Firm hand at the tiller of The Irish Times

Louis O’Neill: November 3rd, 1931 - October 31st, 2014

Louis O’Neill speaking in the Irish Times newsroom at a presentation to mark his retirement in 1999. Phtograph: Frank Miller

Louis O’Neill speaking in the Irish Times newsroom at a presentation to mark his retirement in 1999. Phtograph: Frank Miller

 

Louis O’Neill, who has died aged 82, was a newspaper executive of great ability who rose to become chief executive of The Irish Times Ltd and was a pivotal force in securing the company’s commercial success.

He was a founder of the National Newspapers of Ireland (NNI) and its first publisher chairman, a post he held for over eight years.

More than others, he realised that newspapers acting in concert could be more effectual and his determination to establish the NNI’s advertising awards paid rapid dividends for the industry as a whole. He was honoured with the McConnells Award for Services to Advertising.

While naturally reserved and low-key, Louis had foresight and determination. In 1986, he pushed The Irish Times into purchasing a colour printing press amid much scepticism, both within and without the industry, that advertisers and readers would embrace it. Louis was proved right and the industry had no choice but to follow suit.

Louis O’Neill was born in Sandymount, Dublin in 1931 to Christopher and Margaret O’Neill. He was the youngest of three siblings.

He was educated at the local Star of the Sea school and thereafter with the Christian Brothers in Westland Row. He studied accountancy and secured employment with the Radio Review and the Dublin Evening Mail, both of which had troubled finances and had come into Irish Times ownership.

Neither publication survived, but Louis’s ability had been recognised and he took up employment as accountant for The Irish Times itself.

Diversification

The company at that stage was experiencing great financial difficulty, as were many others, in the recession borne of the oil price rise.

Louis brought fairness, affability and resolution to righting the finances of the company and became in turn group managing director and finally chief executive, aided hugely throughout by his personal assistant, Alice Nelson.

It was in 1986, when The Irish Times received a windfall from its Reuters shares, that Louis identified colour printing as a must-do development for the paper’s future.

Despite the advances of colour in magazines, the newspaper industry – almost worldwide – was slow to follow suit. Most journalists were of the opinion that colour had no place in newspapers, especially as regards photography. However, advertisers loved it (and more importantly, were prepared to pay more for it) and not long afterwards the editorial side joined the party enthusiastically.

Electronic and web

The Irish Times

His (and McDowell’s) support for improvements to the newspaper and his determination to work in a collaborative manner with editors Douglas Gageby and Conor Brady helped drive circulation and profits at the newspaper to undreamt of heights.

“Louis insisted on financial discipline, but he also understood that without creativity and innovation a media company cannot thrive,” Conor Brady says.

Louis retired in 1999, eight years past his official retirement age. He realised that chief executives needed to be respected more than liked.

But on the occasion of his retirement, the National Union of Journalists hosted a luncheon to celebrate his service; something the union never did for a commercial chief. As was made plain in the speeches at the event, Louis was both respected and liked.

While he was apprehensive about it, retirement suited him. With friends he purchased a 44’ yacht, Cracker, which sailed out of the Royal St George in Dún Laoghaire. It was always well-crewed, so much so that it was joked that Louis could enjoy the view and read the newspaper while others did the work.

Syndicate

He also found time to serve on the Dublin Diocesan Finance Committee where, as was mentioned at his funeral, he became aware of the very low pensions that retired priests were expected to live on. Their lot was improved at Louis’s urging.

Louis was a private person and serious-minded, but he liked good company and loved his family, who meant everything to him.

He is survived by his daughters, Deirdre, Jean and Denise, his son, Stephen , sister, Kathleen (Hoban), and nine grandchildren. His wife, Vera, predeceased him four years ago.