1894 - 1981 | NSW | Journalist & editor
Glen William "George" Warnecke was the creative genius behind the Australian Women’s Weekly, Australia’s most successful magazine. Warnecke was a journalist in Australia and Britain before coming up with the idea of a women’s magazine with a topical edge and national focus. Warnecke persuaded the Packer family to back the project and the magazine was launched in 1933, with Warnecke as foundation editor. Within six years, circulation had reached 400,000 copies a week and for its first 50 years it remained the highest per capita circulation magazine in the world. The Weekly helped inform the attitudes of Australian women for decades.
G.W. Warnecke had a long, diverse media career that spanned three continents and both the Packer and Murdoch dynasties, but it was the creation of the phenomenally successful Australian Women’s Weekly that was to be his most enduring legacy.
Born in 1894 in Armidale, New South Wales, to a labour family, Warnecke joined the fledgling Australian Journalists’ Association in 1913 and worked for the Sydney Evening News and its offshoot, Woman’s Budget. When printers misread his scrawled initials as “Geo.”, he became known as “George”. He enlisted in the AIF, serving on the Western Front, and launched and edited a small review, the Hurdcott Herald, while convalescing in England after being shot in the back.
Returning to Sydney and the Evening News, Warnecke interviewed the visiting Lord Northcliffe, “the awesome monarch of modern journalism, [who] haunted my daydreams”. After serving as chief-of-staff on the labour-aligned Daily Mail, he concluded that any talents he possessed lay with journalism rather than with politics.
Warnecke was lured back to England in 1923, starting a cable service for Smith’s Weekly and the Daily Guardian. He was disappointed with Fleet Street journalism, describing it as “granny Herald journalism”; “bright subbing” was done only on the “stunt papers”. But through his involvement with the Irish nationalist cause he met the soprano Nora Hill, the daughter of a Dublin journalist, and they married in Sydney.
Chief sub-editor of the Daily Guardian from 1926, Warnecke became a protégé of its energetic and ambitious co-proprietor, R.C. Packer, and was an active member of the AJA’s New South Wales district committee.
Bespectacled, with blue eyes and brown hair, Warnecke was shy and usually mild-mannered. He was appointed editor of the new Sunday Guardian, attractively laid out and illustrated, in 1929. The title, which became part of Sir Hugh Denison’s Associated Newspapers Ltd (ANL), opposed censorship and featured articles and editorials by Warnecke “in the didactic manner of the English Sunday editors”.
In 1932, Warnecke lobbied Labor MPs to vote against a bill designed by Premier J.T. Lang to bankrupt the controversial Packer and his son, Frank. Later that year, Warnecke told the Packers of a scheme he had developed to convert the Australian Workers’ Union’s ailing daily, the World, into a penny afternoon newspaper, anticipating a takeover offer from Associated Newspapers, whose Sun was retailing at 1½d. The voracious company, of which Packer senior was managing director, took the bait to protect the jewel in its crown. It agreed to pay Sydney Newspapers Ltd, newly formed by Frank Packer and former politician E. G. Theodore, £86,500 in return for an agreement not to publish a daily or Sunday newspaper for three years. Thus Warnecke was midwife to the birth of the Packer empire.
Following this transaction, Warnecke developed a dummy for a women’s magazine which, lacking sufficient capital himself, he took to Sydney Newspapers. Launched in June 1933, staffed by outstanding contributors, and aggressively promoted, the Australian Women’s Weekly had a national focus and a topical edge combined with the traditional contents of women’s magazines, abundant fiction and sophisticated illustrations. Crucially, it also circumvented the agreement with Associated Newspapers. Demand for the new publication quickly outstripped supply, and it spawned interstate editions.
In 1934, Warnecke acquired £1000 worth of shares in Sydney Newspapers to help alleviate a cash flow shortage. His relationship with Frank Packer, who was a kind of filial rival, was increasingly strained due to Warnecke’s belief that he was entitled to a one-third share in the company.
After visiting the printing centres of Europe and the United States, Warnecke found that many executives he had worked with had been replaced, and that he was to be responsible for the relaunch of the morning Daily Telegraph, and the installation of the colorgravure press whose purchase he had arranged. As editor-in-chief of a new company, Consolidated Press Ltd, from 1936, Warnecke felt alienated from his beloved Women’s Weekly. In April 1939 he resigned and, with Nora, left for overseas.
Warnecke spent World War II studying American printing and magazines for the Herald & Weekly Times Ltd (impressing Sir Keith Murdoch with his ‘deep and sound criticism’ of newspaper matters), and working for the McLure Newspaper Syndicate, the US Office of War Information, and David Yaffa’s Australian trade publication Newspaper News in New York.
Moving between Australia and the United States after the war, Warnecke dabbled in various publishing enterprises, including comics and Family Circle, contributed to Newspaper News, and continued to consult for Murdoch. Transactions over a decade finally resolved the issue of his shareholding in the Packer business, with a relieved if not greatly enriched Warnecke privately recording in 1957 that it was ‘good to feel free, even if slightly tattered’.
Warnecke then fulfilled his long-standing promise to return to Ireland with Nora, who died in 1969. Childless, he became patriarch of the Irish-Australian society and kept an eye on Australian political and media developments.
Although his ties with the Packers had been severed for 20 years, he was delighted to be contacted in 1977 by Ita Buttrose, head of women’s publishing at Consolidated Press, asking him for his recollections of the Women’s Weekly.
Warnecke worked on his never published memoirs, poignantly entitled Miracle Magazine, and died, aged 86, in 1981. The creative genius behind what was, for decades, the highest per capita circulation magazine in the world, and an astute publishing strategist and critic, came to realise that he had a “kind of immature simplicity” that cast him in the role of kingmaker rather than of king.
Bridget Griffen-Foley is a Professor of Media at Macquarie University, where she founded the Centre for Media History.
George Warnecke as a soldier with the Australian Imperial Force (19th Infantry Battalion) during WW1. Courtesy of Meg Sordello
George Warnecke with niece Julie Scott. Courtesy of Julie Scott
Portrait of George Warnecke, courtesy of Julie Scott
The House of Packer: The Making of a Media Empire, B. Griffen-Foley, Allen & Unwin, 1999.
The Weekly. A Lively and Nostalgic Celebration of Australia through 50 Years of its Most Popular Magazine, Denis O’Brien, Penguin, 1985.