave advice on financial matters.
The Australian Women’s Weekly was established in 1933 by (Sir) Frank Packer, E.G. ‘Red Ted’ Theodore and George Warnecke, more to keep their presses turning than to become the profitable enterprise it did. It drew on Warnecke’s newspaper experience to include some topical news items and political news, as well as the more customary women’s interests: recipes, fashion and household advice. It quickly became the market leader in terms of circulation and readership, a position it has retained since. During the war, it included reporting from writers, artists and photographers sent overseas and from those reporting on the home front. Its male readership became substantial, and it was heavily sought after by soldiers posted abroad. Even though paper rationing reduced its size, its circulation rose from 400,000 before the war to 500,000 during it. The Weekly’s circulation continued to expand after the war. It launched special pages for teenagers in 1954, which became the lift-out ‘Teenagers Weekly’ in 1959.
This was a harbinger of market segmentation. The market was divided into magazines for men, for women and a few for children, together with some generalist titles and a small range of special-interest publications. Imported fashion magazines like Vogue could perhaps be regarded as a special interest; a local Australian supplement was started in 1956. The licensing of overseas titles for Australian editions has proliferated since 1972, when John Fairfax & Sons obtained the Australian rights to Cosmopolitan—and Australian Consolidated Press (ACP) immediately launched Cleo as direct local competition. Both addressed a supposedly ‘liberated’ audience of 18–24-year-old women, mainly through articles on sexual topics and those concerned with being a young woman in the workforce, which included some reference to women’s rights, together with fashion and beauty. A top-rating 2011 mini-series, Paper Giants: The Birth of Cleo, focused on the launch of Cleo under editor Ita Buttrose. The Bauer Media Group (a German-based company that acquired ACP in 2012) now owns both magazines. Since the 1970s, licensing of overseas titles for women has focused primarily on fashion and celebrity.
In 1982, the Australian Women’s Weekly shifted from weekly to monthly publication. At the time, it was recording what was then its highest circulation ever (averaging well over 800,000 per issue and occasionally tipping one million). The shift followed a change to a glossier format and increased advertising costs. Advertisers were reluctant to pay more than was being charged by the competition, so advertising volume dropped. Changed frequency was the solution, demonstrating the comparative power of the two sources of magazine revenue: circulation and advertising.
The shift to monthly publication was beneficial to Woman’s Day (1950– ), which—together with New Idea—is the third of the long-running triumvirate of generalist women’s magazines, since it became the weekly magazine market leader, retaining this position until very recently, when displaced by Better Homes and Gardens (1978– ). The top 20 circulation magazines at the end of 2013 included 10 targeted to women, four focused on food and four on house and garden topics, together with TV Week (1957– ) and Club Marine (1985– ). In other words, Australian magazine circulation is dominated by publications that target women.
Magazine circulation is falling, and has been at least since the 1990s. From a peak of over a million, the Australian Women’s Weekly is now less than half that, and the other long-running titles have fallen accordingly. Such is the centrality of women’s magazines to the general magazine market that the general figures are relevant here. Overall revenue and circulation has reduced between 6 and 8 per cent since 2008. The number of titles has increased, but turnover is high and many have very small circulations.
Women’s magazines conceive of their audience in age and socio-economic terms, with the most popular grouping 24–39 years of age, reasonably well educated and with incomes a little to a lot above average. Monthly magazines like marie claire (1995– ) and Madison (2005– ), and weekly publications like Grazia (2008–13) have addressed this market segment with fashion, beauty, celebrities and, in the case of marie claire, feature articles on more general, socio-political topics. This last might be seen as a partial emulation of POL (1969–86), independently run and innovative both in design terms and content, which addressed women as interested in political and social issues as well as domestic ones. Dolly (1970– ), now owned by Bauer, targets girls 14–17 years of age (though much of its readership is younger) with fashion, beauty and celebrity articles. Second-ranked Girlfriend (1988– ) from Pacific Magazines is a direct competitor.
