SHIFTING SLOWLY: A few weeks ago, Ken Kurson, the new editor in chief of The New York Observer, was at the party for the redesigned New Republic. He had come to the soiree as his boss and friend Jared Kushner’s guest. Only a few journalists were invited to cover it, the Observer’s own media reporter not among them. Kurson didn’t just shmooze, though — he took notes. Like any good editor in chief, he gave the media reporter a few color details of what had gone down at New Republic owner Chris Hughes’ apartment, and that Wednesday the paper carried a friendly party report on the proceedings. Only Kurson couldn’t help but claim some credit for himself — he added an “additional reporting” byline to the item. And he threw in a blurry iPhone snapshot for good measure.
Kurson has been on the job a little over a month, the sixth editor in chief in Kushner’s seven years as owner, and though he hasn’t radically changed the salmon-colored weekly, as some staffers feared, he’s stayed plenty busy. He’s steadily written for the print edition, for instance. Besides the occasional party report, the former punk also has been interested in the music business and start-ups.
One of his subjects was entrepreneur Cotter Cunningham, who now owns a collection of coupon Web sites. Kurson was impressed, describing Cunningham as “the rarest thing in the world of start-ups” — “a humble guy who’s built a profitable company.”
In an earlier incarnation, Cunningham was also one of Kurson’s earliest backers. Well before he was BFF with Kushner and the cowriter of Rudy Giuliani’s biography, Kurson published a successful personal finance newsletter, Green. In 1999, Cunningham, then senior vice president of online publisher Intelligent Life, bought Green to be part of his then-stable of Web sites. Kurson did not disclose their past in the Observer story. He told WWD they haven’t had a financial relationship in years and felt a disclosure was not necessary.
When Kurson took over, it was speculated among staff that a house cleaning would follow. To their relief, that hasn’t happened, though some have left voluntarily. The latest is Patrick Clark, a business reporter who is going to Bloomberg Businessweek.
Another concern was that Kurson’s political past would bleed into the paper’s coverage. Kevin Baker, a veteran journalist who’d been writing a regular column since September, assumed his past critical reporting on Giuliani, including a Harper’s cover story, wouldn’t go over well with the new boss. It didn’t — a source said, at Kurson’s request, the column was killed.
“That was pretty much right away when [Kurson] came in,” Baker said. He wasn’t given a reason, but Baker speculated his politics might have played a role.
“The general feeling was that I was probably too liberal for Rudy’s backers,” he said. Kurson said politics had nothing to do with the end of Baker’s column. “If you read [contributing editor] Nina Burleigh, who’s very progressive, you’d see there’s no litmus test here,” he said.
As for the rest of the masthead and contributors, Kurson has put together a mix of a handful of old faces and some new ones. He’s called on old Observer hands like George Gurley for a piece and has brought back into the fold Shalom Auslander, who hadn’t been in the paper since October. He assigned former New Republic publisher Marty Peretz, who’s more known for his op-eds, a book review. Kurson also assigned his wife Rebecca, a former literary agent who sold a book by Giuliani’s former fire commissioner, Thomas Von Essen, to ReganBooks in 2002, two other book reviews.
Additionally, Kurson hired two young reporters — Stephen Smith to cover real estate and Matthew Kassel to cover culture — and Rafi Kohan, a former contributor to GQ, as a freelance editor.
In smaller ways, Kurson has tweaked several parts of the paper, most obviously in the arts section. Book reviews are now shorter and condensed in one single section Kurson has dubbed “On the Page.” This week, he added comics to the classifieds section.
Though early on Kurson gave staffers the impression that he would shake things up, several say for the time being he’s backed off and stuck to gradual change.
“People to a certain degree are warming up to him, but they’re cautious,” said an insider.
Kurson said he intends to move slowly to make the paper his own. Like he said at his first staff meeting, he intends to be there for the next 40 years.
“I don’t think it’s in need of a big overhaul,” Kurson said of the Observer. “It’s in need of a reinvigoration of energy. But six months later I might feel different.” And, yes, his wife will continue to pitch in the occasional review. “She’s a terrific writer.”