Some Notes on the End of The New York Observer

[I’m writing quite a bit right now about the election and what we can do to combat the negative effects of a Trump presidency, but here is something not Trump-related. Or only marginally Trump-related, at any rate.]

Patch did a little story on The New York Observer ceasing print operations here. The NYO is owned by Donald Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, and I’m a former editor-in-chief of the paper and editorial director of Observer Media Group. I’m quoted in the story, but for a little more analysis, here’s my full response to the reporter:

Hey Brendan — I don’t find it surprising. The print edition of the paper has always been a loss leader and I think Jared thinks that you can just split off whatever’s not making money and then you’re profitable. Which is sometimes the case, but one thing he’s probably overlooking is that at least when I was there, digital sales were often bundled with print and contingent upon print placements. So I don’t know that digital by itself is sustainable — it depends on whether advertisers are willing to pay up for a product package that no longer has the flagship elements: premium feel, large display ads, etc.

That said, the print paper’s coverage has been going south for a while — it seems to be mostly entertainment coverage with a smattering of usual Observer fare about real estate and local politics and a heavily attenuated arts section. It feels more like a free alt weekly than a luxury publication, and the tabloid format doesn’t help.

And the digital version doesn’t offer a corrective on that front. The site traffic appears to be driven by commodity content (aggregation, service-y lifehacker lists, reaction to pop culture events) and the occasional gawking at some Trump-related piece. There’s nothing about it that makes it feel particularly Observer-y. I just took a look at the site, and I’m getting served Google ads. So who knows how sustainable that is?

I wish Jared would have sold it to an owner who cared about developing it, but owning the Observer was never about owning a great newspaper — or even a great business — in the first place. So now that he doesn’t need it to elevate his social profile — the White House will do that just fine — he’s probably happy to throw it away. I’m sad about that, but I also think it would need to be rehabbed editorially to claw back the influence it used to have, and it looks like that wasn’t going to happen anyway. So maybe the demise was inevitable.

Also, someone asked me why Jared didn’t just sell it. I don’t know. When it became clear that he wasn’t going to recapitalize it, and after months of complaining about what a pain it was to own, the then-president of the company (Christopher Barnes) and I broached the subject of allowing us to raise money for it and potentially buy him out. He said absolutely not, and seemed almost offended by the idea. The only explanation that seems plausible to me is that he didn’t particularly enjoy owning the paper — but he didn’t want anyone else to own it, either.

I imagine Donald Trump is going to feel (or does feel already) the same way about the presidency.