It’s part two of our special with none other than magazine and media doyen, former Australian of the Year and all-round fabulous person, Ita Buttrose. Today, Ms Buttrose discusses where she thinks media’s going, her relationship with Kerry Packer and her thoughts on Paper Giants (yes, she loved it!)
Media has gone through a massive – or is still going through – state of flux. How do you see the media landscape panning out?
Well, I don’t write print off. I don’t think it will vanish out of our lives completely. I think if people start wishing print ill then yes you will wipe it out. Take book publishing or print newspapers, you are seeing a bit of resurgence there. Rupert Murdoch is still a very considered newspaper publisher and owns some of the world’s very best ones. I think print and digital will continue to co-habit. I think there’ll always be room for both. Something new is always coming along. Radio was going to destroy print. Television was going to destroy print. You know, all the pessimists come marching out but what happens is we all learn to co-habit and we learn to use the best strengths of the mediums to the benefit of all of them.
Your beloved women’s magazine stable is having a rough trot of late with dwindling circs etc. Can it survive and in what shape or form?
I think that women view magazines as a very close friend. We know that they all have online versions now and we know that hundreds of thousands of women still prefer to buy the original hard copy of a magazine. If and when that stops, I think we don’t know, I don’t think anyone can predict that and that’s the uncertainty of the world in which we live. There’s no doubt that women still want to get that magazine. You see them holding it, taking it with them somewhere, reading it. Wherever or however they’re reading it, they’re reading it, and again I think there is room for both. Maybe in 50 years’ time it won’t be like that, but I don’t think anyone can safely predict that at the moment.
You were, of course, Australian of the Year in 2013. Is that a double-edged sword? On one hand a great accolade but a lot of pressure to effect change?
I didn’t find any of the expectation that you are talking about. At the time I was president of Alzheimer’s Australia and what being Australian of the Year does for you is it gives you a platform. It does give you an authority, but how you use that is up to you. I was trying to raise awareness of dementia and the need for investment in medical research and the need for better care packages for people with dementia who want to stay in their own homes. Being Australian of the Year gave me the most fantastic opportunities to talk about those issues.
You were great friends with Kerry Packer. Do you think Australian media’s lost a lot of energy, momentum since his death?
I think what it has lost is people who ran companies and those people were absolutely 100 per cent committed to the product that they were producing. The bosses, the proprietors, loved the product as much as the people who put them together. So in that regard, you’re right, some of the passion has gone. When you worked for Kerry we all knew what the goals were, we all sang from the same hymn sheet. And that’s a great way to work. When the bean counters get in, sometimes creativity can get shoved to one side, because the bottom line becomes the be all and end all. I’m not saying that the bottom line is not important. With products like magazines and newspapers, the creative input is vital if you’re going to make sales. You need both, so really you need creative accountants and creative people and creative input and I think that’s what we used to have under the old regime.
No-one knows where media is heading so no-one is investing in their respective futures. Would you agree with that?
I’m sure there are people doing something. Yes, there is a lot of change going on; not only in our industry but in every other industry. And that makes people hesitant. Change makes people hesitant. Because change is the constant in all our lives, unless you have very strong leadership in all elements, in business, in government, so on and so forth, the people become uncertain. You have to have confidence and you have to have that gut instinct for what the market wants and you have to go after it and not be frightened to tackle these things. Occasionally you have to take the market by surprise by giving them something that will surprise and that’s what it’s all about – content, content, content.
There’s a fantastic book out at the moment called Kerry Packer: Tall Tales & True Stories that doesn’t always portray KP in a favourable light. What were your recollections of him?
There were five of us who ran key parts of the empire (Channel Nine/ACP) – if you can call it that? – and he was a very good boss. If you had a very big decision to make he’d want to talk to you about it. If you wanted to spend a significantly large come of money you would go and discuss that with him but he had a great sense of humour, he was very curious and he was very supportive of what we were doing. We were all very passionate about making sure whatever we did was good for the company.
I remember when we went to World Series Cricket we all had roles to play in that and we knew it was a very important decision for the company and we were all committed, we performed as a team, and we wanted Kerry to succeed and he did succeed. He was very good at enthusing everybody who worked for him and encouraging everybody to become a terrific corporate entity and it’s one of the great successes from the time that he ran the business.
The biggest lesson you’ve learned from your career? Or maybe a better question is the biggest lesson you learned from the biggest stuff-up in your career?
Oh Gosh! We all have stuff-ups, to use your words. We all make mistakes, we all do things that don’t work … you can’t let the fear of failure hold you back. The advice that we always had at ACP was don’t pussyfoot, just do it. In other words make the decision and just get on with it. That has stayed with me all of my life and I have never been afraid to make a decision even if it turns out to be the wrong one. When it has been wrong, then you admit that it was a mistake and you keep on going.
Your advice to young women contemplating a media career?
Don’t be afraid to start at the bottom! You learn a lot on the way up to the top. I started as a copy girl and that’s about as low as you can go; but I tell you what, I know a lot about the business all the way up.
Your time launching CLEO was of course played out in the recent TV drama Paper Giants. Was that difficult TV to watch?
It wasn’t difficult to watch at all. It showed the 70s very well back then. It was a fun time: we were exploring new issues and new possibilities and the people who put the magazine (CLEO) together were the women who we were aiming the magazine at. The magazine launched at time that a woman could be married, you could have children and you could also have a career and have ambition. This was a very important change in attitude. It was a very feminine time too. Sure, it was all about women’s liberation, but we never sacrificed our femininity and I think that was shown very well in the show. It was all about women who wanted to change the world and that’s exactly what happened in the 70s quite frankly.
Ita Buttrose is the patron of the Macular Disease Foundation of Australia. To promote eye health the Foundation is running the mEye Photographic Competition. Check out the details here: www.myeyephotocom.com.au