Cork native mastering media landscape of New Zealand
Wild Geese: Cathy O’Sullivan, editor-in-chief of Fairfax New Zealand
Cathy O’Sullivan: exciting time to be working in journalism
As anyone with even a passing interest in media will know, it’s a challenging time for the industry. As more people ditch newspapers, companies in the sector are having to find new ways to engage readers.
Cork woman Cathy O’Sullivan is among those leading the fight back in her role as one of four regional editors-in-chief for Fairfax Media New Zealand. It is one of the largest media companies in the country and part of the Australian-headquartered media empire, which operates across print, radio and online.
As editor-in-chief for the Auckland region, O’Sullivan leads a newsroom responsible for delivering a local digital audience for Stuff.co.nz, the most popular online website in New Zealand. She is also in charge of the suburban newspaper group, which includes the highest circulation weekly, the Sunday Star-Times, the tabloid weekend paper, the Sunday News and 16 community papers.
O’Sullivan, who has been living in New Zealand for nearly 10 years, was appointed to the role of editor-in-chief last August. Rather than be concerned about a fall in newspaper sales, she thinks it is an exciting time to be working in journalism given that there are now more tools available to help journalists tell stories.
“We’re definitely seeing a decline in print readership, which is natural as consumer habits change but it’s not as pronounced here as it in the US. While it is a little scary seeing that most of our revenues still come from print products, I personally think it is great to be working predominantly online as it is an area where our readership is growing,” she said.
“As with other publishers, we may be losing newspaper readers but one thing we certainly don’t have is an audience problem. We know that people are still very interested in great stories and want us to be the ones to tell those stories.”
Growing up, O’Sullivan always had an interest in media and remembers sitting beside her father reading the then Cork Examiner as a young child. While she didn’t study journalism at university, she spent much of her time as an undergraduate working for UCC’s University Examiner and doing campus radio.
Not surprisingly then, after graduating in 2002, O’Sullivan looked for work in journalism and secured a short-term contract as assistant editor for the now defunct website Europemedia.net. This was an Amsterdam-based site that focused on technology news. Working there sparked an interest in digital media and storytelling which has stayed with her ever since.
“I was only in the job for a short time but it really made me think a lot about technology and the way the media landscape was changing. This was all way before social media existed but even then it was obvious that the way people consumed media was undergoing a big change,” she said.
Returning to Cork after the contract ended, O’Sullivan worked as a sub-editor at the Evening Echo for a few years before the travelling bug got to her and she decided to go backpacking in New Zealand in 2006.
“I travelled around for about six months and fell in love with the place but eventually I started running out of money so decided I better try and get a job. I was in Wellington at that time and so wrote a letter to the editor of the Dominion Post, (a Fairfax-owned city-wide newspaper) who passed it on to the person leading Stuff.co.nz, who duly appointed me to the team.
“At the time, we were basically operating out of a broom cupboard and no one really knew what we did. Most of our colleagues thought we were an IT services desk and would ask for help fixing problems with their PCs,”she said.
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O’Sullivan ended up staying there for more than four years, eventually ending up as news editor. She was then poached by the rival New Zealand Herald in Auckland to work as deputy editor of their website.
“It was quite a roller coaster moving to a new city as we didn’t know anyone there but my move to the Herald coincided with a few of the biggest news stories in years such as the first Christchurch earthquake and the Pike river mine disaster – both of which were huge events in terms of website traffic . . .”
“Stories such as these taught us a lot about what readers were looking for in terms of news coverage and meant that, when the second Christchurch earthquake happened in February 2011, we were primed and knew how best to react in terms of covering the story,” she said.
So successful was the Herald’s coverage that the website won a number of awards and O’Sullivan’s profile grew.
When she was contacted about a possible return to Fairfax last year, O’Sullivan was a little a hesitant as part of her role involved looking after print publications but she was duly persuaded it was a role that was right for her.
“I was told that Fairfax’s strategy was very much about digital being at the centre of everything and that the audience came first, so that enticed me back,” she said.
Now settled into her role and having spent almost a decade away, O’Sullivan, who is a founder member of the Irish Business Network of New Zealand, doesn’t see herself moving back to Ireland anytime soon. But she doesn’t like to rule out the possibility of a return either.
“I’m really happy here but I’d never say I wouldn’t go home or move to some other place. The way my life has worked out is due to me taking chances and saying yes to opportunities so I prefer to keep the door open to whatever happens next,” she said.