Media: Not being able to help was agony: Angela Willans spent 29 years giving advice to 'Woman's Own' readers. But she left when her editors put costs first

THE turn of the year has been an unsettling time for us aunts. Virginia Ironside was sacked from the Sunday Mirror, Marje Proops let the skeletons out of her cupboard, Claire Rayner was still without a problem page in the press, and I resigned from Woman's Own.

I had hoped to emulate Marje and go on till I could no longer raise hand to word processor. As it turned out, I just managed to reach my 30th year but not complete it. I am proud of 28 of those years - the 29th I am glad to put behind me.

To understand why I resigned it is useful to know two things. One is that there is a certain degree of tension between the journalistic side of this mongrel job and the help-giving side. This in turn leads to conflict over what readers show they are actually worrying about in their cries for help and the more titillating and entertaining worries editors imagine or wish their readers had.

So there is the agony aunt's very own dilemma. If the 200-plus letters you are getting every week are not titillating at all but are about broken hearts, loneliness, despair, rejection, feelings of inferiority, the search for love and the loss of it, bereavement, bullying, domestic violence, abuse of all kinds, family break-up, debt, unemployment, loss of confidence and self-esteem - and only a few of them have anything approaching the required spiciness - well, you then have to think about inventing letters to go on the page. Since I have all but jumped down the throats of the hundreds of people whose first question about the page is 'You make up all the letters, don't you?' it comes particularly hard to discover that fiction is precisely what is wanted.

However, even that might have been tolerable if the second reason for resigning had not happened.

From the time I joined Woman's Own, way back in 1963, the magazine always provided a fully funded, behind-the-problem-page service for giving personal help to those readers who wanted it. This entailed a staff of letter writers trained in the counselling approach, a vast range of leaflets, book lists, information sheets, a network of contacts in the field of social, domestic, emotional and relationship and family problems, and a high degree of responsibility and confidentiality.

It was not cheap to run, but it seemed to me - and clearly to the managers and editors at the time - to make economic sense. The evidence from the post is that when someone has received the help she wanted, she sees the magazine as a friend and remains a reader for life. In fact, more than a quarter of a million personal replies in my name have gone out to readers over the years and that, to me, sounds like garnering the kind of goodwill that holds on to circulation or even increases it.

The existence of the personal service also made moral sense. I believe that the only justification for inviting readers to send in their worries is that you actually give them the help they ask for. (With only five letters published per week, the shortfall of unanswered letters hardly bears thinking about.) Without this individual attention to every troubled reader, the magazine seems to me to be cynically asking people to send in their cries for help solely for the entertainment of other readers.

So it was truly my turn for the bleeding heart when, just before Christmas 1991, I was told that the personal reply service was to end - completely, finally and within a month. The job's feel-good factor ended with it. Before long, there was the chilling little note that appears at the foot of so many problem pages now - 'so and so is unable to reply personally'. The post went right down and up went my anxiety for all those people who had lost a desperately needed hand in the dark and, alongside the anxiety, a deep feeling of shame that I had let them all down.

Agony aunts are a strange breed, tending to insecurity and to identification with the lost child in everyone. I think that what we all have in common - apart from being competent journalists - is the need to be needed. That is why we get such great satisfaction out of responding to people in trouble with all the resources we can muster, both from within ourselves and from the employing newspaper or magazine. After a few months of struggling to adjust to what was virtually a completely different job, and not one I was proud of, I gave in and gave up.

There is a marvellous sense of release now that I am not working against the grain of my own nature and 29 years' experience. But I take with me one big question. Now that more and more newspapers and magazines are losing sight of their readers as people and seeing them merely as figures on a balance sheet, where do they go now, all those people who looked to a familiar friend on their favourite journal for comfort, information, advice and a listening ear? An even bigger question is - does anyone care?

