A selection of local Woman’s Day covers from over the years
A selection of local Woman’s Day covers from over the years

MediaJuly 4, 2020

The fight to tell New Zealand stories in New Zealand magazines

A selection of local Woman’s Day covers from over the years
A selection of local Woman’s Day covers from over the years

With the collapse of Bauer NZ resulting in Australian magazines flooding our shelves, Wendyl Nissen looks back at her battle to get homegrown content given the star billing it deserved.

Thanks to some hard-fought battles 30 years ago, New Zealand women have been enjoying their own version of Woman’s Day and Australian Women’s Weekly (AWW) magazines for decades.

But that is all over now. They didn’t tell their readers but since they closed their New Zealand operations, Bauer has quietly been sending the all-Australian editions of those two magazines to sit at the end of the checkouts and – hopefully – keep being the nice little earners that our New Zealand editors had made them into. Woman’s Day and AWW were the biggest-selling magazines in the country.

“Ordinary people doing extraordinary things and extraordinary people doing ordinary things.” So went the mantra according to Nene King, queen of women’s magazines in Australia in the early 1990s, as a guide for suitable editorial content for women’s magazines. 

As editor of Australia’s top-selling magazine Woman’s Day, she knew what women wanted to read. Australian women, that is. Every week she served them up a delicate balance of celebrity, royals, real-life reads and news stories and sold over a million copies a week. 

In the late 80s, Australian Consolidated Press, the owner of Woman’s Day and employer of Nene King, cast its eye across the Tasman to New Zealand. What if its put its top-selling magazines into the New Zealand market but earned more dollars by selling New Zealand advertising in their pages?

And so New Zealand women were introduced to specially printed New Zealand editions of Woman’s Day and AWW, featuring highly lucrative New Zealand advertising but not a centimetre of New Zealand editorial. 

In return for their purchase, New Zealand women got to read about Australian people being ordinary and extraordinary. 

Wendyl Nissen’s editor’s picture from her early days at Woman’s Day, and a 1993 newspaper clipping announcing her new job (Photos: Supplied)

In 1993 I was offered the job of editor of Woman’s Day magazine, which had recently enjoyed the rather extravagant addition of a New Zealand editor and some editorial staff. The idea being that perhaps a few New Zealand stories might help to win the circulation war against the long-standing “over the teacups” favourite, the New Zealand Woman’s Weekly, and therefore enable Woman’s Day NZ  to sell even more advertising.  

The previous editor, Gill Chalmers, bought Paul Holmes’ wedding story when he married Hinemoa Elder and the magazine’s circulation went through the roof. To this day I believe it was the best-selling edition of the magazine in New Zealand, selling about 230,000 copies. It turned out New Zealand women loved to read a good wedding story about one of their own.

Chalmers was Australian and very much felt the magazine didn’t want to get too carried away with running New Zealand content. 

As her deputy I rallied against this. I spent a lot of time explaining to her and my bosses across the Tasman that New Zealand had a very different culture to Australia. For a start we had our own soap stars, some of whom were Māori, Pacific Island and Asian. We had our own newsreaders, our own crime stories, our own victims triumphing over adversity. 

At the time, NZ On Air had just launched with the intention of helping television and radio to “tell our stories”. It was time that we, as a country, celebrated our own culture and reflected our own lives in what we watched and listened to, rather than soak up a diet of American, British and Australian television, which was more commercially viable for the networks. So NZ On Air gave the networks money to make documentaries and series reflecting our diverse culture. 

I felt strongly that we should also do this in what we read, especially with a magazine that was selling nearly 200,000 copies a week.

When I was offered the job of editor, I saw my chance to make a change. In my magazine memoir Bitch and Famous, I wrote this:

“I felt that there was some ill-feeling from readers and the industry that we were still writing about Aussie soap stars we had never heard of instead of pulling those stories and replacing them with our own soap stars, which we were well able to do now that Shortland Street had started. So I proved that we could do more, without it costing too much, and petitioned for a bigger percentage of the magazine’s upfront editorial content to go local. They agreed, and I accepted the job.”

Under my editorship, the magazine went full noise on New Zealand content. We were really very busy and the magazine rose to its biggest ever circulation of 220,000 a week. The advertisers, well, they just loved the environment. I remember stamping my feet when there were so many ads that we had little room for stories. Seems incredible now.

Across the Tasman, brown faces never made the cover and were rarely seen inside the mags. Brown did not go in Woman’s Day. Ever. Gay people? Are you kidding?

For the past nine years, Woman’s Day editor Sido Kitchin has continued the local content drive to the point that at the time of the magazine’s demise on April 2, when Bauer closed its doors, it was taking only 25% of Australian content – which was mainly middle-of-the-book stuff like recipes, puzzles, horoscopes and health. Kitchin had also put the Topp Twins and Anika Moa and Natasha Utting’s wedding on covers and kept the magazine diverse. And, as it was 30 years ago, it was still a cash cow for Bauer magazines, raking in the dollars. When the AWW New Zealand edition closed, it was taking about 60% content from Australia. 

Today we are back where it all began 30 years ago, with Woman’s Day and AWW being dumped into our market with not one piece of New Zealand editorial. AWW still puts the words “New Zealand edition” on its cover and Woman’s Day has a line in a tiny font near the spine on page three, which advises that “all prices and values are in Australian dollars. Please confirm prices with local retailers”. I doubt whether the new owners of these two magazines will be too fussed about telling our stories.

So who will? We are yet to see whether those other fine storytellers, the New Zealand Woman’s Weekly, the Listener, North and South and Metro, will be revived.

Increasingly, funding for online newspapers has been coming from government sources such as Creative New Zealand, the Copyright Licensing Fund and NZ on Air, as well as universities. Our government doesn’t seem to really “get” magazines, first classing them as non-essential during lockdown, stopping all sales,  and then not inviting one magazine representative to the Epidemic Response Committee, which resulted in a $50 million fund for media, too late to save Bauer magazines.  

The time has come for NZ On Air, which has a mandate to “ensure New Zealanders can experience public media that is authentically New Zealand”, to have a side arm: NZ In Print. It could use some of the $149 million it gets annually to launch a Listener or a Woman’s Weekly or both and fight off the Australian imports we are unknowingly supporting. There are a few good editors, like Sido Kitchin, out there ready to take on the challenge, who would probably turn a profit while they are at it. That’s a great return on investment. 

Disclosure: Rather naively, after the closures in April I contacted the Australian editor of AWW, Nicole Byers, and offered my services to provide New Zealand content for their New Zealand editions. I had lost all my work when Bauer closed and it seemed like a good idea at the time. She said she’d “keep me in mind”, which was nice.  

Keep going!