Paper Giants vs. Park St: why magazines are not what they used to be.

The promotional cover for Paper Giants

I’m going to try and write this post without sounding like a nana. Or one of those people who say ‘back in my day’ and then proceed to reference something totally irrelevant.

Because while I was watching the magnificent Paper Giants last night on ABC1 (the second and final instalment airs tonight at 8:30) I got thinking about how magazines have changed. How they’re just not relevant anymore. Not compared to the power and influence they once wielded.

No matter how much of a mag junkie you may be (your numbers may be dwindling but I know there are still some of you left), you cannot watch a show about the birth of Cleo magazine and its early years and not make a comparison to mags in 2011.

And not in a good way for 2011.

There was a surprising amount of excitement a few months ago when it was announced a reality show called Park Street was being made about ACP – the magazine company (located at 54 Park St) that publishes Cleo, Cosmo, Dolly and pretty much every other magazine you’ve ever read.

ACP is also the place I began my magazine career – and ended it almost 15 years later.

After the surprise success of The September Issue, the brilliant documentary about Anna Wintour and American Vogue from 2009, and the pop cultural impact of the book and movie The Devil Wears Prada a few years earlier, a local look at Australian magazines was bound to be thrilling.

There was much anticipation about the reality series, which promised a behind-the-scenes look at what really goes on at some of Australia’s most iconic magazines. Almost immediately, rival publisher Pacific Publications announced they too were going to film a reality show about Marie Claire and its editor Jackie Frank.

Park Street premiered last month and the response was not terrific. I’m not going to bag the show or the people in it. I know them, I like them, they work hard. The market has never been tougher. I watched a couple of episodes of Park Street and it was harmless enough but, like many, I was underwhelmed.

What can you say when the two main storylines in the first episode were Jessica Mauboy being late to a Cosmo photo shoot and the threat of rain before a party to celebrate Cleo’s swimsuit issue (Jessica eventually turned up and it didn’t rain – phew and phew)?

Granted, this was a ‘reality show’. Not scripted but heavily censored. Fragranced even. After all, it was funded by ACP and many of the most interesting characters left in that building refused to be involved. Wisely. It’s a risky game to leave your reputation and potentially your career to the producers of a reality show whose own livelihoods depend on making interesting television.


But even if it had been a more transparent account, not that much excitement goes on in magazines anymore. There are a lot of budget meeting with the finance department. A lot of talk of ROI (return on investment). A lot of celebrities saying ‘no’ or asking for giant cheques. A lot of trying to get everyone off Facebook and get them to try and think about something that hasn’t been done before, something that will start a conversation and boost sales.

To me, what underscored the whole issue of relevance was when Cleo’s down-to-earth editor Gemma Crisp explained the editorial process that a story undergoes from conception to publication.

It takes a minimum of 3 months. MONTHS.

When was the last time you waited 3 months for something? Life doesn’t happen in increments of months anymore. It happens in moments, in text messages, in Tweets. It’s fast and it’s relentless and if it takes you three months (or even three weeks) to get from thought to print then that’s just too long to retain the attention of your audience.

That’s the biggest problem magazines have in 2011. How to stay relevant within the constraints of a dinosaur-like production process when your readers are living in a 24/7 news cycle.

When was the last time you can remember a magazine doing something truly daring that people spoke about?

It took Paper Giants to remind us what women’s magazines USED to be. It was a time before the internet, when women’s liberation (the term sounds twee now but liberation is exactly what it was back in the early 70s) and the idea that women may ENJOY sex and WANT a life other than being someone’s wife, mother or spinster aunty was revolutionary.

Imagine that.

Imagine there being nowhere else you could read about sex or contraception or sexual health or relationships or masturbation or even feminism.

Cleo – and then Cosmo a few months later – were all those things and they truly did move the social agenda forwards.

[see these Cleo covers from the 70s, 80s and 90s below and see how many you remember]

By the time I arrived at Cleo in 1993, the iconic Ita Buttrose was long gone and Cleo and Cosmo were being edited by Lisa Wilkinson and Pat Ingram respectively.

They were still exciting times. The magazines were not nearly as political as they once had been – thankfully, many battles had already been fought and won. Battles like the right to determine your own fertility, access safe and affordable contraception and no-fault divorce. Still, they tackled a more diverse agenda than perhaps they do now, with greater emphasis on the features and the quality of the writing.


Back then, Cleo and Cosmo still very much led the sexual agenda. Again, remember this was a time before the Internet. When sealed sections still meant something. Unless you wanted to go into an X-rated shop (something most women would never do), Cleo and Cosmo remained the only way women could learn about all the different permutations of sex.

Who else were you going to ask? Your mum? Your doctor?

They were incredibly fun years to be working on Cleo. Lisa came up with countless genius ideas including a “scratch off Arnie’s undies” issue where she found a technology to use the material for scratchies and combine it with a nude shot our art director had found of Arnold Schwarzenegger.

The result was hilarious – especially when the printer didn’t test it properly and it was only after all the issues were printed that we discovered when you tried to scratch off Arnie’s ‘undies’, you scratched a hole right through the page.

