Congratulations on your ascension as a vanity press mogul. You’re not the first moneyed fellow to stretch your personal and social horizons by purchasing or publishing a newspaper, and you won’t be the last. You’re supposed to have paid less than $10 million to grab a controlling interest in the Observer, which is a bargain price to acquire a seat at the prestigious media table. Out in Los Angeles, David Geffen, Eli Broad, and Ron Burkle are soiling themselves in public for the opportunity to pay billions to acquire the not-for-sale Los Angeles Times.
As a vanity press mogul, you join a bag of mixed nuts. There’s real estate’s revenge on journalism, Mortimer Zuckerman, who runs (into the ground) U.S. News & World Report and the Daily News; Philip Anschutz litters driveways with his free daily Examiners in D.C., S.F., and Baltimore; and Bruce Wasserstein extends his claim to being the toughest guy in the room with the American Lawyer and New York. David Bradley conducts etiquette lessons at the National Journal and the Atlantic; Martin Peretz makes the world safe for Israel at the New Republic; and convicted felon Rev. Sun Myung Moon is at this moment preparing us all for the rapture, Korean-style, with the Washington Times and UPI.
As a longtime New York Observer reader, I wish you and it the very best. I hope you profit from these words of advice.
To begin with, what’s your Rosebud? David Carr’s or Kit Seelye’sNew York Times pieces didn’t explain the origin of your interest in journalism. The average vanity press mogul hopes to save mankind, punish his enemies, boost his status, or revisit the remembered glories of putting out a high-school newspaper. Harvey Weinstein didn’t have a Rosebud when he started Talk, and look at what happened to him. If you don’t have a Rosebud, get one, even if you have to make one up. Rosebuds do double-duty as life preservers when everything melts and you need to float above the mess you’ve created.
You’re young—25—and you come from money—your father, Charles B. Kushner, made his millions as a New Jersey developer. Nobody worth knowing resents you for either, so stop protesting that you bought the Observer with the pin money you made flipping Cambridge real estate while a Harvard undergrad, even if it’s true. Americans expect the rich to be lippy about their dough. Also, don’t apologize for the fact that your father is doing jail time for, among other things, campaign-finance violations. The next time somebody pokes you about your dad, grin and say, “Unlike so many disgraced capitalists, he’s not in jail for how he made his money, but how he spent it.”
Speaking of Rosebud and your relative youth, why hasn’t the press compared you to Charles Foster Kane until today (the Guardianand the Independent)? I suggest that you watch Citizen Kane a couple of times for inspiration and drop hints to reporters about the parallels. I also have a great Kane line for you to pinch. When young Kane’s financial guardian asks if the muckraking he’s doing with the New York Inquirer is his idea of how to run a paper, Kane retorts, “I don’t know how to run a newspaper, Mr. Thatcher. I just try everything I can think of.” There’s your motto!
Now, on to the challenge. Observer founder Arthur L. Carter is like Hezbollah: He has succeeded as owner by merely surviving, but the city will judge you a failure if you just survive. Spend beyond Carter’s alleged $2 million annual losses to pave a road to profitability. You already informed the Times of your intention to apply more resources to the paper’s beats. If need be, flip some more real estate, because you’re publishing in the most expensive and competitive market in the country. Restore the second section to the paper by early fall, or else it will look like you’re running the paper on the cheap and nobody will take you seriously.
The good news is that people do take the Observer seriously. It possesses a reputation beyond that of any weekly newspaper in the world that alleges a circulation of 50,000. (How honest are those figures, Jared? I’d love to read an Observer exposé on them.) Among the secrets to the paper’s success has been its voluminous and knowledgeable coverage of the press, New York power and politics, and real estate. Ron Rosenbaum is sui generis. The paper also looks gorgeous. I can’t say enough about the Philip Burke, Drew Friedman, Victor Juhasz, and Robert Grossman cover illustrations. The typography and design makes the paper a joy to read, and I’ve even come to adore the peach newsprint. Folded into heavy cream in a Cuisinart, it makes a winning dessert.
If the Observer is so great, why don’t more people read it? Perhaps because 1) they don’t know about it, and 2) it really isn’t that great. It takes nothing away from Peter Kaplan’s stunning performance as the Observer’seditor to point out that too many Page One stories start out brilliantly but peter out after the jump to the inside. My guess is that the editorial tailors don’t have sufficient time to restitch all half-dozen stories that run on the cover; that the reporters don’t have enough time to adequately report their stories; and that some don’t have enough reportorial experience.
All this excuse-making is bad enough if you’re running the standard found-on-the-floor alt-weekly, but it’s deadly when you’re publishing a newspaper about the New York City elites. It hurts to say so, but the Observer is a power book with a four-cylinder engine under its covers. Boost the paper’s credibility by spending more on reporters and editors, young Jared! Also, the Observer’s well-deserved reputation as the top farm team for New York journalism must die. If you want Kaplan to teach journalism, give him cab fare to the Columbia J-school. If you want him to run a newspaper, spend more money on talent so he can fully exploit the bright young things he’s developed. Establish the Observer as a paper where you can build a career, not just start one.
Write more about sex and the city. Catchy, eh? Why didn’t the Observer parlay Candace Bushnell’s commercial triumph into something lasting? If you want to be New York’s power book but don’t cover sex in all its permutations, you’re not in the game. And shouldn’t that mysterious Guy in the Fedora in your logo have a column of his own?
Back to business and circulation: I don’t know how much revenue the paper takes in from subscriptions and newsstand, but it can’t be enough. Take the paper free, and double the circ to an honest 100,000 in the most demographically desirable neighborhoods. Install an experienced publishing side executive who wants to win, not survive.
Do a better job of defining what the Observer is and is not. If it’s a power book, don’t let anybody beat you on the essential coverage of the media, real estate, local politics, and society. The paper has allowed the New York Times, the New York Post, and New York to encroach on its real estate beat. (The Times has a Sunday real estate magazine coming.) Fight back. Wrestle the restaurant franchise away from New York. Hire New York, the Village Voice, and Time Out’s best ad reps and steal their best clients. Compete, compete, compete.
About the Web: If you were starting the Observer today, you’d start it on the Web, not in print. But you’re not starting the Observer today, so don’t feel compelled to ax the print edition right this minute for migration to the Internet. I believe that newspapers are dying a slow and profitable death and most will eventually segue to the Web. But as a local publication in America’s most densely populated and wealthy city—as a free local publication in America’s most densely populated and wealthy city—these rules don’t necessarily apply to you. As a newspaper publisher, you’re in the manufacturing and distribution business, but as a Manhattan newspaper publisher you’re the beneficiary of compact and reachable readership. Milk the print product for all you can, and create a Web adjunct to drive traffic back to it.
As long as I’m spending your money, think of ways to make the Observer more beautiful. I don’t have any good ideas off the top of my head, so go ahead and throw cash at your design director.
Finally, everybody admires Arthur Carter for never interfering in Observer editorial matters. He laughed whenever Observer editors and writers executed sacred cows. Do him one better by encouraging Kaplan to complete the roughhouse coverage the Observer has already devoted to your confessed-felon father by assigning a soup-to-nuts profile. I know you told the Times that you love your father, but you won’t be a man until you kill him.
What would Charles Foster Kane have done?
You don’t have to become Charles Foster Kane, so avoid over-eating, don’t leave your wife for a bad singer, don’t start a foreign war, and don’t run for president. But feel free to build your own Xanadu. Send additional advice for Charles Foster Kushner to firstname.lastname@example.org. (E-mail may be quoted by name unless the writer stipulates otherwise.)
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