1:18 pm Feb. 4, 2011
So what does everyone think of the news that just broke, that Elizabeth Spiers is to be the editor of The New York Observer?
In some ways there is an inevitability here. From the mists of time, Nick Denton's original manifesto for Gawker:
Gawker is an online magazine for Manhattan launching in January 2003. It’s target audience is the city’s media and financial elite. Think of it as the New York Observer, crossed with Jim Romenesko’s MediaNews. The publication will be supported by advertising, primarily from real estate brokers and luxury goods retailers.
Denton found Elizabeth Spiers, whose writing appeared on a blog called Capital Influx that was published by a venture capital firm.
The first thing I remember reading by her was a post about the quest for the perfect cocaine dealer on the Lower East Side. (I can't seem to find the link, so anyone out there to give us a hand? UPDATE: Here it is.) It was thrilling—and set off all kinds of danger signals to those of us who were laboring in the towers of established New York media. All this anonymity! And all this slangy talk and unpleasantness! And all of it served up so temptingly!
It was a breath of fetid air, and we like that, we journalists. I was seated in those days (along with my co-editor here, Josh Benson) in the back room of the fourth floor of Arthur Carter's musty townhouse on 64th Street. I don't think too many of the other editors at the time were paying much attention to Gawker. But from Elizabeth onward, Gawker was introducing the kind of new talent to New York media that we'd prided ourselves on having the jump on.
Full disclosure: I of course preceded the outgoing Kyle Pope as editor of the paper. There are now very few people left there on the editorial side who were there when I was. But I still have a rooting interest in the place. It's a beautiful brand that means something. For a time, it seemed, Gawker would mean that instead. Denton has since been explicit about the fact that it won't, and that they've got bigger fish to fry. That's fine for Gawker. But New York still needs to have something to itself.
I never quite lined up the golden era of the Observer with the time period David Carr and other media historians did. But I know what they mean when they say it: The Observer is needed whenever the rich get too rich, to remind them of themselves. It's not the Village Voice because it doesn't exactly crusade. The astringency of the Observer always came from the fact that its phalanx of young reporters refused to shoot peas with straws at the people who were more powerful than they were, but instead surprised them by showing up a their parties trained to make them nervous, make them jump a little. The best Observer reporters were always the ones who made no apologies for their age or their intelligence, were never humble, never resigned, and always hungry.
The excesses of New York's power elite are not the same as they were in the mid-to-late '90s; they're qualitatively different. The Observer will have to find a way to plug into them, to speak the patois that is being developed at Le Cirque at the table with Michael Bloomberg, not the echo chamber of media-tweeters and lunchers at Michael's. They'll have to come to grips with the city as it is now: a laggard in the itineraries of the new global elite, an international backwater where the unbelievable happens regularly.
My next disclosure is that I know and like Elizabeth Spiers, and have great admiration for her ability to pick up the frequency that New York's power elite is transmitting on, hack it, and broadcast it. It would be great to see her succeed again.