During the late 1980s and early ’90s I was in the fortunate position of having a front-row seat at the weekly women’s magazine war between Woman’s Day and New Idea.

In 1989 I was appointed editor of Dolly magazine and became a peer of Woman’s Day editor Nene King in the Kerry Packer-owned Australian Consolidated Press stable of magazines. Our publisher and boss was Richard Walsh, and he held regular group meetings with the editors to celebrate our achievements and highlight our failures. He seemed to enjoy the sport of pointing out where New Idea was stronger than Woman’s Day.

I always suspected it was primarily to get a rise from Nene. She didn’t disappoint. Richard understood the key to motivating Nene and that was part of it. More often than not she would storm out of those meetings and the very next edition of Woman’s Day would be a cracker.

The entire company was right behind her. We had bought into the mantra that Woman’s Day was the superior product and that time alone was standing between “our” magazine knocking New Idea from the number one position.

Talk of the building was how Nene would wander the corridors of ACP, stopping off in the offices of some editors to discuss celebrity paparazzi images. She didn’t usually call on me, but I do recall that one of the few conversations I had with Nene was shortly after we published the first edition of Dolly under my editorship. Nene told me she thought I had done a good job of it, and then asked me what I thought the celebrities — they may have been royals — in the pictures she was holding were doing. Some outrageous scenario popped into my head, I shared it with her, she laughed and then disappeared back to her office. My idea wasn’t the headline she went with to accompany the pictures but I could see how competitive the weekly game was getting.

While Nene’s Woman’s Day became a truly entertaining read, and we at ACP started rationalising the increasingly factional nature of its content by trying to convince ourselves that its readers we’re in on the idea, New Idea continued to chase women’s news in its more traditional form with arch-rival Dulcie Boling at the helm. It became a losing battle for New Idea — magazine readers were drawn to Nene’s bold, outrageous and entertaining brand of “news”. In 1991 News Limited spun off Southdown Press and its printing operations into a new division, PMP, and by the end of the decade had sold out of the company.

I was so in awe of Nene’s success that I worked harder at making Dolly’s coverlines sell rather than just tell. She inspired me to be a more commercial editor and my magazine also sold more copies during that period.

Years later I met Boling when I was editor-in-chief of Pacific Publications and our owners at PMP were selling the magazine company to Seven West Media. Dulcie was, and still is, on the Seven board, and I met her during the due diligence process. Dulcie is Australia’s most successful female media executive and was one of the women who inspired me to make the move from editorial to management. I don’t mind admitting I was like a starstruck fan when we first met in 2001.

Years earlier Dulcie had been running the same group of magazines I was managing so I was keen to hear her thoughts. My recollection of that meeting is that she was insightful, direct and not afraid to wound — especially when discussing New Idea.

I had numerous meetings with her after that. Dulcie was all business, every time, and it was evident as to why Rupert Murdoch appointed her CEO and chairman of Southdown Press when News Limited owned the magazine group. But contrary to the promo scenes for Paper Giants: Magazine Wars — starring Rachel Griffiths and Mandy McElhinney (pictured) — that show her lacking in support for her then deputy Nene, I experienced the opposite from her as a media executive at arm’s length. When I revamped Fairfax’s Sunday Life magazine in 2002, Dulcie sent me a congratulatory note describing my efforts as “fresh and innovative”. It had been more than a year since I had a professional connection to her at Pacific Magazines.

King and Boling may well have been (and will probably always be) arch rivals, but alongside Ita Buttrose they form a triumvirate of trailblazers for the Australian magazine industry — an industry to which I owe so much. I can’t wait to see how this part of our history will be portrayed when the ABC screens the first part of Paper Giants: Magazine Wars this Sunday evening.

*This article was first published at Women’s Agenda

Peter Fray

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