It is only natural, when you see old friends after a disturbing absence, that you give them a quick once-over to satisfy yourself they are okay.
Last week I cast a concerned eye over the New Zealand Listener and the New Zealand Woman’s Weekly – having seen neither since April – and was mightily relieved to find that they are, indeed, okay.
The new owner, Mercury Capital [which this week renamed Bauer Media Australasia as Are Media], had announced they would appear again in September but, as the month slid by, I was beginning to wonder not only when but whether they would re-publish.
Then both publications re-appeared last week with little notice and certainly nothing approaching a fanfare. The Listenersimply appeared in the letterbox with a nice note from its distributor (Magshop) and I bought the Weekly after enquiring at our local Postshop whether they had heard when it would be back: “It’s here now. You want it?” Their return deserved better promotion by their new publisher.
It is a fair bet that regular readers of both magazines will celebrate their return because, thankfully, there is a familiarity about them.
Neither magazine has made the serious mistake of using the past six months to re-invent itself. Invariably that results in throwing the baby out with the bath water. When NZ News brought in Michal McKay to remodel the New Zealand Woman’s Weekly in 1985 after the retirement of long-serving editor Jean Wishart the effect on circulation was disastrous. As Jenny Lynch said in her memoir Under the Covers: “Readers had regarded the magazine as their comfortable old friend. Now that friend had deserted them…She might have looked great. But she wasn’t the person they had known. They did not recognise her.”
The old friends that returned last week were easily recognisable.
The Listener’s cover gave the impression the magazine hadn’t missed a beat: No mention of the hiatus, not even the Woman’s Weekly’s discrete “We’re back” sticker under the masthead. Just straight into the election campaign and the economy.
Inside, however, Listener editor Pamela Stirling (still firmly in place after 16 years in the role) penned a letter to readers that married the magazine’s uncertain recent past with the uncertainty of our Covid future. Her engagingly personal perspective took a richly deserved swing at the Government for refusing to grant magazines the same essential service status as daily and weekend newspapers during the Covid lockdown. I don’t believe that was the reason Bauer closed down the New Zealand operation – they had wanted out of this market for some time and Covid was nothing more than a convenient excuse – but Stirling’s spirited defence of magazines and their place in the community quite literally spoke truth to power.
Inside, familiar names and faces appeared on page after page – Jane Clifton, Bill Ralston, Russell Baillie, Bernard Lagan, Clare De Lore, Mark Broach…and my former colleague Michele Hewitson now living The Good Life with her partner Greg Dixon. I hope to see others like Diana Wichtel, Joanne Black and Peter Griffin in future issues.
The verdict: Business as usual at the Listener. We should be thankful for that. However, we should also lament that there remains an irretrievable six-month gap in the magazine’s 80-year chronicle of New Zealand life and culture, a period in which we experienced one of the most socially and economically disruptive events in our history.
The New Zealand Woman’s Weekly’s return is not quite business as usual. The magazine has a new editor but, to her credit, Marilynn McLachlan already displays a clear understanding of the ‘old friend’ approach to magazine editing. She has retained the look, feel and content familiar to existing readers under past editor Alice O’Connell. Yes, there are some new features like columnist Michele A’Court but one ‘new’ series “A cup of Tea With…” was in the pipeline when the shutters went down in April (and provides some insights into Breakfast weather presenter Matty McLean).
The Weekly remains the clever combination of celebrity and substance that was used before the shutdown to differentiate it from stablemate Woman’s Day. For example, McLachlan’s cover story interview with the Prime Minister predictably highlights the juggling act of parenting and running the country before delving into more enlightening aspects of Jacinda Ardern’s personal challenges in dealing with the Covid-19 pandemic.
It also retains familiar devices. For example, service features like food, fashion, beauty, gardening, interior design and consumer affairs continue to be grouped inside Lifestyle Weekly, Kerre McIvor is still a Short Blonde, and the perennial David Hartnell’s Hollywood Trivia Quiz still shows he’s not one to gossip…but.
The verdict: The ‘old friend’ is back.
Neither magazine is attracting much advertising, but nor were they over-burdened by paying content before the lockdown. It remains to be seen whether new owners will push for new advertising initiatives to boost revenue, but it will be elusive in the current Covid-dominated environment.
The upside is that now more than ever we need them to inform and entertain us while we cope with the stresses of Covid-19.
Bauer Media’s German masters threw the New Zealand magazine market into turmoil, but good things can come from bad. And, in this case, it will be the appearance of new magazine titles to rival the Bauer stable.
School Road Publishing – backed by advertising agency Stanley Street’s managing director Greg Partington and headed by publisher Sido Kitchin – is about to launch a stable of four magazines. The first off the rank will the fortnightly Woman, edited by Kitchin. It will be on sale on October 12. It will be followed by the monthly titles Haven (a home magazine edited by Vanessa Marshall) on October 6, Thrive (a wellbeing magazine edited by Wendyl Nissen) on November 9, and Scout (a domestic travel magazine edited by Sara-Kate Lynch) on November 23. Digital platforms for each title will be launched at the same time.
A fortnightly publishing schedule for Woman is a gamble. It lacks the habit-forming frequency of the weeklies but, on the other hand, there is already a crowded market with NZ Woman’s Weekly, Woman’s Day and New Idea. Perhaps Woman’sfortnightly appearance will be a disruptor that will attract the eye of supermarket shoppers. Who knows?
School Road is taking no gambles, however, with its editors. They are four of the most experienced consumer title editors in the country.
Two former Bauer titles are also being resurrected.
North & South was purchased by Konstantin Richter and Verena Friederike Hasel and will be relaunched on November 16 under new editor Rachel Morris (a New Zealander who was executive editor of The New Republic and co-founder of Highline, a Huffington Post offshoot).
The country’s longest-established architectural magazine, Home, will resume publication in December under the editorship of Clare Chapman. It was purchased from Bauer by local publisher Parkside Media along with FashionQuarterly. Parkside Media also publishes New Zealand Classic Car, NZ Performance Car, NZV8, D-Photo, AutoChannel, and The Shed.
Six months ago, we were contemplating life without the magazines that had been part of the lives of most living New Zealanders. Now we have our old friends back and new friends waiting to be made. Now into my seventh decade on this planet I have to conclude: It’s a funny old world.