Anne-Marie O’Neill has worked for some of the biggest names in print media. Originally from Australia, O’Neill was recruited to work at People in the United States after an early career in newspapers. After eight successful years at the celebrity glossy, she moved on to shelter mag Real Simple. During her tenure there, the pub added more than 1 million readers and was No. 1 in circulation growth in its competitive set.
After 15 years on the East Coast, O’Neill realized she needed a change. With her husband and twin boys, O’Neill made the move out West to Los Angeles, where she helped launch Mom.me. She’s currently general manager of the site, which has a distribution partnership with AOL and averages 5 million monthly uniques. Here, O’Neill talks about celebrity news, how she handles the work-life balance and the importance of old-school journalism.
Name: Anne-Marie O’Neill
Position: General manager of Mom.me
Resume: Started her career at News Corp. in Australia, where she was a national correspondent for all of Rupert Murdoch’s seven metropolitan daily newspapers. Started working for Time in Sydney and was later recruited to work for People in the U.S. Worked at People for eight years, first as a senior writer then as a senior editor. Was eventually recruited to Real Simple and became deputy editor. In 2012, she helped launch Mom.me, where she is currently general manager.
Birthdate: November 3
Hometown: Brisbane, Australia
Education: Queensland University of Technology
Marital status: Married with twin boys
Media mentor: “A stand-out for me was Larry Hackett, who was a former editor of People. Larry had a brilliant news instinct, incredible energy. He was always a really shining example of how to get the best out of creative people in a high-stress situation, without being a pill.”
Best career advice received: “Stretch yourself and put yourself in positions that make you uncomfortable because that’s the only way to learn and grow.”
Guilty pleasure: Binge-watching TV shows
Last book read: Where’d You Go, Bernadette? by Maria Semple
Twitter handle: @Momdotme
What sparked your interest in journalism?
I grew up in Australia, and I had always been interested in the news. My father was a news junkie, so I’d get home from school in the afternoon and might get in an episode of Gilligan’s Island, and then it was about three different news shows before dinner. So I’ve always had a love of news and current affairs. I also loved writing. Being able to bring writing and communicating together with being up with what was going on in the world was really what made me interested.
How did you get recruited from Australia to work for People in the U.S.?
I started out my career in newspapers in Australia, and I was lucky enough to land my dream job at the age of 22. I had always wanted to work for news magazines and was a huge fan of Time and managed to wrangle my way into a job at Time in Sydney.
After a couple of years there, one of the editors who had hired me, who was from New York, went back to New York and called me up one day, and said, ‘Would you like to come and work for People for the summer, and if it works out you can stay, and if it doesn’t work out, we’ll hold your job back in Australia?’ I honestly can’t imagine that opportunities like that even happen anymore. I feel like I was incredibly lucky. And so I went to People by myself, in New York City for three months, and it worked out. I had a blast, and it obviously worked out from their end as well, and they asked me to stay.
You went from hard news to doing celebrity journalism. What was that transition like?
Easy and fun. I was there for eight years, and I feel like I had four different jobs there, because every couple of years I would transition from the celebrity world over to the news world, into the human-interest world, and then back to the celebrity world. I worked as a writer for a little while, and then I was promoted to be an editor, and I’d edited all sections of the magazine by the time I left. So it was really very easy to look at celebrities as another kind of news, and a fun kind of news. The way People handled celebrity journalism was with a lot of integrity, and I think that still stands. I think it’s still a brand that people think is truthful, compared with some of the other celebrity reporting that’s out there now.
Did you bring any of your hard-news background to People?
Definitely. Having a background as a reporter, getting training on newspapers, was incredibly valuable and has been valuable my entire career, whether it’s reporting on fashion or beauty, or anything. What I’ve always loved about this job is the variety, so I never felt stuck in a particular niche. I’ve always felt like I can apply the skills that I’ve earned and learned to whatever’s thrown at me. I’ve been lucky to have that kind of training.
What brought about your move to Real Simple?
I had twins. [laughs] Looking after twin babies did not work out very well with working until 2 in the morning twice a week. The People schedule is incredibly grueling. So, just on a personal level, I felt the need to pare back, and I’d always loved Real Simple. Because it was part of the Time Inc. family, I had the opportunity to transition to another title within a company. Also, I’d done a lot of news and I’d done celebrity journalism, and here was this opportunity for me to learn this whole new field, which was lifestyle magazines.
