After the news of Elizabeth Spiers's appointment as editor-in-chief of the New York Observer, Michael Wolff's AdWeek fired off a bitchy column entitled "Elizabeth Spiers and N.Y. Observer: Married in Hell?" "Few publishers or Web proprietors, in the view of many who have worked with Spiers, would recommend hiring her," wrote scribe Dylan Byers. But the piece went on to quote only Nick Denton and Laurel Touby, as well as "a New York acquaintance," "one of her former co-workers," a "former colleague at New York, and "another person who worked at New York" — some of whom could be the same person, any of whom could be Michael Wolff, who had a column at New York during the brief period of time Spiers worked here.
Byers's second piece is much more thoroughly researched — we hear a wide swath of Observer editorial employees were contacted for the hit. Luckily for Spiers, though, the punch landed somewhere to her right: directly in the face of president Christopher Barnes. According to Byers, young owner Jared Kushner's "apparent faith in Barnes is destroying much of what gives the paper value." Kushner may view Barnes, whose goal is to sell ads at all costs and make the paper profitable, "as a god" — while he is apparently "universally reviled" by staffers. Noting that almost every member of the editorial staff who was at the paper when Barnes started has since left or been fired, business side staffers also complain about the way he publicizes each person's numbers on a whiteboard and counts every phone call made.
On her Tumblr today, Spiers shoots back at Wolff, who she clearly sees as the force behind the AdWeek attacks:
Aside from the fact that the piece is full of factual inaccuracies ... and distortions, it seems as though this purported advertising trade mag has never been anywhere near an actual ad sales operation, where doing things like posting sales numbers publicly is pretty standard. But then again, they recently gave a megaphone to a certain washed-up columnist who now works for them because he doesn’t even have the courtesy to fail *upward*, so he could trash me anonymously as “an ex-colleague who worked with her at New York mag in 2003.”
(Technically he did, but spent so little time in the office—much less interacting with me—that he once had to ask me where the bathroom was, even though he’d been a contributor for years.) ...
I also wonder how long the reporter on the piece will allow himself to be used by a guy with a vendetta and a variety of conflicts (none disclosed, of course) who’s angry that he’s no longer relevant.
"Dylan Byers' stories have been meticulously reported and, judging from my email, terrifically well received. He seems to be describing what many people think but are reluctant to say," Wolff told me just now in an e-mail. "As for me, I have no horse in any of these races. I have been on occasional lunching terms with Elizabeth Spiers — friendly terms, as far as I've known — and don't know Kushner or Barnes at all ... Her enmity is misplaced." Wolff didn't have a comment on whether he himself was a source for Byers.
Well, if anything, this is all an indicator that the Observer is about to get fun again. In one way or another. We've reached out to Kushner and Barnes for a comment. In the meantime, we hear Spiers is trying to make it more amusing on the basic style level. All writers have been asked to rewrite a New York Times article in "the Observer house style" by Friday. It's been a few years since former editor Peter Kaplan steered the paper's prose into the chatty, arch tone for which the paper became famous, so we hear no one there now has a clue what she's talking about. Apparently, writers are worried this is an audition for their jobs. (Spiers has just hired back departed local politics writer Azi Paybarah, in other news.)
In the long term, Spiers might find herself grateful for this particular AdWeek hit piece. If, in a year's time, her efforts to revive the paper have failed and she's out of a job, she at least now has a ready-made scapegoat in Christopher Barnes.
War for the Observer: Management Battles With Legacy [AdWeek]
Update: Jared Kushner tells me, through a spokesman: "Christopher has done a great job changing the culture of the Observer and helping turn it into a business. It has not been an easy task. I am not surprised that some former employees did not welcome fiscal responsibility at the Observer. We believe that you can have a good business and a great editorial product, and that Christopher and Elizabeth will make that happen."