The appointment of Ken Kurson, who's also the author of four books, a veteran freelancer and a longtime contributing editor at Esquire, was announced in a memo this afternoon from Jared Kushner to staff members, some of whom first read about the news in an item by David Carr published around the same time on The New York Times' Media Decoder blog.
"Ken knows the ideas, stories and voices that make up New York better than anyone," Kushner wrote in his note to employees of the Observer Media Group, which also publishes a stable of blogs, a commercial real-estate trade paper and several magazines. "He is a journalist and an author and through his years as a consultant observed the figures who create the framework of business, politics, media, tech, culture and real estate in our city," the memo continued.
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The move is the latest development in a saga that has been closely watched within New York media circles since the spring of 2009, when The Observer's longtime editor-in-chief, Peter Kaplan, left the paper after 15 years at the helm.
Since then, Kaplan has had five successors (including Capital co-editor Tom McGeveran), making Kurson the sixth editor to top the masthead of the weekly since Kushner bought it from Arthur Carter in 2006. (Disclosure: I worked at the paper from 2008 to 2010.)
He replaces Aaron Gell, who did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
Gell was described in Kushner's memo as having been "interim editor." But as we reported last summer after Gell was promoted following the departure of his predecessor, Elizabeth Spiers, he emphasized in a newsroom meeting he had not accepted the position on an interim basis, but rather that he had agreed to become The Observer's official editor.
"We hope that Aaron stays with the paper in his previous role as Executive Editor," Kushner wrote of Gell this morning, though the Times, also, reported that it was unclear whether he would.
Sources said the newsroom had been expecting that Gell would be replaced sometime in the New Year. One insider suggested he was not aggressive enough about the web, which is an arena in which Kushner has been trying to expand for years.
"It was kind of print first with him," the source said of Gell.
UPDATE: Several sources noted that Gell in fact grew traffic even as the paper's headcount was diminished; he told Capital he's still thinking about whether or not he'll remain at the paper. (More on both of those points here.)
Nevertheless, the Observer bullpen was blinsided by the sudden announcement. They were scheduled to have their first weekly pitch meeting in months at 4 p.m. this afternoon, but now Kurson is scheduled to make an appearance instead.
Some Observer staffers (and the paper's readers, as well) will no doubt be skeptical of Kurson's professional background given his close his ties to the Kushner family and Giuliani, with whom he co-authored a book and worked on a failed presidential campaign. Several Observer alumni retweeted a link to an old profile of Kurson (headlined "Giuliani's Worshipful Scribe, Without Meat or Irony") in the Times in which he told a reporter, "I don't use irony, I don't appreciate irony." The alumni seemed to think that was a significant break from the Observer's signature traits.
Others in the media took to Twitter to recall their relationships with Kurson as an editor and writer and to praise his work.
“People will think what they want,” Kurson told Carr. “I will have to earn their trust. I have had a long and honorable journalistic career, calling it like I see it and being a straight shooter.”
The 44-year-old will now be tasked with running a highly influential newspaper that has nonetheless been a perennial money loser struggling to break out of the red.
Kushner told staff that Observer Media Group revenue was up 25 percent in 2012 and that "our editorial budget is now 50% higher than it was when I bought the company."
"The one possible silver lining is that maybe he'll reinvest in the paper now," said a hopeful employee. "We're running below fumes. We've lost nine people since June and replaced two."
At least one person is doubtful that will happen.
"I think Ken's relationship w Kushners was relevant to hire," Spiers tweeted, "but equally, his impression that you can run the Obs at a fraction of budget."
Kushner's full memo to staff is below:
Dear Observer Media Group,
I wanted to share some exciting news about the continued growth of our company - Ken Kurson is joining the Observer Media Group as Editorial Director and Editor in Chief of The New York Observer.
Ken knows the ideas, stories and voices that make up New York better than anyone. He is a journalist and an author and through his years as a consultant observed the figures who create the framework of business, politics, media, tech, culture and real estate in our city.
He comes to us from Esquire Magazine, where he was a columnist and contributing editor and Jamestown Associates, one of the nation’s leading public affairs firms. He worked alongside Mayor Giuliani during the events of September 11, 2001 and co-authored the Mayor’s No. 1 bestseller Leadership. Ken also worked on Rudy's presidential campaign as the Chief Operating Officer. In addition, he served as an editor at large at Time, Inc. and has written for diverse publications like The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Spin, The Source, Slate, Salon and Rolling Stone.
Ken is a close and trusted friend who shares our vision for being a paper of ideas. I have tried to get Ken to work with us for years and am so proud that the Observer and all our properties are now at a place where we could attract someone with his breadth of experience.
2013 sets the stage for what will be an incredible time in New York: politics in a post-Bloomberg era, the continued rise of Silicon Alley, media’s transformation, the impact of finance, the evolution of real estate and the arts and culture that surrounds it all, among countless others. It is a perfect time for Ken to join all of you in showing our readers how the city works.
When Elizabeth stepped down over the summer, Aaron Gell was gracious enough to become the interim editor through the end of 2012. I want to thank him for everything that he has done in leading the Observer. We hope that Aaron stays with the paper in his previous role as Executive Editor.
In 2012 we continued to expand and demonstrate how a media company can take advantage of this digital age - revenue grew 25% for another record year and our editorial budget is now 50% higher than it was when I bought the company.
I look forward to the continued success of both our business and our journalism under Ken’s leadership in 2013 and for years to come.
Ken will be at the office later this afternoon to properly introduce himself to everyone and to get started.