How was this new role different?
It really was flexing different muscles than I’d flexed before. I have to say, one of the most shocking things to me was going from a weekly schedule to a monthly schedule. The pace change is very different, and so at that magazine, which is a very beautiful magazine, and a very well-edited magazine, every little pixel of a picture counted, and every word in a story counted. Having the time to micro-edit and to really take time with photography and with planning — that was a really big difference. At Real Simple, nothing was wasted, photography was very expensive, so stories weren’t ever ditched at the last minute. Everything was very well thought out.
How did you get involved with the launch of Mom.me?
I had another big shift in my life, where my husband and I decided we wanted to move to the West Coast. We’d been talking about it for a really long time, and after 15 winters in New York, this Australian baby decided I needed a beach and some sunshine. My husband had the opportunity to work out here for his job, and I was consulting at the time, so I was doing some magazine development for various different companies.
So we moved to LA, and one of my consultancy clients was a company called Whalerock Industries, and they came to me and said that they had already started developing a mom’s lifestyle website, but they hadn’t really fleshed it out, and would I help? So I came in at the ground level with Mom.me, and really did the entire content strategy, sold it in to advertisers to get some money behind it, worked with product managers and engineers to get the site built, worked with designers and information architects to actually make the site make sense, and brought the vision to life, which was really, really fun and exciting.
What are the site’s content goals?
Mom.me is a very broad site. Probably the primary thing that we focus on is that women who are moms are also women too. We try to cater to women both as parents and as people — that’s why we have both parenting and lifestyle on the site.
And the other thing that we’ve been trying to do is really differentiate ourselves, in terms of the aesthetic of the site. I think that most people are attracted to places and spaces that feel like a nice, calm, beautiful place to be, and a lot of the Web is not a calm, beautiful place to be. A lot of it is overcrowded, a lot of content spaces are throwing things in your face. In terms of the actual content, we’re looking to produce intelligent, thought-provoking stories for parents. We’re producing content to help them through any challenge they might have, whether that’s potty-training or ‘My tween is texting too much.’ We really want to be part of the mom conversation and drive the mom conversation. So that’s one pillar of our content strategy. The other side of it is providing really beautiful, inspiring ideas for living.
What do you think traditional print magazines need to do to adapt digitally?
The advantage that a lot of magazines have is that they have existing brand recognition, and they have existing brand value. As someone who has started a brand from scratch, I really envy that and I wish magazines would recognize that and take advantage of it more quickly. I think that sometimes being part of a very large organization can hinder your growth, digitally.
It is also a brave new world. You’ve got to be brave in the digital space, and I think there’s a lot of bureaucracy in magazine world because of the size of the companies that produce magazines. Getting things done quickly online is important because by the time you get around to starting something, someone else has done it. So I think that moving more swiftly and being more nimble would be great for magazines going online, but I also think recognizing and leveraging the brand power that they already have is crucial.
What advice would you give to aspiring journalists?
I really sympathize with young people entering journalism right now. I think it’s much more difficult than it was when I started out. The industry has shrunk, but I still think there are opportunities there and I think the best piece of advice would be to diversify. And by diversify, I mean learn as much as you can about all different facets of the job, whether it’s print or digital. Learn to write or broadcast in as many different ways as you can, whether it’s long form, short form or soundbites. The opportunities are shrinking, and they’re going to keep changing, so you’ve got to adapt. Suck up as much education as you can, learn from people who came before you, and be flexible and adaptable.
Finally the thing I would say is, pick up the phone. That’s the one thing that drives me crazy at the moment about journalism, is that when it used to be in my day that if you wanted someone, you’d pick up the phone. I can’t tell you how many people come to me and say they haven’t been able to contact somebody, and I’ve asked them what numbers they’ve found for them. Do they have their cell number? Well, no, they just haven’t answered their email. That’s not journalism, you know? You’ve got to be more scrappy and savvy than that. You’ve really got to get out there, pick up the phone, shut down your computer and go and do the actual job of reporting.
Aneya Fernando is the associate editor at Mediabistro. Follow her on twitter @aneyafernando.
Also read: How To Pitch: Mom.me. [sub req.]
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
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