(Photograph omitted)

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
News
Starting the day with a three-egg omelette could make people more charitable, according to new research
science
News
Top Gun actor Val Kilmer lost his small claims court battle in Van Nuys with the landlord of his Malibu mansion to get back his deposit after wallpapering over the kitchen cabinets
people
News
Comedian Ted Robbins collapsed on stage during a performance of Phoenix Nights Live at Manchester Arena (Rex)
people
News
The actress Geraldine McEwan was perhaps best known for playing Agatha Christie's detective, Miss Marple (Rex)
peopleShe won a Bafta in 1991 for her role in Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit
News
newsPatrick Cockburn was able to update his agenda-setting 'The Rise of Islamic State' while under attack in Baghdad
News
Robert Fraser, aka Groovy Bob
peopleA new show honours Robert Fraser, one of the era's forgotten players
Life and Style
Torsten Sherwood's Noook is a simple construction toy for creating mini-architecture
tech
Sport
David Silva celebrates with Sergio Aguero after equalising against Chelsea
footballChelsea 1 Manchester City 1
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs Media

Recruitment Genius: Online Media Sales Trainee

£15000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Now our rapidly expanding and A...

Ashdown Group: Lead Web Developer (ASP.NET, C#) - City of London

£45000 - £50000 per annum + Excellent benefits: Ashdown Group: Lead Web Develo...

Recruitment Genius: External Relations Executive

£33000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An External Relations Executive is requi...

Recruitment Genius: Senior Digital Project Manager

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: This established Digital Agency based in East ...

Day In a Page

As in 1942, Germany must show restraint over Greece

As in 1942, Germany must show restraint over Greece

Mussolini tried to warn his ally of the danger of bringing the country to its knees. So should we, says Patrick Cockburn
Britain's widening poverty gap should be causing outrage at the start of the election campaign

The short stroll that should be our walk of shame

Courting the global elite has failed to benefit Britain, as the vast disparity in wealth on display in the capital shows
Homeless Veterans appeal: The rise of the working poor: when having a job cannot prevent poverty

Homeless Veterans appeal

The rise of the working poor: when having a job cannot prevent poverty
Prince Charles the saviour of the nation? A new book highlights concerns about how political he will be when he eventually becomes king

Prince Charles the saviour of the nation?

A new book highlights concerns about how political he will be when he eventually becomes king
How books can defeat Isis: Patrick Cockburn was able to update his agenda-setting 'The Rise of Islamic State' while under attack in Baghdad

How books can defeat Isis

Patrick Cockburn was able to update his agenda-setting 'The Rise of Islamic State' while under attack in Baghdad
Judith Hackitt: The myths of elf 'n' safety

Judith Hackitt: The myths of elf 'n' safety

She may be in charge of minimising our risks of injury, but the chair of the Health and Safety Executive still wants children to be able to hurt themselves
The open loathing between Barack Obama and Benjamin Netanyahu just got worse

The open loathing between Obama and Netanyahu just got worse

The Israeli PM's relationship with the Obama has always been chilly, but going over the President's head on Iran will do him no favours, says Rupert Cornwell
French chefs get 'le huff' as nation slips down global cuisine rankings

French chefs get 'le huff' as nation slips down global cuisine rankings

Fury at British best restaurants survey sees French magazine produce a rival list
Star choreographer Matthew Bourne gives young carers a chance to perform at Sadler's Wells

Young carers to make dance debut

What happened when superstar choreographer Matthew Bourne encouraged 27 teenage carers to think about themselves for once?
Design Council's 70th anniversary: Four of the most intriguing prototypes from Ones to Watch

Design Council's 70th anniversary

Four of the most intriguing prototypes from Ones to Watch
Dame Harriet Walter: The actress on learning what it is to age, plastic surgery, and her unease at being honoured by the establishment

Dame Harriet Walter interview

The actress on learning what it is to age, plastic surgery, and her unease at being honoured by the establishment
Art should not be a slave to the ideas driving it

Art should not be a slave to the ideas driving it

Critics of Tom Stoppard's new play seem to agree that cerebral can never trump character, says DJ Taylor
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's winter salads will make you feel energised through February

Bill Granger's winter salads

Salads aren't just a bit on the side, says our chef - their crunch, colour and natural goodness are perfect for a midwinter pick-me-up
England vs Wales: Cool head George Ford ready to put out dragon fire

George Ford: Cool head ready to put out dragon fire

No 10’s calmness under pressure will be key for England in Cardiff
Michael Calvin: Time for Old Firm to put aside bigotry and forge new links

Michael Calvin's Last Word

Time for Old Firm to put aside bigotry and forge new links