ELIZABETH SPIERS: ‘New York Observer Was Sluggish When I Got Here And Now It’s Back On Track’


The visual metaphor is obvious.

Last week, Elizabeth Spiers — Gawker founder, Breaking Media founder, and currently editor-in-chief of the New York Observerposted a picture of the new workspace at her paper along with a caption reading “the new Obs bullpen is nearly done…”

Spiers, who started at her post in February, is the third editor at the small but influential publication — this, invariably, is how the salmon-coloured weekly is described — since Peter Kaplan left in July, 2009.

During that period, morale sunk as editors battled publisher Christopher Barnes, the edit staff departed en masse, and owner Jared Kushner hemorrhaged cash.

So, the NYO under Spiers: A publication in need of renovation, just like the offices on 44th street.

Except the metaphor isn’t that simple.

Sure, Spiers is recruiting new talent, launching verticals on the website, and redesigning the paper, but she also intends to return the Observer to the paper it was when she mimicked its tone during Gawker’s early days.

“I feel like everybody was a little bit sluggish [when I arrived] because the paper had drifted into this territory that it wasn’t quite what it used to be,” she told The Wire on Thursday afternoon from her office where she can see the revamped bullpen through her glass doors. “I think everybody is happy that it’s going back in the direction that it probably should have stayed on.”

new york observer

Part of the problem was that the massive turnover led to a loss of institutional memory. Spiers instituted Friday meetings where reporters practice the house style through exercises such as putting together an Observer-themed issue of the Observer. The EIC also put the old motto back on the front page: “Nothing sacred but the truth.”

If Spiers has one of her intense eyes focused on the past, however, the other is fixed on the future. She launched BetaBeat and is also planning a visual arts vertical in the fall as well as a residential real estate spinoff “as soon as I can hire a reporter.”

A relaunch of the entire website is scheduled for June 8, and a redesigned print product will come out that day as well. IPad apps, mobile apps, and the rest are in the queue as well.

The financial situation is improving. Advertising is up, and while Spiers’ predecessor Kyle Pope was reportedly “at war” with Barnes, she says her relationship with publisher is solid. Spiers spent plenty of time balancing editorial and advertising when she served as publisher Breaking Media, experience that serves her well in her new position.

“You find more creative ways to do both without compromising the editorial side,” Spiers said, citing a time at Breaking when they wrote code that would prevent airline advertising from appearing next to stories about plane crashes. The result was an editorial team that was free from constraint and satisfied advertisers.

At the Observer, there is a bit of an “if you build it, the money will come” attitude.

“In as much as I have P&L responsibilities, it’s more about controlling the expenses. I feel like if we do a good product, it’s going to be successful financially. You’re already starting to see that,” she said.

“Hudson News offered to pick up the paper again because they liked the covers. We don’t do a lot on the newsstand, but that’s not a minor thing. Getting better distribution for the paper is important. The more we ramp up the web traffic, the more salable the whole site is from an ad perspective. And if we’re targeting the audience correctly, you get this great, highly affluent, New York centric demographic that’s really easier to sell.”

trump kushner

Spiers, whose ongoing feud with Michael Wolff gives media reporters fodder, has a bigger personality to worry about: Donald Trump, Kushner’s father-in-law.

Gawker called out the NYO for its “Trump problem,” but Spiers thinks the coverage, which includes a long story published last month, has been “very straight.”

“I’m not saying that we haven’t had some tense conversations about it, but I think we all came out mostly unscathed,” she said. “It’s funny. I think neither Jared nor I anticipated this would be an issue.”

With The Donald giving up on his hope of winning the GOP nomination, it likely will not be again. Which is fine, because the Observer needs more compelling targets. Putting power in New York in its place; that is the job of the editor and her staff.

“You figure out who the sacred cows are who need to be eviscerated and you do it,” Spiers said.

From her position, the office looks just fine.