I started at the New York Observer a year ago this week as editor in chief and editorial director of Observer Media Group, and it’s been a fantastic year. We introduced a lot of changes, launched several new properties and gained some nice momentum in expanding the Observer editorially and on the business side. Here’s a rundown of what’s happened in the last twelve months:
WE HIT SOME SIGNIFICANT MILESTONES:
PROFITABILITY: The Observer is profitable by a thin margin for the first time in its 24-year history. This is a big, big deal. Credit to Christopher Barnes, who runs the business side, and his sales team.
TRAFFIC INCREASED: When I got to the Observer, the Observer digital properties were getting about 890K uniques a month in total. Now they’re at 2.1M. I think our traffic should be a lot higher than that, and sooner rather than later, but more than doubling traffic with no additional budget resources isn’t anything to sneeze at.
BIG DIGITAL BUYS: The Observer is just in the beginning stages of building its digital sales team (led by Jamie Forrest) and they scored several big campaigns in Q3 & Q4, most notably large sponsorship and display buys from Jaguar and FedEx. Being able to move from small local buys to large national brands is important for us and sales is doing a great job of positioning us for real growth.
And we just did some great stories. Which is what gets us out of bed in the morning. You can see some of my favorites here.
WE MADE SOME NEW THINGS:
On the web side, we launched
BETABEAT, our New York tech site helmed by Adrianne Jeffries and Nitasha Tiku (and we’re hiring!) with contributions from Foster Kamer.
GALLERISTny, our visual arts site; helmed by Andrew Russeth, Dan Duray, and Michael H. Miller, and overseen by Observer culture editor Sarah Douglas.
and we spun off POLITICKER, our politics vertical, run by David Freedlander, Hunter Walker and Colin Campbell.
We also launched several new print publications in areas that have been very promising for us. Among them:
YUE, a dual-language Mandarin/English luxury magazine for Asian visitors to New York, edited by Chiu-Ti Jansen. On the biz side, it gave us a better foothold in the luxury fashion category and it’s a growing market. The first two issues performed so well, we’re considering an LA edition, and I’d like to do a location-based app to accompany it.
SCOOTER, a reworked version of the Observer’s Playground magazine, helmed by former web editor of Cookie (among other things), Peter Feld. Scooter targets New York City parents and the next issue comes out in March. It will feature a guide to NYC schools.
WE REDESIGNED AND RECONFIGURED SOME THINGS:
THE BULLPEN: This may seem like a minor thing, but it’s not. When I got to the NYO, everybody was sitting at desks with high cubicle walls–the sort of thing you’d see at a monthly magazine. We got rid of them, and it opened up the space, allowed people to more easily talk about stories and frankly, gave us more seating, which is important because we’re in expansion mode.
THE WEBSITE: We relaunched Observer.com in a cleaner, more readable format. Credit here goes to Hard Candy Shell (Kevin Kearney, Courtney Lewis and Dan Maccarone.)
THE PAPER. TWICE. We did the first redesign to make it more aesthetically consistent and closer to what we believe is the Observer’s original brand. We modernized fonts and layout a bit and went back to justified columns. We also restored the cover illustrations that are a key part of the Observer’s identity. The paper had been doing a lot of photo illustrations in heavy saturated colors, which doesn’t look great on salmon newsprint, and in my opinion, made the whole thing look like a downtown alt-weekly. (Heavy saturated colors work well for alt weeklies because they’re sitting in boxes with scratched up windows and it’s going to be difficult to make out the covers if they don’t look like that. But the Observer sits on the news-stand next to the Post and the Daily News and in tabloid format with photo illustrations, we don’t look a whole lot different. And we should–it’s a different kind of paper with a different audience. So we commissioned a bunch of retro-illustrations for the columns (all a play on the Observer man you see on the nameplate) and killed a lot of the magazine-y whitespace that works on glossy paper and is completely wasted on newsprint. We liked it a lot better–and so did advertisers.
Which is why when we had to change printers (our printer in Brooklyn was going out of business) we decided to go back to the broadsheet format. (Mini-broadsheet technically–halfway between a full-sized broadsheet and a Berliner). Again, my opinion, but it feels more upscale and premium to me.
THE PAPER’S TAGLINE: In this case, we didn’t re-do it; we just put back the original. When I got here, the tagline had been changed to “Money, Power and The City” which struck me as cheesy and a little too nose-pressed-against-the-glass. So we put back “Nothing Sacred But the Truth” which was the Observer’s original tagline and frankly, also the reason why we all get out of bed in the morning. And, as one of my staffers put it, “It sounds kind of badass.”
All of this meant absorbing a lot of change in the bullpen and that’s difficult to do. We tried to communicate everything that was happening before it happened and I think that helped, but executive editor Aaron Gell, deputy editor Brian Gallagher and culture editor Sarah Douglas deserve credit for keeping everyone sane during the process. Including me.
WE LEFT SOME THINGS ALONE, BECAUSE THEY AIN’T BROKE:
The Observer’s real estate trade publication COMMERCIAL OBSERVER, has been successful since day one. We’ve tightened it up significantly (credit to CO editor in chief, Jotham Sederstrom) and it looks better than it ever has. And it’s one of the most profitable things that we do. Print is definitely alive and well in certain categories.
We also have several ancillary publications that chug along and do their thing: the twice annual HOME OBSERVER, the annual COLLECTOR mag (for watch collectors), various education and real estate supplements and our annual US Open special issue TENNIS mag (this year put together by managing editor Michael Woodsmall.)
AND NOW WE’RE GETTING READY TO DO SOME NEW STUFF:
New launches in the next few months include the Peter Davis-edited Scene magazine, which is being prototyped now, a new site that covers events, nightlife and the social scene in New York, and a couple of other web properties we’ll announce later. We’re also revamping Very Short List, creating a companion to Commercial Observer that’s a commercial mortgage magazine, launching some new newsletters and apps and looking to build in-house capabilities to do original video and re-designing Observer.com so that it works as a national property with an eye toward major expansions in the (likely near) future.
So 2012 will be exciting. And I think we’ll have a lot to show for it this time next year.