Caption: EXTRA EXTRA Jared Kushner selling newspapers on 42nd Street.
Caption: CITIZEN KUSHNER The new owner of The New York Observer, Jared Kushner, whose journalism experience was limited to one article in college. (Nicholas Roberts for The New York Times)
Caption: J-MEN From left, Peter Kaplan, Jared Kushner and Josh Benson celebrate the new tabloid format. (Keith Bedford for The New York Times)
By ALLEN SALKIN
Published: March 11, 2007
LAST Monday, Jared Kushner, the boy publisher of The New York Observer, was nestled in a wingback chair in the book-strewn office of the newspaper’s longtime editor, Peter Kaplan. They were talking about Mr. Kushner’s latest acquisition, the Web site politicsnj.com. “The more stuff he buys,” Mr. Kaplan, said, leaning back, “the happier I am.”
Happiness can take time to grow, both men know. Back in October, when Mr. Kushner invited Mr. Kaplan to a Yankees playoff game three months after buying The Observer, the gray-templed editor, who has been a mentor to waves of young journalists in New York, wasn’t so confident things would work out with his new young boss.
Mr. Kushner, 26, the scion of a troubled New Jersey real estate family, who is also a full-time graduate student, had dabbled in Boston-area condominiums, not publishing, while an undergraduate at Harvard. The sum total of his journalism experience was writing an article about dorm food for a student magazine. In the short time he owned The Observer, Mr. Kushner had found little time even to meet with Mr. Kaplan.
“It was tense,” Mr. Kaplan, 53, recalled of their early relationship. That October night, there was a rain delay of hours. As other fans sought cover in the tunnels of Yankee Stadium, Mr. Kaplan and Mr. Kushner remained in their field-side seats, drinking Bud Lights and talking newspapers. Mr. Kushner told Mr. Kaplan he had been at a game two weeks earlier and sat next to the owner of another New York news media property, and he was astounded at his disdain for his staff.
“I told him,” Mr. Kaplan recalled, “the only way this is going to work is if you love your product, and you understand people are working here because they see something most civilians can’t see about the importance of journalism, and once you’ve got it, you’ll be a great publisher.”
That is just the sort of “Front Page” romanticism Mr. Kaplan has conjured for young reporters over the dozen years he has run The Observer, motivating them to give their all. For the rest of the night, editor and owner drank and talked enthusiastically about the future of the paper. “We needed exactly what we got,” Mr. Kaplan recalled last week. “Three hours of intense conversation in the pouring rain with a lot of beers.” (The game against the Tigers was called because of the weather.)
With The Observer’s transformation four weeks ago from a broadsheet to a tabloid, Mr. Kushner, who professes to be astonished by how much attention he received from purchasing a small Manhattan weekly, has only been more frontally in the spotlight. Dealing with scrutiny is one of many aspects of an unusual on-the-job education he is receiving from Mr. Kaplan, who has called himself the Mr. Chips of New York journalism, greeting each arriving class of boys (and girls), whose youth never changes.
The question for Mr. Kushner, hardly the first rich man to buy a trophy news media property, is whether, after reading the umpteenth gossip item about whom he may be dating, or staring at the 20th quarterly statement of losses, he will drop his trophy as quixotically as he picked it up.
Mr. Kaplan’s challenge is to besot his young publisher with a love of the ink-and-newsprint business before that happens. “It does come down to that Charles Foster Kane line: ‘I think it would be fun to own a newspaper,’ ” Mr. Kaplan said, slightly misquoting “Citizen Kane.” “Young men are supposed to feel that way and I’m thrilled that he does.”
All most people knew about Jared Kushner pre-Observer was that his father, the real estate investor Charles Kushner, had endured a spectacular fall. Once a major donor to New Jersey Democratic politicians, he served nearly a year in prison in part for hiring a prostitute to seduce his brother-in-law, then showing a tape of the tryst to his sister, who had instigated a tax investigation.
Jared Kushner is the only one of his parents’ four children to work at the family company, where he is a principal. The Kushner Companies owns about 25,000 residential units in the Northeast, as well as the Puck Building in New York. But its biggest deal was the purchase last December of a skyscraper, 666 Fifth Avenue, for $1.8 billion. Start to finish, the deal was negotiated in six days, said Arthur J. Mirante II, president of global client development for Cushman & Wakefield, which brokered the sale.
Although the broker had worked for months with Jared Kushner and his father, who was released from prison in August, it was the younger Mr. Kushner who “carried the ball,” Mr. Mirante said.
Mr. Kushner, who has the demeanor of a preternaturally poised politician, or maybe a missionary, deflects questions about his personal life and his family. He does acknowledge that he is single. “I don’t have time to date,” he said, sitting in his sparse office at The Observer, where he spends most of his workdays, often arriving at 7 a.m. “I have six jobs.”
