Oct 28, 2012
THE OTHER SLANT: The New York Observer’s New EIC, Aaron Gell, talks Peter Kaplan, Jared Kushner, and the Salmon Weekly’s Future
When the economy tanked in 2008, Aaron Gell lost his post as executive editor of Radar, then a print magazine. To soften the blow, he started ASSME (American Society of Shitcanned Media Elites), inviting fellow fireds to meet, drink and discuss the changing (and crumbling) state of their profession. Amid the sinking economy and mass job casualties, ASSME captured the zeitgeist, attracting a whopping amount of media attention (The New York Times, Advertising Age, New York, Gawker, etc.). But just as the group started gaining serious momentum, its leader landed a job as the new editor-in-chief of Hemispheres, United Airlines’s magazine.
Today, Gell is eons away from those drab days. While continuing to ratchet up an impressive portfolio of work at premier publications (The New York Times, Vanity Fair, New York, Details, Elle), he’s also published Speak of the Devil, a riveting Kindle Single about his former colleague, Peter Braunstein, who, one eerie Halloween night in 2005, chillingly turned from journalist to sex criminal.
And this summer, he struck journalism gold when Jared Kushner, the owner of The New York Observer, tapped him to become the paper’s new editor-in-chief, a position Gell calls “the best job in media.”
In his first full-length interview since snagging the top spot, Gell points to the salmon paper’s strong Hurricane Sandy coverage to challenge critics who argue that the Observer lost its “inimitable voice” and editorial heft when legendary editor Peter Kaplan decamped for Conde Nast in 2009. (He also responds to Nathan Heller’s fascinating profile of Kaplan in the September 14 issue of The New Republic.) Herewith, his plans for improving the paper and increasing online traffic–plus, the skinny on what it’s like to work for Kushner.
It’s been two months since you were appointed EIC. We’re curious about the changes readers should expect from the print edition and Observer.com.
Some changes should already be evident. In a nutshell, we’re aiming to bring more voice and point of view to our stories: more ambition, more nuance, more energy and more risk.
One thing that’s becoming apparent is that with readers increasingly finding their news through social networks and sites like Reddit, Buzzfeed and Hacker News, original content has a much better shot at breaking through, because if you publish work that’s fresh and surprising, readers will literally distribute it for you, directly to the people who are most eager to consume it.
That’s a good situation for us because the Observer has never really been in the SEO or aggregation game. We made half-hearted attempts at it here and there, but weren’t any good at it, and we hated every minute. Now the value of that stuff is falling because people don’t tend to share a piece of reblogged content with their friends. We’re finding much more success by simply playing to our strengths. I’ve urged our writers to be less anxious about acknowledging every development on their beat and instead focus on the stories where they can really bring something to the table, whether that’s in terms of reporting, analysis, voice or storytelling.
There’s also a growing emphasis on opinion. I’ve brought on a number of freelance columnists who are just naturally provocative and interesting: Kevin Baker, Nina Burleigh, Ryan Holiday, Joshua David Stein, Eddie Huang, Duff McDonald–and I’m looking to add more. What they have in common is that they’re very strong, singular voices; they’re completely fearless and they have a truly unique way of looking at things. We’re finding that when someone is willing to put themselves out there with a fresh, intelligent take, readers really devour it. Actually, Steph, your breastfeeding piece was an excellent example of that.
We can already see the impact. October was our biggest month ever for traffic on Observer.com, and Betabeat has nearly doubled its numbers since I started.
Some journos we know claim to have stopped reading the paper after legendary editor Peter Kaplan left. They cite a perceived shift from long-form to shorter articles, a certain lack of editorial heft, and the absence of a kind of quirky sense of humor or voicey-ness as reasons they stopped reading. Can you explain how the paper changed after Kaplan’s departure in 2009?