Cosmo published an excerpt from Madonna’s Sex book, which has stood the test of time as being pretty out there.

Lisa and Pat were always trying to out do and out sell each other by seeing who could tread that finest of lines, being outrageous enough to spark reader interest without completely pissing off the advertisers for being too explicit.

We didn’t always get it right. One time, when Lisa was on maternity leave, we published a “Match The Penis To The Guy” sealed section, which engraged clients and lost Cleo all of Estee Lauder’s advertising. More than a decade later, I don’t think they ever got it back.

A few years later, when I edited Cosmo, we did a sealed section about sex toys, which wasn’t particularly unusual – on Paper Giants they did something similar back in the 70s.

But we also ran a TV ad, which was a spoof of the Tom Cruise Risky Business scene where he slides along the floorboards in his socks and pretends to sing.

I can’t remember the exact details but our ad featured some rather large dildos. It was done in a jokey way and was quite funny but Kerry Packer didn’t see it that way.

My Editor-In-Chief and publisher were hauled into Kerry’s office and given exactly the kind of shouty, sweary treatment Ita was depicted getting from Kerry in Paper Giants. The ad was pulled immediately.


Of everyone who has worked at ACP and encountered Kerry, his depiction in Paper Giants has been universally rated as brilliant. He was a dynamic, exciting, outrageous, complex man. He was capable of being awful to his employees and also being incredibly kind, generous and sensitive. He was one of a kind and the magazine business has not been the same since his death.

Back to Paper Giants and Park Street for a moment.

You can’t compare a drama to a reality show. It’s not fair. But you can compare the role of magazines then and now and it’s impossible not to draw the conclusion that they have lost their relevance and their influence.

The Internet has not only sucked up their readers, it has also gobbled up their purpose: to be a way women form tribes and communicate. Now there’s youporn and any other number of sites for titillation, Google for questions about sex, and any number of websites or free newspaper magazines if you’re looking for other types of content or a magazine-style experience. Women don’t want to be spoken TO anymore. They want to be part of the conversation, something which the internet allows, in fact depends on.

It’s the main reason I left magazines, my first true media love for online five years ago. I could see the future – my future as a reader and a content provider – and magazines just weren’t keeping pace.

Some may say it’s disingenuous of me to write about the demise of magazines given I now publish Mamamia. All I can say to that is that I loved my time in magazines. I was taught -and taught – some of the most incredible women I have ever met. Most of my closest friends are from that time and I look back on it with awe and gratitude and pride.

But that time is over.

Paper Giants was a timely reminder of how magazines used to push boundaries. Now, they seem to exist on a strangely distant planet where all the people look like plastic and the sole pursuit is ‘perfection’. Except that perfection doesn’t really exist. It’s contrived.

I will always be proud of the time I spent working in magazines. It’s a mistake to underestimate the good they have done for several generations of women in educating, comforting, supporting and nurturing them. As for their future, however, that remains unclear.

I don’t pretend to know how magazines can re-invent themselves to keep pace with the needs, wants and sensibilities of modern readers. Perhaps we’re seeing the beginning of sunset on magazines in the same way albums and CDs are fast becoming niche items of nostalgia.


UPDATE: I should have mentioned that a major factor magazines find it tough to push boundaries is due to the influence of supermarkets. The two main chains account for around half of all magazine sales and thus wield huge influence on the covers and coverlines.

One of the watershed moments in my career editing Cosmo was when the supermarkets chose to pull an issue of Cosmo off the stand for a cover line about oral sex that it felt was too explicit (it was Oral Sex Lessons and the story inside was sealed).

The media got hold of the story and I was forced to do interviews justifying the coverline while being careful not to accuse the supermarkets of censorship or heavy-handedness due to the influence they wielded). As a mother myself, I can certainly understand their wishes not to have explicit sex stories touted at the checkout where bored little eyes can read them and ask loud questions.

But the end result is that magazines are today TAMER than they were in the 80s and 90s. What we got away with then you never could now. So ironically, as the internet has taken the sting out of the raunch-factor for mags like Cosmo and Cleo, so have the retailers. Society is more conservative now than it was when I first joined Cleo in the early nineties.

Cover mounts – the freebie gifts of everything from bags to scarves, thongs to lipstick – have also eroded the value of magazines in the minds of consumers. I HATED these when I was an editor and fought against them at every turn. They are a blatant way to increase circulation (you can always tell which mag needs a boost by whomever has freebies on their covers) but I always felt they devalued the magazine itself. Surely if a product is good, that should be enough reason to buy it without a nasty made-in-China pink umbrella?

AND ANOTHER THING: When the Internet began gaining popularity in the late 90s, there were many murmurs in the industry and outside it that this could be the Armageddon for magazines. It wasn’t. Not then. Because reading a magazine was very much a portable experience – you took it on the bus or the train, to the beach or into the bath.

You couldn’t do that with a computer.

But you CAN do it with a phone. And now that we’re all carrying around smart phones, that same reading, sharing, communicating, entertaining experience that mags used to give us is available anywhere at any time. And it’s updating in real time (much like this post!). So how do magazines compete with that?

Have your mag reading habits changed in the past few years?