One is taking 17.5 credits in his final semester of a four-year M.B.A./law program at New York University, he said.
Under Arthur Carter, the former investment banker who founded The Observer, which reports circulation of around 45,000, the paper reportedly lost about $2 million a year. But Mr. Carter could afford it and loved the clout and visibility bestowed by the paper, a favorite of New York’s social, political and news media elite.
Finding a buyer was not easy. For about a year, Mr. Kaplan had been helping Robert De Niro, Craig Hatkoff and Jane Rosenthal of Tribeca Productions, founders of the Tribeca Film Festival, to put together a bid. Meanwhile, Mr. Kushner, who knew The Observer from shuttle flights to Boston while an undergraduate, was desperately trying to meet with Mr. Carter, who was giving him a cold shoulder.
It wasn’t until July that Mr. Carter agreed to a meeting, Mr. Kushner said. He showed up with a check for his full offer, which was more than the Tribeca group’s. Mr. Carter said the price was “less than $10 million” and that he kept 20 percent ownership. “I felt he personally had the resources to put into the paper,” Mr. Carter said. “And I think his youth and exuberance are very, very important.”
Describing his own philosophy of the art of the deal, Mr. Kushner said, “People respond to speed.”
“I was 25 years old, and my father was probably just out of prison,” he added. “I remember getting off the phone and saying, ‘Wow, you accomplished something you didn’t think you’d have a one-in-a-million chance of doing.’ ”
“Your instincts told you what to do,” he continued, describing his inner monologue. “You’re buying a wonderful brand. You’ll figure it out.”
There were some early missteps. When he arrived at the office in the Flatiron district, he wanted to take a desk among reporters and editors. Mr. Kaplan told him it would be bad for the “chemistry.” Mr. Kushner attended an early editorial meeting, and although he did not suggest assignments, Mr. Kaplan explained there should be a separation between the editorial and business sides.
He was a strange presence for some staff members. Mr. Carter had only rarely visited the paper’s offices in recent years, but Mr. Kushner works many Sundays, a surprise to some reporters and editors. “They would come in to get stuff done in a quiet office and then Jared would be there — ‘Oh, big young daddy’s here!’ ” said Choire Sicha, who worked as an editor at The Observer at the time, and is now managing editor of the Web site Gawker.com.
Mr. Kushner worked with the paper’s printer to determine how to produce the new tabloid format, a change intended to appeal to advertisers and commuters. He has hired two people to report on and one to edit real estate, a beat that is a source of ads and an obsession for the paper’s affluent readership. Mr. Kushner has gone on sales calls with big advertisers.
Within the paper’s tiny newsroom, where reporters’ concerns are sometimes narrower than a publisher’s, one of Mr. Kushner’s most popular improvements is having pizza delivered on Tuesday nights during closings.
He has also made his first addition to what is now the Observer Media Group: he bought politicsnj.com a month ago. Last Monday he hired a new editor; over the next days he signed former Governor Christine Todd Whitman and former U.S. Senator Robert G. Torricelli as columnists; and he went live with the site Thursday.
Will any of his efforts lead to The Observer turning a profit?
“Maybe,” said Mr. Carter, who is skeptical that the paper’s particular passions — New York politics and news media — and its famously snarky voice can appeal to enough readers to be profitable. “We have a very unique audience.”
Nonetheless, Mr. Kushner is pouring in money, at least for now.
“It’s easier to build a business around a first-class product,” he said, sounding like the M.B.A. student he is, “even if it’s a more expensive product to produce.”
For Mr. Kaplan, the motive for switching to a tabloid was in no small part to get a love of black ink into Mr. Kushner’s veins. “I needed to make a paper that Jared could feel was his paper and not Arthur Carter’s,” Mr. Kaplan said.
It seems to be working. “If you had asked me coming into this experience, would I have the emotional attachment to the product that I have now, I would have said ‘no way,’ ” Mr. Kushner said.
Now Mr. Kushner seems to be as invested in Mr. Kaplan as much as the reverse. “There’s no reason he shouldn’t feel he’s going to make this thing make money,” Mr. Kaplan said. “Maybe he will and maybe he won’t. But that that’s what 26-year-olds are supposed to think. Wisdom is not Jared’s business right now. Energy and enthusiasm is, and that’s something we can use a lot of here.”
Newspaper wisdom can be hard won.
“In real estate, you can work 15 hours a day and get it all lined up with your suppliers, and you can use reason and make that thing work for you,” said Peter Kalikow, the chairman of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority. Born into a successful family real estate company, Mr. Kalikow, who had no news experience, bought The New York Post in 1988 and owned it until October 1993 when he declared bankruptcy and the paper teetered into near oblivion. “In a newspaper you can work 300 hours a week and it still won’t make a difference.”
Happy Blitt contributed research.