Elizabeth Spiers and N.Y. Observer: Married in Hell?

The surprise appointment of former Gawker editor Elizabeth Spiers to lead the New York Observer may be more a marriage of necessity than a calculated part of the paper’s new media ambitions. Few editors seem inclined to work for the Observer, according to publishing insiders, and few publishers or Web proprietors, in the view of many who have worked with Spiers, would recommend hiring her.
The Observer has been on something of a jaw-dropping downward spiral since the arrival of then-25-year-old real estate heir Jared Kushner, who bought it in 2006. The paper, long a well-regarded talent farm in the New York City media world, has lost not only its cachet but also most of its employees since the purchase. Disagreements over “finances, organization and content” pushed longtime editor Peter Kaplan out in 2009. Interim editor Tom McGeveran announced his own departure five months later. Kyle Pope stayed for 15 months until, due to his own disagreements with Kushner, the position was passed to Spiers.
But Spiers’ own shake-ups come even quicker than Kushner’s. “I’m kind of an opportunist in the respect that if a door opened, I would check it out and think about doing it,” she once told The New York Times, putting a positive spin on a career in which she has seldom held a job for more than a year, and in which her professional relationships often come to abrupt and unhappy ends.
Among the many notable sobriquets for the 34-year-old Spiers gathered in the reporting of this story from people who’ve worked with her are “extremely odd,” “toxic,“ “one of the strangest people I’ve ever interacted with,” “seriously odd—smart, nerdy, ironic, idiosyncratic, dark, mysterious,” and “makes tongue-tied look hip.”
Spiers was Gawker’s founding editor when Nick Denton launched the site in 2002, and she is often credited with—and takes credit for—defining the snarky tone that made the site famous.
Denton, who, according to Spiers’ friends, is a frequent subject of her rants, sees it somewhat differently. “She made snark her own,” he conceded in an e-mail to Adweek, but added, “Even if the style was borrowed from Spy, Suck, etc.” Spiers left Gawker to write for New York magazine in 2003, passing editorial duties to Choire Sicha, whose writing, Denton hastened to clarify in a follow-up e-mail, “was the most complete expression of the Gawker sensibility.”
Spiers lasted less than a year at New York and exactly one year as editor in chief at Mediabistro.com after that. She then co-founded Dead Horse Media, a blogger platform not unlike Gawker, which included the site Dealbreaker, and stayed on until, as she tells it, “an insurmountable difference of opinion regarding long-term strategy” forced her to break with her partners. Since 2007, Spiers has been a self-described “launch consultant,” “business advisor,” “MFA program instructor,” briefly a Fortune columnist, a Page Six tipster and the writer of a novel she’s now been working on for six years.
Or, as a former colleague at New York put it, she’s been going “pillar to post…flotsam and jetsam…not quite nailing anything.”
Kushner desperately needs his next editor to nail it, and his selection of Spiers was foreshadowed early on, even if the actual hire likely came much too late: “If we were doing our jobs right, Gawker wouldn’t have a reason to exist,” he told his staff in 2009.
Kushner has high ambitions for the Observer. He is reportedly revamping the Web site, with a Gawker-like emphasis on vertical topic areas, but also putting an emphasis on sponsored or advertorial content.
While what her boss at Media Bistro, Laurel Touby, describes as the “Gawker aura” may have gotten Spiers through the Observer’s door, many who have worked with her are highly skeptical that it will enable her to succeed. She has “the attention span and metabolism of a blogger, so she probably can’t really do much else,” a New York acquaintance said. “I could never imagine her running anything,” said another person who worked at New York.
“She’s painfully fucking shy; she’s painfully fucking arrogant,” one of her former co-workers summed up. “Everything that becomes hers she trashes. If she’s the outsider to it, she trashes it, and when she becomes the insider, she hates it, then she wants to move on to the next higher aspiration…[.]”