Not just recipes and royals: how The Women's Weekly shapes Australia

Karen Hardy
February 10 2024 - 5:30am

Sophie Tedmanson was finishing up her summer holidays in Mollymook when the news broke. She'd spent the past week or so running along the beach, lolling poolside, reading and catching up with family, the perfect way to wind down after the success of her first edition at the helm of The Australian Women's Weekly.

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Tasmanian Mary Donaldson was about to become Queen of Denmark. They had a week to pull everything together. The edition was due to go to press the morning after the proclamation on January 14.

"We actually had something else planned for the cover so we immediately changed tack and worked towards having a royal special," Tedmanson says.

"So basically that Sunday night, the royal editor Juliet Rieden and I were watching the ceremony, texting, working out what we wanted to do, and then Monday morning we put together an 18-page royal special. I was so proud."

Sophie Tedmanson is the new editor of The Australian Women's Weekly. Pictures supplied
Sophie Tedmanson is the new editor of The Australian Women's Weekly. Pictures supplied

In its 90 years as Australia's premier women's magazine, The Women's Weekly has worn the reputation that it's all about celebrity gossip, recipes and royals. This has never really been true. The Weekly has always contained "good journalism", stories about issues, crime, news events, world events.

As a former News Corp cadet with 30 years experience in the industry, Tedmanson can't wait to keep telling new stories.

"I was at News Corp for almost two decades, I have news in my veins, so when a story like this breaks I really want to make sure we cover it in the best way possible.

Queen Mary, King Frederick and their royal brood. Picture Shutterstock
Queen Mary, King Frederick and their royal brood. Picture Shutterstock

"And also, for our readers, in the most relevant way. The best way to tell that story for The Weekly reader was telling the story of her family, her connection to Australia, but then we also have the beautiful dresses, the crown jewels.

"It was a lot of hard work, a lot of late nights and a lot of last-minute changes on deadline, but we made it work."

She's proud of the fact that people trust the magazine with their stories because of the journalism they do.

Lindy Chamberlain spoke to the magazine after Kathleen Folbigg's pardon. Picture Getty Images
Lindy Chamberlain spoke to the magazine after Kathleen Folbigg's pardon. Picture Getty Images

In recent editions news exclusives have included interviews with Shanelle Dawson, the daughter of convicted wife-killer Chris Dawson, who spoke about her memories of her late mother Lyn; actor Denise Scott revealed her battle with cancer; Lindy Chamberlain spoke about the need for law reform after the pardon of Kathleen Folbigg who was convicted of killing her four children in 2003, before being pardoned in late 2023.

"Being trusted by people who want to tell their stories is so important to us, but it's equally important that our readers trust our journalism."

Tedmanson recognises too that the stories filed under "The good life" are incredibly important: fashion, beauty, well-being, health, books and home hints. They are the mainstay of the magazine.

"I'm going to have to start running more because the test kitchen is just delicious," says the avid marathon runner.

The Weekly celebrated its 90th birthday in 2023. It originally started as a "newspaper for women" so Frank Packer and Ted Theodore (who was once deputy prime minister under James Scullin) could bypass some early media laws after cutting a deal with Sir Hugh Denison who ruled the Sydney newspaper market at the time.

They appointed George Warnecke editor and he "envisioned The Weekly as a publication with an Australian outlook; appealing to all sections of society; and offering an element of news in every article, whether it concern fashion, cookery, or parenting", according to the website The Women's Pages, Australian women and journalism since 1850.

"When the first issue appeared in Sydney on June 10, 1933, it was printed in black-and-white newspaper format and priced at twopence per copy: 'the biggest value in the world'. It had sold out by lunchtime."

The debut front page was about "Equal Social Rights for Sexes", a report on resolutions passed by the Women's Voters Federation. Next to it were photos of fashionable socialites.

In the years to follow The Weekly would continue to champion women's rights, contextualise world events and tell stories of women shaping Australia and indeed the world. During World War II, it rallied the women of Australia and created real change, even setting up a hostel for servicewomen in the David Jones store on George St, Sydney.

Over the years The Weekly called for the end of the nuclear arms race and the Cold War, led coverage on the introduction of the contraceptive pill and never shied from conversations about sex.

It picked up on the phenomenon that was Diana Spencer. The special royal edition which covered the 1981 wedding of Charles and Diana sold 1.1 million copies. It sold out so quickly that in the following edition, the magazine's editorial asked readers who bought two copies to pass one on to a reader who missed out. I still have mine packed away safely.

Charles and Diana seal the deal in 1981, prompting sell-out sales. Picture Getty Images
Charles and Diana seal the deal in 1981, prompting sell-out sales. Picture Getty Images

The Australian Women's Weekly reaches 2.8 million readers a month. Readership of the print version reached 1.33 million in the June 2023 quarter, up 10 per cent from the year before.

Tedmanson realises that while the 90-year formula is a successful one, The Weekly must keep transforming as it heads towards its centenary in 2033.

In late 2023, a stand-alone website was launched, womensweekly.com.au, delivering daily news updates and exclusive online content. The dedicated food site, womensweeklyfood.com.au, is home to more than 14,000 triple-tested recipes and later this year a "marketplace", with products specially curated by The Weekly team will also be launched.

"To say I'm excited about taking the helm is an understatement, it's an incredible opportunity," Tedmanson says.

"To think that in 10 years time there'll be a centenary year, it's an amazing time to be part of this iconic publication as it transforms into a real omni channel brand."

She says one of the toughest things about her job is making sure The Weekly stays relevant across the different generations.

"We've had readers who have been with us for decades but we also have readers who are coming to us online for the first time, how do we tell stories in a way that resonates with them," she says.

The average age of The Weekly reader is 46. Tedmanson is in her mid 40s.

"I like to think the perfect story is the one that will appeal to my mum who's about to turn 70, me and my friends, and my Millennial sister."

She acknowledges the importance of regional and rural Australia and will continue to tell the stories of women from these areas, recognising that for many of them The Weekly can provide a sense of connection, of community.

While celebrating the 90th anniversary, longtime employee Esme Fenston, who worked at the magazine from 1938 to 1972, said the guiding principle of editorial decision was: "Women are not fools."

It's a philosophy that could still be followed today.

"Championing and empowering women through their stories and creating engaging lifestyle content ... has always been a passion of mine," says Tedmanson.

"I'm both excited and humbled at this opportunity to do so at The Australian Women's Weekly."

Karen Hardy

Karen Hardy

Canberra Times lifestyle reporter

I've covered a few things here at The Canberra Times over the years, from sport to education. But now I get to write about the fun stuff - where to eat, what to do, places to go, people to see. Let me know about your favourite things. Email: karen.hardy@canberratimes.com.au