And so, in the proud tradition of good blogs everywhere, readers are left with a highly variable product. The great is rare; the dull quite common. But — and this is the genius of the online format — that doesn’t matter, not any more, and certainly not half as much as it used to. When you’re working online, more is more. If you have the cojones to throw up everything, more or less regardless of quality, you’ll be rewarded for it — even the bad posts get some traffic, and it’s impossible ex ante. to know which posts are going to end up getting massive pageviews. The less you worry about quality control at the low end, the more opportunities you get to print stories which will be shared or searched for or just hit some kind of nerve.
Add in a few linkbait listicles, and you’ve got a recipe for a successful website — which can only be helped by its association with an honest-to-goodness print newspaper which, still, has extremely good name recognition with most New Yorkers and which we generally think fondly of. There are even nods to the old Observer’s buttoned-down worldview, here and there, if you look hard enough. For instance, there’s the way in which striking photos and videos are largely notable by their absence. The Verge this is emphatically not; while gorgeous design has its place in the Observer media empire, for the time being it seems to be confined largely to glossy magazines. Even hyperlinks are generally confined to web-first content: when stories from the physical paper appear online, they rarely have any at all.
Spiers’s Observer is not the one that her predecessor Tom McGeveran dreamed of when she was hired — one which serves to remind the rich of themselves, on which manages “to speak the patois that is being developed at Le Cirque at the table with Michael Bloomberg”. That kind of thing would always be too precious, too nichey, to work in a medium where the table stakes, in terms of reach and scale, are rising very quickly indeed. Instead, the new Observer is carving out new audiences, is aggressively embracing social media, and has much more attitude in common with HuffPo than it does with, say, the New York Review of Books. That’s something that Spiers is good at, and it’s something Kushner is happy to encourage.
I’m happy that I was wrong about the NYT paywall, and I’m happy too that I was wrong about the Observer. My mistake in both cases was to be too conservative: to think that change was probably going to be a bad thing, even in the context of a broader media world where change is the only possible alternative to death.
Both the NYT and the Observer threw out the old and did something brave and new; there are many people, in both cases, who preferred things the way they were. Myself included, truth be told. But it’s profoundly fallacious to believe that what you want is what should be, in some kind of normative sense. Spiers has come up with a formula which works, in practice, significantly better than its immediate predecessors. In the world of professional journalism, that’s something to celebrate. So, if she wants to join me and John Carney for our forthcoming lunch, she’s more than welcome. It’s on me.