Axed: Who killed Australian magazines?

Article | Issue: Jun 2022

Former magazine editor PHIL BARKER worked in the Australian magazine industry throughout the heady days of the ’80s and ’90s. In his new book, Axed: Who killed Australian magazines?, he spills the beans on those fast-moving times and the challenging experiences. He speaks with those still in the industry, asking will the the cut-throat world of magazines survive? In this extract we join him as he and his team were looking to find a cover story that will drive circulation.



During the week, the morning editorial conference was hilarious fun and a collaborative creative hothouse. The editor, deputy editor, news editor, pic editor, foreign editor and other staffers would sift through the pics and stories we had to work with, looking for a nugget of inspiration.

A staff that size would be expected to make two or three magazines these days.

As Friday drew closer, we’d become increasingly desperate and inventive if there was no obvious cover story.

A Thursday morning conference might have gone like this: if Russell Crowe had thrown a phone at a clerk in a Soho hotel in 2000, instead of 2005, I may have inquired, ‘Have Crowe and Campbell ever met?’

The pic editor would check with the picture agencies. If there was an image of them in the same frame, at some premiere or party, that was a win. Even better if they were smiling at each other, as famous people do when they meet on the red carpet.

These days, you can’t even trust video is real, such is the skill of digital deep fakers. In the early 2000s, the best Photoshop could do was maybe move Crowe a little closer to Campbell and that was about it. Even then, it was obvious to the trained eye.

Next, a ‘stringer’ – a freelance writer in LA – would be dispatched to try to stand up the idea that Crowe and Campbell were involved. The freelancer would have a deadline of the next morning and want to be paid, so they would almost always deliver.

All it needed was a suggestion of reality and we had a cover. Maybe an old assistant of Naomi’s could be persuaded to say she’d heard Naomi talking about how she was excited Russell was going to be at an event? Or maybe the stringer would find a ‘friend’ who, for a few hundred bucks, could be persuaded to say out loud that ‘the air between them sizzled with attraction’ or something similar.

The photo and story sorted, the cover would be presented to NW ’s publisher for approval. Over the Pat Ingram on a Friday afternoon.

If the story was interesting and fun, readers didn’t seem to worry too much about the whole issue of it being true.

The cover we’re imagining here would have been a beauty:

Russell and Naomi in …


Tears! Tantrums! Telephones!

The tears, tantrums and telephones would be the retelling of the genuine phone-chucking incidents. The idea that the phone chuckers might be in some sort of relationship was so tasty we at least deeply wished it were true. Our publisher might inquire about the truth of the story and the discussion would go along the lines of, ‘Well, Naomi’s friend seems to think so and, well, there’s no clear evidence they’re not . . .’ It would also perhaps be implied this was the result of weeks of digging, not a desperate overnight fishing expedition.

If the story was interesting and fun, readers didn’t seem to worry too much about the whole issue of it being true.

The Australian Press Council, quite bizarrely, agrees with this position.

Established in 1976, the council is responsible for ‘promoting good standards of media practice, community access to information of public interest, and freedom of expression through the media’, according to its own website.

In a February 2020 ruling on a Woman’s Day cover which asserted, massively incorrectly, that the palace had confirmed Prince Harry and Meghan Markle’s marriage was over, the council caused huffs of outrage in media circles with this widely publicised and criticised statement: ‘The council acknowledges that celebrity and gossip magazines are purchased for light entertainment, with readers not necessarily assuming that everything presented is factual.’

But it was firm with Woman’s Day: ‘While an entertainment publication can be expected to use some exaggeration, the headline was expressed as an unqualified fact that the palace had confirmed the marriage was over. The council considers that the statement in the headline was such that it was more than just an exaggeration, it was misleading.’

You can, it seems, exaggerate a bit, but not too much. Weekly magazine editors have known their audience did ‘not necessarily assume that everything presented is factual’ for decades.

Of course, magazines wanted real stories if they could get them. The problem was there just wasn’t one a week to be had.

Author: Phil Barker

Category: Biography & true stories

Book Format: Paperback / softback

Publisher: Simon & Schuster Australia

ISBN: 9781761103285

RRP: $34.99

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