Interview: Choire Sicha

Choire Sicha rose to prominence as editor of Gawker.com, but he has always loved newspapers. Now, as senior editor at the New York Observer, he's able to cover the Big Apple for the quirky entity he considers to be the city's hometown paper.

Choire Sicha rose to prominence as editor of Gawker.com, but he has always loved newspapers. Now, as senior editor at the New York Observer, he's able to cover the Big Apple for the quirky entity he considers to be the city's hometown paper.

PRWeek: How do you define your beat?
Choire Sicha:
The Transom [section] normally covers New York characters at their finest. Ideally, I'd like to cover people who are important, but not famous. However, every once in a while, I admit that I'm attracted to the allure of fame.

PRWeek: So, the opposite of Gawker?
Sicha:
Well, it's funny. Elizabeth Spiers said that the model for Gawker was the New York Observer. It's a little less true now, I guess. I don't know what Gawker's beat is, and I didn't always know that when I was writing it [Laughs].

PRWeek: Are you pitched a lot? Or do you deal with the offbeat characters who can't afford publicists?
Sicha:
My phone rings a lot of times, and there's sometimes people whose names I don't recognize talking about people whose names I don't recognize. I know others in the industry, like Page Six, have a policy of slamming down the phone on those people, but I'm always compelled to listen to them. Although I often find I still can't figure out who these people are or what they're talking about. I have a very short attention span, and I don't parse these people very well.

PRWeek: Do these publicists even seem to know what they want?
Sicha:
It seems like publicists are just trying to get coverage for young rock bands, theatre productions, or books, and they're hungry for coverage. But they're kind of blind pitching in a scattershot way. Most of the stuff I'm pitched is stuff I'm not interested in anyway. There's a sort of mismatch, but if I were a publicist, I wouldn't necessarily know where to go.

PRWeek: Given the fact you try to cover a lot of off-beat things, are there really misguided pitches, like, "It's a rock band, but they play while juggling umbrellas?"
Sicha:
I find a lot of the younger publicists don't understand news content. It's not necessarily news if someone is putting on a play. It's not necessarily news if someone exists. [Laughs.]

PRWeek: So it seems like the relationships are better if you instigate them?
Sicha:
That's probably true.

PRWeek: What bothers you about publicists?
Sicha:
Hollywood publicists won't tell you why you're not getting to their client, basically. They will be very helpful and move heaven and earth to get you what you need for a story, if they're promoting a movie. And, the rest of the time, it's not going to happen. They want to group all of their press around a movie release, and the newspapers would like not to be grouped together. You're not going to get a piece of news when someone is on a press tour for three days. You're going to get a tired, cranky person who is saying the same thing over and over again.

PRWeek: How would you crystallize the NYO's audience and focus?
Sicha:
I think of this as New York's hometown paper. I think it's a niche paper for real New Yorkers. The conversations that go on through newsroom are what fascinate me. I feel like this paper, more than any other paper I have worked with, has an interest in making that conversation happen in its pages. That's what I see as its strength. "This is what people are talking about in our town, and we're going to include that in our paper," rather than excluding it.

PRWeek: So it feels like the reporters aren't hanging up their "New York-ness" to write staid copy?
Sicha:
The reporters here are brilliant and a treat to work with. Part of the treat is they get to pursue their interests within their beat. If you start at the Times on the Metro desk, you're going to get the New Haven beat.

PRWeek: Does the ability to focus on your interests make the NYO a destination for new writers?
Sicha:
I met some kids from journalism school the last year here, and I don't know if being a reporter is something that a lot of people want to do.

PRWeek: So what do those kids want to do?
Sicha:
I don't know, and I'm not sure they know. I don't know what I would want to do if I were in J school now. It's a tough marketplace, and it's probably as competitive to become a publicist as journalist right now.


PRWeek: You write for the Los Angeles Times' Calendar Live online section, which flirted with a paid firewall, but reverted back to free. Do you think traditional media has locked itself into free online content?
Sicha:
I've always been very much opposed to pay walls. But I am very much in favor of what I think the future is going to be, which will be micropayments managed through a central source, probably through Google.

In three years, when we all have a Google/Pay Pal account or whatever it is, and we'll all be able to click one button to pay 12 cents to read a paper [online], I think we'll all do it very happily.
People were unreasonably panicked about the Web advertising market, which is outrageous. Newspapers can double-sell their content [online and in print]. What can be better that that?

PRWeek: The New York Observer piece on the PRWeek Awards got a lot of people talking. Do you anticipate the Observer doing more stories on PR?
Sicha:
Yes, and not in a silly way. I'm realizing more and more how much publicists control what goes into newspapers. If you look at stories like the World Trade Center, the Rubensteins, Dan Klores Communications, and the Ken Sunshines have a lot of control over newsworthy information. And everyone from The New York Times to The Washington Post must work with those parties regularly to achieve what they want for their newspaper.

[That's also true] for the celebrity side, as well as any other industry with gatekeepers or news controllers. This is an industry with gatekeepers, if not, at some level, news controllers. And I feel like reporters feel like that's a dirty thing. Information has always been a game in New York, and newspapers do what they have to do to get news. And I think we need to look at that.

Name: Choire Sicha

Outlet: New York Observer

Title: Senior editor

Preferred contact method: csicha@observer.com

Web site: www.nyobserver.com

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