The Observer was designed in 1987 to look as if it had been around forever, a charming, unchanging, sui generis New York institution. And the paper has become more or less that: a single editor-in-chief for the last twelve years, the only redesigns mere tweakings, circulation always around 50,000, budgets achingly small, profits nonexistent, and always maybe kinda sorta for sale.
According to Peter Kaplan, the Observer ’s editor, “Arthur’s called with buyers 20 or 30 times.” He means Arthur Carter, who founded the Observer after making his fortune on Wall Street. But apparently only once, in 1999, was a deal anywhere close to consummated—with Conrad Black, before he became an indicted corporate kleptocrat. “Conrad was a half-hour away from happening. Releases went out—and Arthur turned” with “incredible prescience” and called it off.
But now Carter really and truly has put the paper on the block. A sale, it seems, is imminent. Because he is almost 75? Maybe, but there is also a curious clockwork symmetry to the arc of his media mini-moguldom. In a dozen years during the eighties and early nineties, he became the owner of several twee weeklies, launching the Litchfield County Times and the Observer , buying The Nation and half the East Hampton Star. And then, during the last dozen years, he has deaccessioned each after owning it for exactly one or two decades. The Observer ’s 2007 sell-by date is approaching.
One well-known investor-macher was interested enough to take three meetings—before admitting he just didn’t have the stomach to piss off his friends, whom the paper covers. Mort Zuckerman talked about turning the paper into a Wednesday supplement to the Daily News—a way, finally, to make his friends look at his paper at least once a week. The owners of New York looked and passed. Someone representing Ron Burkle called. And during the last month, the news that Robert De Niro and his partners are among the prospective buyers has given the paper a spike of Nobu-esque heat, enticing still more rich, glamourtropic would-be publishers to take a look.
But it is the Tribecans—De Niro; his producer and impresaria, Jane Rosenthal; and her real-estate-investor husband and Film Festival partner, Craig Hatkoff—with whom everyone at the Observer is dying to be in business. Due diligence was in progress last week. Fingers were crossed. “This is it,” says Peter, with whom I have been friendly since college. “Arthur is jazzed. He wants it. He loves these people. Everyone else has only represented money. Arthur was emotionally never ready to release it until he ran into these people.”
“Ran into” them in Observer ishly, cozy-Manhattan-power-broker fashion: Rosenthal, an NYU alumna, and Hatkoff are active board members of NYU’s Child Study Center, where Carter’s wife, Linda, is an associate professor of psychiatry, and Carter is on NYU’s board. “Arthur,” Peter continues, “thinks they’re kindred spirits, that Craig and Jane embody his two sides, the hard business and the creative. They’re very romantic about New York. And the fact that they’re amateurs is a total gift.” He means publishing amateurs, as well as amateurs in the good old-fashioned sense—people who throw themselves into a thing for the fun of it whether or not it makes strict financial sense. Not that these are goo-gooey naïfs. They have been successful in shark-infested businesses. De Niro obviously has plenty of dough, and the Rosenthal-Hatkoffs are worth tens of millions, but if the Observer deal closes, instead of paying much cash up front, Tribeca would agree to cover the paper’s losses going forward—and to keep Arthur Carter involved.
If the deal doesn’t happen, there’s apparently at least one fallback buyer, a well-known local billionaire ready to write a big check. Not to be a buzzkill, but mightn’t the Observer also go the way of other much-loved, undercapitalized New York weeklies, such as the Soho Weekly News and 7 Days? “Arthur won’t pull the plug,” Peter insists. “He’s now very jolly. He’s feeling very good about the world.”
Peter Kaplan’s vision of the city is determinedly black-and-white, a mashup of His Girl Friday, The Big Clock, and March of Time newsreels, with a soundtrack sampled from George Gershwin, Raymond Scott, and Bernard Herrmann. He wears a tie every day, but always loose, with his collar unbuttoned, and a trench coat more often than anyone I know.
The Observer , he says, sounding as always a little pleased to be beleaguered, like Jimmy Stewart on the subject of Bedford Falls, “is a sweaty, grungy little newspaper at a very difficult time for newspapers. We’re a throwback to what newspapers were before objectivity became a mask.”
That’s true. But paradoxically, the paper’s smart-alecky tone and approach are, if you will, a throwback to the future: Typographically, the paper may recall what Pulitzer did in the twenties, but in its opinionated reporting and nonstop attitudinizing the Observer is also modern and bloggy, like the Huffington Post or Slate.