The fact that you’re asking about the Kaplan era four editors downstream is a big testament to Peter’s influence. He’s an extraordinary editor, and he put out a great newspaper. There is no one better. Peter set the standard. That said, Tom McGeveran, Kyle Pope and Elizabeth Spiers did really excellent work as well, and I think we’re publishing a very fine paper now.
It’s also worth acknowledging that the changes at the Observer coincided with an explosion of scrappy online outlets working some of the same territory the paper had to itself for a long time, not to mention the most turbulent period in the media business anyone can remember. The whole industry has been challenged by that, and given that the paper was designed in large part, as a throwback to the broadsheets of the 1920s, there was a pretty big psychic shift that had to happen. I think my predecessors have done pretty well, considering.
What’s an example of a piece you’ve published since beginning work at the Observer that epitomizes the kind of story and sensibility you strive for in the paper as a whole?
I’m probably most proud of our current issue, which closed the day after Sandy hit. Only a few of us were able to make it into the office, but we had reporters all over town doing incredible work. Everyone rallied and worked around the clock to cover the storm. In addition to a number of hard news scoops and dispatches from some of the hardest hit areas, including Hunter Walker’s reporting on the dangers from the flooding of the Gowanus Canal and Jessica Roy in DUMBO, we published some really smart analysis, like Matt Chaban’s story on how the Mayor’s residential rezoning push in waterfront areas like Williamsburg worsened the disaster.
The paper ran a big headline across the front page, NEW YORK TO SANDY: ‘BLOW ME.’ Was there any hesitation about that?
It was the only thing we really considered. I felt like it channeled a certain sense of defiance that New Yorkers were feeling in that moment. I think that’s occasionally the role of a paper like the Observer—giving voice to a certain cathartic, gut-level response that would seem out of place in the Times or New York or another more established outlet. We’d slept in the office the night before, and we were pretty fried and maybe a bit shaken and worried about our friends and families, so that headline came straight from the heart.
In a recent New Republic feature on Peter Kaplan, journalist Nathan Heller writes: “It’s hard to find a major publication right now, in print or online, that’s not in some way flavored by the old Observer: Subtract Kaplan from the media landscape of the past 20 years and you lose The Awl, much of Gawker, and a good bit of Politico, too. You lose many of the most distinctive reporter-stylists at magazines like New York, favorite bylines in the Sunday Times, and even members of the writing staff of Girls.” Do you agree with that assessment?
That’s probably a good one for someone else to answer. Peter is a genius. He’s clearly one of the most influential editors of the last few decades. You probably also have to give some props to Graydon Carter, even though he was at the paper for just a year. Before editing the Observer, he’d created Spy with Kurt Andersen, and you can still detect some faint echoes of that in what we do now as well.
We’re actually celebrating our 25th anniversary this year, and I’ve spent some time poring over the old issues. One thing that has leaped out at me is that the Observer’s institutional voice was never really as monolithic as it has seemed in retrospect. The paper published everyone from Hilton Kramer to Candace Bushnell—and it was the mix that made it really remarkable. Peter was the ringmaster of all that, and maybe more important, he created a culture in which amazingly talented young writers could find a home and make a real mark on the city. Fortunately that hasn’t changed. The talent in our newsroom is just incredible. I cannot imagine a better team.
In the same article, Heller writes that Kaplan held “the belief that writing from your particular experience of a subject was necessary not just for rich reporting and editorial honesty but because it opened up a space for bold intelligence.” Is that your sensibility too?
I guess I have my own sensibility at this point….Harold Bloom had it right about the “anxiety of influence”—creatively speaking, it’s not healthy to dwell too much on what came before. As for my own approach to this, beyond maintaining our long-standing focus on prominent, ambitious, colorful New Yorkers, it probably comes down to having fun. I think there’s a huge fun deficit in the media lately. Everyone’s afraid. We just lost Newsweek, and there have been recent layoffs at Conde Nast, the Times, the Daily, and the Voice, so it’s natural that people would play it safe. But when you’re doing it right, journalism is great fun. I think readers can sense that, and that spirit has always been what I most loved about the paper.
