Even if you never read Peter W. Kaplan’s New York Observer, if you’ve opened a magazine or Web browser in the past decade and a half, you’ve been soaking in it. Kaplan, who died Nov. 29 of cancer at the age of 59, did more than edit a weekly newspaper for 15 years; he created a virus. Renowned as a mentor and prospector of writers, he cultivated a staff of young talent who dispersed to print, the Web, and TV. In his lusty fascination for the minutiae of New York City‘s media and money, he authored a sophisticated, wry sensibility that became a lingua franca of magazines and HBO shows. And presiding over a period — 1994 to 2009 — that tracked New York’s rise in cachet and cost, he oversaw a publication that dissected the city’s social layers while celebrating its ability to be relentlessly interesting.
Not a lot of people in the grand scheme of things read Kaplan’s paper. (The Observer eventually developed a website, but its paper incarnation — salmon-pink as a slice of Zabar’s lox — seemed like the proper, tactile way to experience it.) But it was the Velvet Underground of publications: everyone who read it, it seemed, was a journalist or a member of the elites it chronicled — or, at least, aspired toward one or the other.
Kaplan, working with a challenging editorial budget, hired young writers, paid them a pittance but rewarded them with the freedom to bore deep into the paper’s favorite subjects: money, politics, media, style, culture, real estate, sex. His alumni are in every corner of media, and the paper’s arch sensibility was carried in non-ink-stained outlets like Gawker. Early in his editorship, he also hired writer Candace Bushnell to write the observational column that would become the book, TV show, and movie franchise Sex and the City. (His influence is so widespread in New York journalism that it requires a kind of weird reverse disclosure: I never worked for Kaplan or knew him personally, though sometimes it feels like everyone I’ve worked for or with has.)
The Observer was one of the first outlets to be described with the now-common adjective “snarky,” but although sarcasm and knowingness were part of its formula, there was much more to it than that. The paper wasn’t glib; in fact, it gave writers space for deep reads when other publications were rethinking themselves for people who didn’t like to read. It wrote long on seemingly small subjects — real-estate deals, political gossip, media job-hopping — because that was where power moved in the city, and Kaplan understood that the study of power was fascinating, fun, and necessary. The Observer understood that there was universality in the specific, and that very old-school newspaper sensibility lives on now in Web outlets (staffed by Observer alums) like Capital New York, Buzzfeed, and The Awl.
Kaplan’s Observer gave plenty of side-eye to the rich and boldfaced of Manhattan, but its obsessions grew out of the editor’s boundless enthusiasm for the place that, as he once remembered, his suburban-New Jersey father used to call “The Emerald City.” Peter Kaplan’s Observer made that gem feel impossibly precious while at the same time letting the reader feel he or she owned a little chip of it. That, no less than the work of Oz, was a kind of magic. RIP.