OBSERVING CHANGE: “Change is constant at the Observer.” That’s how the editor in chief of the New York Observer, Aaron Gell, summed up his demotion during a 40-minute Friday afternoon staff meeting at the paper’s West Side offices.
Gell, the paper’s owner Jared Kushner had revealed that morning, was being replaced as editor in chief by Ken Kurson, a longtime journalist and political insider with close ties to Rudolph Giuliani. He starts Monday, while Gell was invited to stay on in his previous role as executive editor. Gell could not be reached for comment.
The news caught staffers by surprise, but it has been in the works for some time. Kurson was hired as a consultant on budgetary questions sometime early last fall; he said at the meeting Kushner approached him six months ago. In October, several months after the Observer’s second to last editor, Elizabeth Spiers, resigned, Kurson started making appearances at the weekly’s offices. Among the Observer’s tight-knit and small staff, the presence of the fortysomething interloper with the receding hairline did not register. The editors he interviewed in his role as a consultant dismissed him as another one of Kushner’s enforcers.
In his seven years as owner, Kushner has been consumed with running a weekly newspaper with fewer resources, and Kurson, in his interviews with editors, would often bring up the question of “Can we do more with less?” a source said, even though by then, the paper had a staff of about 30 for both print and online editions.
No one expected Kurson to rise to the post of editor in chief, a tony position once occupied by some of the most veteran Manhattan editors, including Graydon Carter and Peter Kaplan, now editorial director of Fairchild Fashion Group. Kushner unveiled the shake-up in a Friday morning e-mail to staff, many of whom had just returned from their holiday vacations. Several reporters weren’t even in the building. Gell, who was in his office, seemed blindsided, according to an insider. It was the latest change Kushner has signed off on in recent weeks — on Dec. 28, he sold the building that houses the Observer for $95 million.
Kurson is the sixth editor Kushner’s gone through in the seven years since he bought the paper from Arthur Carter in 2006. Kaplan left three years after the purchase, quickly followed by Tom McGeveran and Kyle Pope, who was on the job for only a year. Spiers lasted a little over the year, finally calling it quits last August at the same time as the Observer Media Group’s Christopher Barnes. Both cited an interest in new business ventures, plans that haven’t yet been revealed, though sources at the time attributed their departures to Kushner’s insistence on running the paper on the cheap.
Gell, who’d been brought in as executive editor in 2011, stepped in after Spiers. A veteran of W and Radar magazines, Gell publicly assumed the title of editor in chief and seemed to relish its high profile, often notching appearances at media events sucking on his electronic cigarette and starting conversations with the more well-known faces in the crowd.
The Observer has bled talent since last summer, including several that Gell had personally mentored. He was not able to reverse the bloodletting, but he signed up a number of established contributors, like media columnist Cynthia Cotts and former Observer scribe George Gurley. Though Gell still freelanced — most recently for WSJ. magazine — he continued to write longreads for the Observer; for instance a cover feature two weeks ago on gallerist Larry Gagosian. But while he was well-liked by the staff, no one expected him to hold on for much longer beyond the new year in his role, several staffers said, though the announcement Friday struck them as abrupt.
“The truth is, he was always interim. He was promised orally by Jared he’d stay on until the new year. It was going to happen sooner or later,” an insider said. “[Gell] was hoping to wish it away.”
Kushner, it seems, had never seen Gell as anything but a seat-filler.
“When Elizabeth stepped down [Gell] was gracious enough to become the interim editor through the end of 2012,” Kushner wrote in his message to staff.
Gell toed the line on Kushner’s money demands. After his ascension, he was not given the resources to replace staffers who’d departed or those who had been laid off. In Kurson, Kushner earns an editor who is also mindful of money — “I won’t lie to you, there won’t be any new resources,” he told staff, which consists of roughly 20 full-time editors and reporters. But Kurson is also much more than a thrifty editor with an eye on the bottom line.
In his address to staff, Kurson described the Kushners as a second family and his new boss as “one of my closest friends.” In his memo, Kushner described Kurson as “a journalist and an author and through his years as a consultant observed the figures who create the framework of business, politics, media, tech, culture and real estate in our city.” Through a spokesman, Kushner declined further comment.
When Kushner told Kurson he’d buy the Observer, “it was like your dad coming home and saying he’d bought your favorite candy store,” Kurson said. The two also share political inclinations.
Kushner’s family has long raised money for Democratic politicians. But the younger Kushner has shown an affinity for Republicans, raising money for Giuliani’s first presidential exploratory committee. More recently, the paper surprised many by endorsing Mitt Romney in the presidential campaign. In the Friday meeting Kurson was impressed by the “off the charts” traffic numbers the Romney editorial had pulled.
Kurson, who in his 20s founded a number of punk bands, remade himself in the Nineties as a personal finance expert and still writes a column titled The Portfolio for Esquire, where he is a contributing editor. Later, he struck a friendship with Giuliani, serving as the chief operating officer of the former mayor’s presidential exploratory committee as well as deputy director of communications for the consulting firm Giuliani Partners. His biography at Jamestown Associates, a political consulting firm that has worked for several Republican politicians, including Chris Christie, notes Kurson wrote Giuliani’s 2004 and 2008 Republican convention speeches. Kurson, whom the Times described as Giuliani’s “worshipful scribe,” also co-wrote the mayor’s campaign tome, “Leadership.”
More recently, Kushner’s and Giuliani’s interests have coincided in the nascent candidacy for mayor of Joseph J. Lhota, the former chief of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority.
Giuliani, long out of the limelight, has recently put his financial muscle and connections to back his former deputy mayor, while Kushner backed Lhota’s all but announced campaign in a fawning January editorial.
“Firstly, and perhaps most importantly, his presence in the campaign immediately raises the level of competence in the candidate pool,” it read.
Kurson told staff he had long been an admirer of the paper, and had become more impressed in his six months shadowing the staff.
“Just yesterday I was looking at the Drudge Report…and I clicked through [a link] and it was an Observer story, and I felt a surge of pride,” he said. He reassured staffers he’d be around for the next 40 years. The staff, afterward, retreated to the umpteenth smoking break of the day.