Mag madness: the rise and fall of an Australian phenomenon

Axed – Who Killed Australian Magazines? by Phil Barker
Simon and Schuster Australia, 2022

The media industry is famous, or perhaps infamous, for its highs and lows – from the thrill of chasing a big story close to deadline to management bastardry and lack of compassion for staff when times get tough.

Richard spoke to Phil Barker about Axed and the future of magazine publishing in Australia

In Axed – Who Killed Australian Magazines? former magazine editor and now author and copywriter Phil Barker gives us an insider’s view of the excitement and turmoil of the Australian magazine industry, particularly in the heady days of the 1990s and early 2000s.

At that time, Australia led the world in per-capita magazine circulation, with titles such as Cleo, Dolly, New Idea, Women’s Weekly and NW (New Weekly). Millions of copies sold on the back of Princess Diana stories, paparazzi pictures bought in overnight bidding wars, fashion and fanciful accounts of celebrity antics.

But it was followed by a massive destruction of value when magazine stables, such as those of the former Packer empire, were sold to overseas interests and private equity. Mergers led to cold-blooded sacking of staff, sometimes via Zoom rather than in person.

Barker argues that the decline was largely the result of a failure to anticipate and adapt to changes in technology, society and how customers interact with the product.

He recounts a story of how a manager from the German-owned Bauer Media group, which bought many of the titles, suggested that a photograph of a specific type of green soup could be used generically to illustrate other kinds of soup. ‘I would suggest that readers of Australian Gourmet Traveller would a) spot that and b) be completely outraged,’ he says.

But Barker also sees what he describes as green shoots in the industry, pointing to the the continuing success of online magazines like GQ Australia and those targeted at niche audiences, such as rural women. Also going ‘incredibly well’ is custom publishing, such as magazines produced by large retailers and supermarket chains.

The themes and lessons of Axed – Who Killed Australian Magazines? will ring true for many who have worked in the media. This is a well researched read for anyone interested in contemporary Australian social history.

Thanks to Simon and Shuster Australia for the review copy.