Helen McCabe has a message for media snobs who think The Australian Women’s Weekly is full of nothing but celebrity fluff and roast dinner recipes: get over yourself.

With a monthly readership of 2.4 million, paid sales of over 460,000 and a level of reader trust that newspapers could only dream of, the 79-year-old magazine is a force to be reckoned with. As is its ambitious editor — a woman who, in so many ways, couldn’t be more dissimilar to the stereotypical Weekly reader.

McCabe’s passion is hard news — not beauty products, food or fashion. That’s why the former Sunday Telegraph deputy editor said no when first approached to edit the magazine in 2009.

“I knew nothing about magazines at all,” McCabe tells The Power Index. “I had never really read a copy of the Weekly. It was so far off my radar at the time as to be laughable. I said no at least two times: ‘I don’t think you’ve got the right person.'”

Only a visit to her boss, News Limited CEO John Hartigan, convinced her otherwise. “He said, ‘it’s the best job in publishing for a woman in this country. Go do it and we’ll see you in a few years.’ At that point the decision was made.”

Editing the country’s highest-selling and most iconic magazine is an intrinsically powerful job. But it’s the way McCabe has used the role to boost the Weekly‘s current affairs chops — while keeping circulation strong — that scores her a spot on The Power Index. Even her online competitors are impressed.

“Helen has been the first editor in a long time to bring a real news brain to The Women’s Weekly,” says Mamamia publisher and former Cosmopolitan editor Mia Freedman. “Helen has skilfully managed to utilise the reputation of the Women’s Weekly for being fair, balanced and ‘classy’ for want of a better word, to attract public figures to tell their stories. It’s really the only magazine that is breaking news.”

After taking over in late 2009, McCabe jumped out of the blocks with an exclusive interview with Labor MP Belinda Neal, who had been cheated on days earlier by husband John Della Bosca. Then came a lengthy interview with Tony Abbott less than two months after he became Liberal leader. If Abbott’s minders thought he’d get soft treatment in the feature — which McCabe wrote herself — they were dead wrong.

Abbott’s statement that women should treat their virginity as a gift that should not be given away lightly dominated the news cycle for days and fed into a Labor narrative that he has a problem with women.

Since then the exclusives have continued. A glamorous spread on Julia Gillard during the 2010 election that raised a topic few had dared to touch (the PM’s former relationship with Labor MP Craig Emerson); the first interview with Gordon Wood after he was acquitted of murdering girlfriend Caroline Byrne; Paul Howes opening up on his adoption and traumatic childhood; a piece penned by Zoe Arnold, the wife of “brothelgate” MP Craig Thomson; the first interview with Kevin Rudd since his February leadership challenge.

Not that it’s all about politics. Freedman praises McCabe as “the only editor who seems to be directly addressing issues around body image and re-touching while so many others have their heads buried deep in the sand”. McCabe has tried to limit the use of airbrushing and made unconventional cover choices, such as 50-year-old Deborah Hutton and Circle star Chrissie Swan.

When asked about McCabe, former Women’s Weekly editor Ita Buttrose says: “She’s a good operator, she’s very well-connected and she has strong views on issues … She’s smartened it up a lot.” Buttrose thinks McCabe could go even further and use the magazine to drive debate on misogynist abuse directed at powerful women such as Gillard and Gina Rinehart.

The Power Index would be stunned if McCabe — who notes several times in our interview that she still feels a part of the “News Limited family” — doesn’t return to the Murdoch empire one day. But for now her main preoccupation is keeping the Weekly at the centre of the national conversation while plotting how to celebrate the mag’s 80th birthday next year.

“It’s as relevant today as it’s ever been,” she says. “We are still setting an agenda every month we come out. We still spark enormous debate. There’s a lot of kick in her yet.”