Next Wednesday marks the official re-launch of the New York Observer, an overhaul of both print and online that will represent the biggest change at the paper since new owner Jared Kushner took over in July. Despite rumors of tabloid formats and re-vamped web content, staffers are tight-lipped about the specifics. The re-launch comes at a time of heavy turnover at the paper, as older, more experienced staffers move on and younger ones enter. With Choire Sicha heading back to Gawker, Suzy Hansen preparing to depart for a fellowship and Tom Scocca working on a book in China, every senior editor currently on the masthead will soon be gone. Asked whether junior staffers are feeling any pinch following the exodus, one had this to say: "Choire's last day was [recently], Suzy is gonna be around for the next few weeks, Tom is here sometimes and in China other times, so as far as some editorial guidance gap, if there is gonna be [one], we haven't felt it." Meanwhile the paper has been hiring, bringing in new senior editor Tom Acitelli to cover the beefed-up real estate coverage (currently the paper's most highly-staffed section), plus adding Gillian Regan and David Foxley to the roster as general reporters. The paper's vaunted media team, however, remains woefully underpopulated.
But what of the most senior editorial positions? Editor Peter Kaplan, who has served as the organization's patriarch since 1994, previously enjoyed a close relationship with former owner Arthur Carter, who typically appeared at the office no more than a couple times a year and was only too glad to hand his star editor total editorial control. Now, for the first time in his thirteen-year tenure, Kaplan, who in July referred to the youthful Kushner's "25-ness" as "a huge asset," is working with a new owner who spends nearly every day at the paper's offices, sometimes until 2 AM. "The feeling was with Kushner was that Peter could be his mentor, that he would be a very weak owner," said one former staffer. "Peter would teach him how to be a newspaper publisher...[I]t has not turned out that way." One current staffer describes the situation as such: "Peter hates change and he's also very loyal. It's almost like Jared's speaking a slightly different language than we're accustomed to speaking."
The language of the Observer began in 1987, when Carter launched the juicy salmon must-read for Manhattan's affluent and highbrow. The paper found its current smart, gossipy tone in 1991 under the leadership of a post-Spy pre-Vanity Fair Graydon Carter, replaced for a quick stint by Spy alumna Susan Morrison and followed, finally, by Kaplan, who has since held the reins for almost thirteen years. Under Kaplan, the Observer evolved into a journalistic institution and breeding ground for talented young journalists looking to cut their teeth in New York media, and his early moves including asking then-budding socialite Candace Bushnell to write a column about dating called "Sex in the City." Other high-profile writers such as Alex Kuczynski and Lorne Manley soon joined the roster, and a Golden Age was born in the mid-'90s. "It was the hot place to work," said Bushnell. By mixing scrupulous reporting with cheeky graphics and headlines that don't shy from words like "motherfucker," Kaplan and his cohorts created a unique product that spawned competitors like Radar. "It's [a place where] I can use the 'c-word.' That's an important thing for me," said Simon Doonan, creative director for Barneys New York and Observer Style columnist since 1999.
Described by colleagues as a Mr. Chips-like figure with a fondness for trench coats, Kaplan served as the ultimate patriarch, presiding over the paper's offices in a cramped Upper East Side townhouse that maintained a "1940's newsroom" feel, according to former staff members. When asked to describe him, more than one Observer staffer used the words "fantastic" and "amazing," recalling mentorship, opportunity, and the occasional loan to cash-strapped staffers about to leave the office for dates. Other staffers give mixed reviews, citing midnight-oil closes, haphazard management, and witholding of praise from the daddy figure. "[People] have a love-hate relationship with him," said a former staffer.
It was into this unique and familial environment that Kushner was thrust last July, when he appeared out of nowhere to rescue the Observer from oblivion after Carter declared his intention to sell - really, this time- and lists of potential buyers from Bruce Wasserstein to Robert DeNiro fell through. The 25-year old neophyte who flipped real estate on the side while pursuing his joint NYU law and business degrees became publisher and insta-boldface name, complete with glowing profiles and concomitant muckracking (few reports failed to mention that his father is disgraced billionaire Charles Kushner, the New Jersey real estate mogul who, in August 2004, pleaded guilty to witness tampering, tax evasion, and falsifying campaign-finance reports; though few reports also failed to mention that Kushner was fresh-faced, clean-cut, and not out of place next to models and actresses).
He's also not out of place in the Observer offices, where he is now becoming a fixture, complete with a 23-year-old assistant on staff. All in all, it's a management structure markedly different from the days of former staffers like Sridhar Pappu, Gabriel Snyder, Jason Gay, Rebecca Traister and Ben Smith. Soon after Kushner came on board, the paper was no longer the Observer of star reporters Sheelah Kolhatkar and Gabe Sherman, both of whom jumped to Conde Nast's Portfolio. The loss of Sicha and Hansen further eviscerated the Observer roster, particularly on the media beat; meanwhile, Scocca is time zones away in China.
Things are different, but they could be more different: "The Observer is Peter Kaplan. If that changed, then [it] would be a moment of fear," said a current staff member. That moment came closer recently when Kaplan, as well as managing editor Tom McGeveran, were both approached by other media outlets about employment. Ultimately, both elected to stay at the paper (after reportedly using the outside offers to negotiate a better deal with Kushner).
Still, there is speculation that potential conflict might nonetheless drive Kaplan away. "The extent to which Jared can piss Peter off without his leaving, that's the question," said a former staffer. Both Kaplan and Kushner were respectful (and careful) when describing their relationship: Said Kaplan, "He is the publisher. We see each other now...and we talk on the phone every day," and denied that the two were butting heads. Kushner, too, denied any clashing, saying "Peter and I have been able to work effectively together because we both bring different perspectives to the table. I have a tremendous amount of respect for Peter both as a journalist and as a friend."
So where, then, does that leave the Observer? "The paper is [still] great because it's a map of the inside of Peter's head, and Peter is a genius," said a former staffer. Crucially, though, the organization has retained its essential cartographer: McGeveran. "It's Peter's vision and Tom makes the place work. He's sort of central to its functioning," said one former staffer. So far, despite the skeleton staff and rumors of internal dissatisfaction, the paper seems to have stabilized - just in time for the re-launch. And, at least for the time being, Kaplan seems to be staying put. "You know, I love being here and I love the paper very much...it means more to me than I can tell you," he said. "I get calls now and then but nothing else seems as good."
This post has been corrected. It originally stated that the re-launch would occur tomorrow. In fact it will be on Wednesday, Feb. 14. In addition, New York Magazine was founded prior to the Observer, not after. ETP regrets the error.