When it comes to women older than 39, the top three mass-circulation magazines are regarded as still catering adequately to the older women who grew up with them and remained loyal. But there has been a further fragmentation, much less likely to be talked about in the industry, even though the two titles’ circulation are more substantial than the glossy monthlies. That’s Life! (1994– ) and Take 5 (1998– )—both based on readers’ own stories and contributions—are targeted at older (35+) working-class women. Distinctively, these magazines ignore celebrities, having their features generated from readers’ contributions, solicited each issue, paid for and revised by magazine staffers. These features are supplemented by the usual service sections. The magazines produce a participatory community of readers who exchange information about domestic familial events, and try to win prizes, and whose vicarious involvement in others’ lives is closer to that of neighbours than of looking on at the distant scandals of the famous.
This content is reminiscent of the older issues of New Idea, with its many different pages of readers’ letters, but this is now a much smaller section of the magazine because it has been inflected by one of the greatest changes in magazines directed at women, evident since the 1990s: the emphasis on gossip and celebrities operating in tandem with a sensationalisation of content, purportedly to attract supermarket impulse sales. Gossip about celebrities such as film stars has long featured in women’s magazines, along with longer interviews with famous visitors to the country and social pages about so-called ‘leaders of society’. For the most part, though, these were ingratiating and a minor part of the overall content.
The change was both in the tone of the coverage and its extent. Several of the high-circulation magazines for women are now centrally focused on gossip about celebrities. This was a major component of another television mini-series, Paper Giants: Magazine Wars (2013), dramatising the battle between editors Nene King (Woman’s Day) and Dulcie Boling (New Idea) to make their magazine the number one seller in Australia between 1987 and 1997. New Idea followed this trend more than Woman’s Day, but both retain more of the older concerns than do the new additions: Who (1992– ), NW (1993– ), OK! (2004– ) and Famous (2006– ). Service sections in the latter publications are restricted to fashion and beauty, and the titles are differentiated a little by the proportion of snide to ingratiating stories. Much of the content is generated from paparazzi photographs, with captions devised to produce a story of relationship worries or dietary excesses. Pregnancy speculation is common, and pictures of celebrities with babies (when the pregnancies actually eventuate) are much sought after. While the older titles continue to provide generalised advice on child care, much of the coverage has been transmuted into admiring or condemnatory stories of how celebrities are raising their children.
This is linked to another change in the content of magazines for women: a substantial increase in the representation of health information. As much of the responsibility for personal wellbeing has shifted from the medical profession to individuals, magazines have taken on the role of expert advisers. They speak of risk management, often in terms of which foods promote health and which contribute to disease. New magazines devoted solely to health reveal a further fragmentation in the market, based not on age but on interest. The role of women as guides and monitors of their own and their families’ health has ensured that most of these magazines, with the clearly marked exception of Men’s Health (1997– ), target women.
A similar situation has arisen around the interest area of food, where specialist magazines of two broad types have proliferated: mass market, often with explicit supermarket links (Australian Good Taste, published by Woolworths, 1996–2013); or more upmarket publications like delicious (2001– ) and Donna Hay (2001– ). Although, given the shift in the perception of the activity of cooking, a substantial proportion of the purchasers and readers are male, women still comprise the main audience for this growth category.
Despite all the fragmentation and the growth in titles, when it comes to high-circulation examples, most of the titles are owned by one of three major companies—Bauer, NewsLifeMedia (owned by News Limited) and Pacific Magazines (part of Seven West Media), all of which have substantial other media holdings. They try to ensure that they have titles to satisfy the needs and desires of every age and interest group, but there is nothing to suggest that readers are loyal to publishers, though they may be to individual titles. Given both the proportion of overall magazine purchasers who are female and the fact that only 15 per cent of Australian magazines are sold by subscription, magazines need to be especially attentive to attracting and retaining women readers.
REFs: F. Bonner, ‘Magazines’, in S. Cunningham and S. Turnbull (eds), The Media and Communication in Australia, 4th edn (2014); F.S. Greenop, History of Magazine Publishing in Australia (1947); M. Le Masurier, ‘Reading the Flesh: Popular Feminism, the Second Wave and Cleo’s Male Centrefold’, Feminist Media Studies, 11(2) (2011).