‘The New York Observer,’ in a bid to go national, will expand its editorial department

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Elizabeth Spiers and Jared Kushner. ()
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The New York Observer is gearing up to go national.

The 25-year-old weekly newspaper is considering spinning off a nationally focused website, and will increase the size of the full-time editorial staff in the New Year in a bid to widen its digital footprint across the U.S., according to people familiar with the paper's expansion strategy.

Elizabeth Spiers, the Observer's editor-in-chief for the past 10 months, outlined the plans in a recent staff meeting, telling her editors and reporters that she would be scouting additional editorial hands across beats including tech, politics, business, residential real estate and pop culture. The newsroom headcount currently stands at 21, the highest number since around this time in 2008.

"It's a step in the direction of expanding far more aggressively," said someone who was present at the meeting.

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Spiers declined to comment.

The Observer has long had a reputation for its influential readership, especially in New York City's media, real-estate and political circles. But digitally, that audience is seen as finally being too small to sustain the scale of expansion owner Jared Kushner wants for Observer Media Group, the umbrella company that publishes The New York Observer, its website, and several other less prominent print and digital publications. 

Spiers, the founding editor of Gawker whose resume also includes a number of successful blog launches, was seen as someone well positioned to tackle this conundrum when she was hired last February by Kushner.

According to newsroom sources, internal measurements have traffic up nearly 80 percent since Spiers took over, to around 1.6 million combined monthly visitors for observer.com and its related sites, PolitickerNY, GalleristNY and Beta Beat. It's an improvement that led Kushner to approve a roughly 25-percent increase in Spiers' annual editorial budget, according to our sources.

Kushner's other titles, meanwhile, including several glossy magazines and a controlled-distribution trade paper reporting on the commercial real-estate industry, are said to be bringing in enough revenue to support an expansion of the flagship.

The main website may eventually bifurcate into two separate URLs, one of which, perhaps nyobserver.com, would house the local content, while observer.com would target a national audience. That way, if there is ever an Observer L.A. or an Observer D.C., the main online destination would serve as an umbrella site. The print edition will remain New York-centric.

In this, the Observer visits a recurring theme for established local publications to "go national" on the Web while maintaining a local focus for print. It's the explicit strategy of New York Magazine and its website, newyorkmag.com; it's also been the way the Daily News made money on the web, by detaching its digital product from its local identity in print.

This isn't the first time The Observer has exhibited national ambitions. The paper used to have a West Coast presence, once maintained by Nikki Finke when she worked there in the mid-'90s. It also flirted with the idea of launching a Beltway edition back in the mid-'00s, though the plans never got off the ground. A deal in 2009 gave Observer Media Group a stake in a Las Vegas glossy lifestyle magazine, Vegas Seven, which the Observer Media Group launched.

But most famously, in mid-2008, Kushner launched a stable of political websites, called the Politicker Network, in 17 states nationwide, with ambitions to expand it to all 50 states as web readership flocked to politics during the 2008 election cycle. The model of office-less, tiny teams to cover each of the 50 statehouses was national and local at the same time: Being local everywhere would create the material for a big, national politics site, it was thought (though a fairly significant D.C. bureau would also have ultimately been necessary).

But the project didn't last for very long. All but the New York and New Jersey editions were shuttered by January of 2009. (PolitickerNY was eventually folded back into observer.com proper. PolitickerNJ is still up and running.)

Spiers is the third editor to top the masthead since longtime captain Peter Kaplan left for Conde Nast in June of 2009. The money-losing broadsheet-turned-tabloid-turned-broadsheet has weathered a wave of defections since then, but the turnover stabilized this past year as Spiers began putting her own stamp on the title. The print edition itself is not yet profitable.

Disclosure: I held several positions in the editorial department at The New York Observer between January 2008 and April 2010, when I left to work at Business Insider.