A unique publication leaves print behind

By Tom Allon

Out of the depths of the 1987 stock market crash emerged a salmon-colored weekly newspaper, The New York Observer, that animated and chronicled New York’s halls of power for almost three decades until its sad death last month.

It would probably be unfair to say that the Observer is the first media casualty of the Trump era, but you wouldn’t be that far off—the print edition of The Observer, owned by President-elect Donald Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, was shut down the same week as the stunning presidential victory.

I have marveled at the small but influential newspaper’s arc for the last 30 years from a unique vantage point — first as an editorial competitor, then as someone who The Observer tried to hire, then as a publishing competitor and also as someone who bid to buy it in 2006 when Kushner bested my company’s offer by quite a few million dollars.

The Observer’s death has not received nearly enough ink (or pixels) this past month. The weekly had outsize influence despite its limited circulation of 50,000: elected leaders, Wall Street titans, media moguls, East Side socialites and others who were part of the Manhattan elite cared deeply about its contents each week.

An all-star team of media talent graced its staff box over the years: Graydon Carter (Vanity Fair), Susan Morrison (The New Yorker) and the late great tweedy editor Peter Kaplan steered The Observer through the thicket of BS and self-importance that litters the streets of Manhattan.

The gossipy weekly also boasted an impressive stream of columnists including: Candace Bushnell (Sex and the City), Jack Newfield, Joe Conason, Terry Golway, Michael Thomas, Jim Ledbetter, and Michael Tomasky. These smart and punchy pundits made the weekly a must-read for more than two decades and each of them eventually moved on to make their mark in larger media ponds.

I recall my first visit to the Observer’s cramped offices in an East 60s brownstone in 1990. The founding editors, John Sicher and Ken Paul, two of the most serious and ethical journalists I’ve met, wanted to see if I’d like to join the staff as a weekly media columnist, a dream job that to this day I lament turning down. A few years later, when I had crossed over to the business side of publishing, founding owner Arthur Carter offered me the publisher role and once again, I demurred because I thought that this media gem could perish any day.

Arthur Carter was a fascinating New York personality who is the last of a dying breed: a multimillionaire who was willing to finance great journalism at his own expense. The Observer was rumored to be losing at least $2 million a year and yet, Carter kept on feeding his journalism machine so that it could produce some of the best stories by some of the best journalists in the hyper-competitive media capital of the world.

Someone once said to me that The Observer was “Arthur Carter’s gift to New York,” and that sounds right because he lost more than $40 million during a 20-year period in his quest to ensure that his weekly was a key player in the New York media landscape.

But even mega millionaires have their limit: in 2006, Arthur Carter sought a buyer for The Observer and after I tried to pry this media gem loose for about $1 million, another, much more deep-pocketed buyer emerged: 25-year-old Jared Kushner, from a New Jersey family that had recently suffered some legal problems. It was a perfect fit: a money-losing media property in search of a savior and a wealthy real estate family seeking to make a splash in Manhattan.

The last decade of The Observer coincided with the most turbulent period ever for media. The print publication repeatedly morphed into different formats (broadsheet to tabloid, pink to white) and its website became a more national platform for real estate, politics, technology, and society coverage. Until last month, the print publication hung on for dear life as dailies around the country bled red ink and shrank their newsrooms.

On Nov. 11, three days after the owner’s father-in-law became the leader of the free world, came the inevitable news: The New York Observer would become digital-only

As the publisher of a weekly magazine about New York politics (and a columnist for a chain of weeklies in the boroughs), I am still a big fan of print journalism. There’s nothing like curling up with a newspaper or magazine and reading your favorite writers.

Unfortunately, the once great New York Observer will no longer land in my mailbox every Thursday.

NYO (1987–2016), RIP.

Tom Allon, president of City & State NY, was a Republican and Liberal Party-backed mayoral candidate in 2013 before he left to return to the private sector. Reach him at tallon@cityandstateny.com.

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