Of Grownups, Mascots and the New York Observer

Michael M. Thomas — who left the New York Observer after 22 years with a declaration that owner Jared Kushner "stands pretty much squarely on the side of those whom I consider the bad guys" — reflects on the paper.

Thomas, who recently published his novel Love & Money, originally wrote about his decision to leave for his personal site.

Sunday I sent around an e-message to friends telling them that I felt it was time to leave the NY Observer. As I usually am, I was candid about my reasons. I have no intellectual or ideological connection to the new regime there. Tom McGeveran, the new editor, seems like a very nice guy, but we've never worked together, and since I have some idea what Peter Kaplan endured over the last couple of years, I can only imagine that Tom must feel, some mornings, that he's woken up in the journalistic equivalent of the trenches at Verdun.

My e-circulation list included a few people in what we broadly call media." Friends who happen to be journalists, people for whom I've written. Page Six wasn't on the list, not that I don't like Richard Johnson, and enjoy what he does, because I do - emphatically - but I simply didn't think the departure of an old guy of 73 after a gig that ran 22 years from first word to last was very gossipworthy. I lawyer friend of mine is fond of saying, "In e-mail, the e' stands for 'evidence'" - advice that I've taken to heart, but - to repeat myself - I really didn't think there was any evidentiary interest in my having decided to go in the direction I have. That I used to refer to Donald Trump as "the Prince of Swine" is a matter of record; in my NYO column I took a view of the way people exhibited themselves in public (their private lives were off the record) and got themselves written about. Nicknames and sobriquets were a neat way of sticking a pin in; I was particularly fond of my coinage for Ralph Lauren: "the Wee Haberdasher." There were risks in this; having referred once to a fashion personality as "a shirtlifter," I found myself essentially blacklisted with regard to freelance assignments for a major publishing company. Anyway, public is as public does, and private is something else. I know Donald Trump's dirty secret, going back some 40 years, when we were both on the board of the much-missed Le Club. It is this: when he shrugs off the public persona that sells books and buildings and TV bullying, he's a very nice guy. But don't tell anyone!

Anyway, someone on my list obviously forwarded the e-mail to Page Six. I'm pretty certain I know who it is, because there are only one or two people on my circulation list to whose lives publicity — the trade-off of someone else's info for future mention of oneself — is as vital and essential a force as gravity is to the solar system. Not that it matters.

But that's really neither here nor there. It does prompt one or two reflections about my former employer. Some dozen years ago, it must have been, Conrad Black briefly flirted with the idea of buying the NYO. A mutual friend, the late, beloved Arthur Ross, called me up and invited me - then a NYO headliner - to meet Conrad for an exchange of views. After the usual pleasantries, I asked Conrad what he thought of NYO as a newspaper. I've never forgotten his answer: "The NYO isn't a newspaper," he said, "it's a mascot."
I think Conrad had a point. Long, long ago the paper hit a circulation wall at around the 50,000 mark - a level it's never surmounted since to any meaningful degree. This suggests that people grow into the paper and later grow out of it. In the past six months, I can't count how many times someone's come up to me and said "I see you're back in the NYO. I gave up my subscription but now I'll start reading it again."

Here's the thing. When you're young, at least until the recent economic mess, life is a lark, to be lived in and of the moment. You want to be hip, current, a la mode. You don't want serious - which is why most young people don't read newspapers, because the NYT et al traffic in the serious. But as you grow older, life starts to get more serious. Policy begins to matter more than personality. The latest fashion no longer matters, the latest scandal, the latest nightclub. They no longer make movies that anyone with an IQ over the national speed limit can suffer through, and hip-hop is unspeakable, so you quickly stop knowing exactly what the latest celebrity is famous for. You're no longer the person the NYO is written and published for. You give it up.

Most people won't believe this, but the NYO started life as a serious paper. The city already had enough of those, however, and Graydon Carter came along and created the editorial enlivenment that got the paper talked about. I stopped writing thinkpieces about capitalism and started calling people funny names, and Women's Wear Daily sent someone to interview me and take my picture. Pretty heady stuff.
The trick is, however, to hold your original audience while adding new readers. Twenty years ago, I pleaded with Arthur Carter to start a Medicine page, on the theory that of the straws that stir the New York drink, medicine is right up there with media and finance, and an aging readership, naturally more mindful of its health, of what are called "wellness issues," would stay with us. Just look at how New York does with its annual "Best Doctors" issue. Arthur didn't buy the idea. I tried again with the new publisher. He didn't answer my e-mail. I still think the idea's a good one.

In my demographic, no day begins without a lament for the late Sun. In culture, arts, sports - and in coverage of the city, which was NYO's original stakeout - it quickly rose right to the top. Made chopped liver of the NYT, with its pathetic, alienating effort to be groovy. Early on, Seth Lipsky asked me to write for his fledgling paper. I was also being importuned to return to the NYO. Here's what I told Seth: "I'm on the horns of a dilemma. Either I can be a juvenile on a grownup paper, or a grownup on a juvenile paper."

I think that says it all.