At ‘The New York Observer,’ another account of the editor and president’s departures

Elizabeth Spiers and Christopher Barnes at the Betabeat launch. ()
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Aaron Gell, the newly appointed editor of The New York Observer, has hit the ground running.

In the paper's regular Friday editorial meeting, Gell, who was bumped up from executive editor several days ago, talked to staffers of the weekly broadsheet and web franchise owned by Jared Kushner about the surprising simultaneous exits of Elizabeth Spiers, who'd served as editor for the last 18 months, and Christopher Barnes, who as president oversaw the sales and business side for the past three years.

The version of the story Gell relayed to staff was not quite the same as the one that was delivered Thursday afternoon in an internal memo from Kushner and an item published on the Observer's website.

In those tellings, both executives decided to make the move because they'd each been developing separate plans to start their own companies "for some time," as Kushner put it in his memo, and had been talking to Kushner about their plans.

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But according to people who were in attendance at Friday's meeting, Gell said that part of why Spiers and Barnes left was a disagreement over resources: They wanted to run a much larger enterprise with a bigger budget than Kushner was willing to commit to.

Back in December, as we reported at the time, Kushner, who acquired The Observer in 2006 at the age of 25, signed off on a 25-percent editorial budget increase after Spiers successfully oversaw the launch of several new web verticals that helped boost traffic to observer.com and its affiliated web brands from 890,000 to 2.1 million monthly visitors, according to a post on Spiers' own website. There was talk of spinning off a separate Observer website with a national focus, and of hiring dozens of new journalists across multiple beats. It seemed like things were finally looking up at the perenially money-losing paper, whose parent company, the Observer Media Group, was said to have turned its first small profit at the end of 2011.

Seven months later, the extent to which those plans had begun to materialize is unclear. The newsroom headcount is about the same as it was earlier this year. (There were 21 full-time editorial staffers at the end of 2011; the masthead now lists 26, but at least two of them—not including Spiers—have recently left the paper with no successors named.) And plans for the national site appear to have stalled.

So then what is in store for The Observer?

On Friday, Gell told the troops that he hadn't sat down with Kushner for a full-fledged discussion on the state of the paper, but that when he did speak with Kushner briefly, the 31-year-old publisher and real-estate scion said that he was excited about the Observer's future. Gell also emphasized that he had not accepted the top masthead position on an "interim" basis, as Kushner's memo suggested, but rather that he had agreed to become The Observer's official editor.

Spiers, a digital-media maven who in February of last year became the Observer's third captain (following Kyle Pope and Capital co-founder Tom McGeveran) since the June 2009 departure of long-time editor Peter Kaplan, was conspicuously absent from the meeting because she was in the process of moving to a new apartment in Brooklyn. She was out of the office for most of Monday, too. (Bullpen chatter held that she was still dealing with the move.) The memo from Kushner said she had agreed to stay on at the paper through November in a consulting capacity to see the transition in leadership through.

Meanwhile, Kushner's memo said there was "no timeline" for the departure of Barnes, who joined The Observer in 2009 and led the creation of a stable of ancillary print titles including a commerical real estate trade paper and a monthly New York society magazine.

Gell, a veteran of Radar and W, was hired under Pope, who left the paper last year after he, too, came into disagreement with Kushner. Reached by phone Monday afternoon, Gell declined to comment.

[Disclosure: I worked at The Observer from January of 2008 to April of 2010.]