Many are curious about the high turnover rate of the editor-in-chief post: you’re the paper’s fourth editor since Jared Kushner purchased it in 2006. Can you tell us why that is? What it’s like to work with him?
Jared’s a great publisher. I am floored by the level of editorial freedom we have. That’s a very rare thing. I can’t speak to the past, but from my point of view, there’s a natural and perfectly healthy tension between the owner and the editor of any publication, and it doesn’t seem at all surprising that the kind of financial pressures that newspapers have found themselves in during the last few years would tend to draw out those tensions more than usual.
We’ve heard reports about Kushner’s focused commitment to the paper’s bottom line. Can you give us specific examples of how he’s building anew the various aspects of the business (the paper, the sites, etc)?
Under Arthur Carter, the Observer was never expected to be profitable. Jared has been incredibly smart about finding new revenue streams and creating a thriving business. He launched properties like The Commercial Observer, PolitickerNJ, Scene, and YUE, and that has taken a lot of the pressure off of the Observer itself. My focus is on improving the paper and increasing the readership for Observer.com, Betabeat, Politicker and GalleristNY, as well as figuring out how to create content—whether it’s video series, special sections or events—that advertisers are excited about and want to associate themselves with. We’ve got great momentum, and we just appointed an extremely impressive new president, Mike Albanese, from BuzzMedia, so it feels like we’re on the right track.
Are there plans to develop a national focus on Observer.com? And what do those plans look like?
I don’t think it’s a matter of a big transformation so much as increasingly lifting our gaze beyond the borders of Manhattan and seeing the New York part of our identity more as a sensibility than a geographical limitation. The internet has introduced us to readers all over the world, so it’s a logical evolution to broaden our outlook online, in the same way publications like New York, the Times, The New Yorker, and Gawker have been doing. But the paper itself remains extremely New York-centric, and I expect it always will.
With a significant disparity in paid circulation (51,000 paper readers) and online traffic (2.1 million monthly online visitors for all of the digital properties), can you explain the argument for continuing to publish the paper versus moving the entire operation online?
There are a few reasons. First, the paper fuels everything else we do. It’s central to the identity of the whole enterprise. The idea that we are at heart a newspaper carries tremendous psychological weight—it fuels a certain ambition and sense of purpose that is very difficult to recreate with a purely digital product. It makes us work harder. Second, advertisers love it, because although our readership is not enormous, it happens to be extremely influential and financially secure. That makes it an incredible value for luxury advertisers in that they can speak precisely to the clientele that they’re trying to reach. And third, putting out a newspaper like the Observer is just great fun, so as long as you can figure out how to make the revenue support it, why wouldn’t you?
How does the Observer compete with all the smart gossip-news sites it helped spawn?
There are so many outlets doing great work, but I do think there’s something very special about the Observer. We just try to do it better—to offer readers more insight and to be more thoughtful, more amusing, quicker, smarter and surprising.
Whatever happened to that group you started back in 2008, ASSME (American Society of Shitcanned Media Elites), after losing your job as Radar‘s executive editor? Are you still involved with them, or are you less active in the group now that you’ve rejoined the media elite!?
ASSME was never a real organization. When the industry started falling apart in 2008, I felt like everyone I knew in the business needed to let off some steam and take our minds off of the economic implosion we were living through. So ASSME was really just a party theme, but it hit a very raw nerve. Never underestimate what you can do with an open bar and a cute invite.
The idea to turn it into a group blog for underemployed writers came later, but around the time it really got rolling, I wound up getting a new job. Interestingly, two of the main contributors, Drew Grant and Steve Huff, are now at the Observer, so the spirit lives on. I just donated the last of our “Yes We Canned!” T-Shirts to Hurricane Sandy relief, so maybe we’ll see a few around town in the next few weeks.