Gay, The New York Observer senior editor
First job: Landscaper, at 13. "I set the blade too low and ripped
up his entire putting green, and he fired me." Career highlights: Ad
sales at The Vineyard Gazette; staff writer at The Boston Phoenix. First Sunday Times section he reads:
|In a tiny, tucked-away corner office in the cramped Upper
East Side townhouse that's home to The
New York Observer sits Jason Gay, mild-mannered senior editor. The 31-year-old
Brooklyn resident joined the paper in March 2000, taking over the "NYTV"
television column formerly penned by Jim Rutenberg (now a television reporter
for The New York Times) and editing the snarky media coverage for which
the salmon-colored weekly is famed. It's a far cry from Gay's first post-college
gig, peeling vegetables at a restaurant. Not that the culinary track was ever
really an option for him. "I was never going to be a chef," he says.
"I can barely manage toast."
Let's talk a little bit about your history.
I graduated from the University of Wisconsin in 1992. I was a
political science major. I had zero to do with journalism. I didn't write for
a newspaper well, I was the coeditor of my high school newspaper, but
I didn't really have much in the way of collegiate journalistic experience.
After college, I went to Martha's Vineyard for the summer, figuring I was just
gonna goof around, and I got a job at a restaurant called L'Etoile,
peeling potatoes and carrots. I was kind of miserable. So, a friend of mine
at The Vineyard Gazette
got me a job there in ad sales.
How did you do in your new job?
I was a horrible ad sales person. It's interesting to compare
it to calling up people as a reporter: There's nothing as intimidating as going
up to store owners and asking them to buy ad space. They'll slam the door in
your face. After a while, the editors started letting me cover high school sports;
I covered the football team and they won the state championship, so it turned
into a big assignment. They were really encouraging. Do you know much about
It has a great tradition. It's owned by the Reston family, of
of The New York Times. His son, Richard, is the editor and publisher,
and he's this great journalism sage and has a history of taking young, inexperienced
writers, most of them barely out of college, and giving them an incredible education.
So after about a year and a half of selling ads, they let me be a staff writer.
I didn't have much of a pedigree, so they took a risk on me.
When you work at a small community newspaper with a staff of about
a dozen, you invariably end up covering everything. I did everything from high
school basketball games to county fairs to Board of Ed meetings to police investigations
to fires. When you're in such an intimate environment, you're almost always
going to bump into [your subjects] later, so it teaches you about the impact
of what you write and the value of being accurate and fair.
I'd met a writer for Boston magazine named Yvonne Abraham,
who came down to write a story about the Vineyard. We had lunch, and stayed
in touch. She moved on to the Phoenix, and later emailed me, "They're
looking for a writer here." I really thought I had zero chance. But I was
really, really lucky and completely freaked when I got there. I'd never been
a staff writer. We were all around the same age, so you'd think it'd be hyper-competitive,
but actually everyone helped each other out a great deal. It was a fantastic
staff. Tom Scocca, who's now going to be the managing editor at Washington
City Paper. Ellen Barry, a sensational reporter for The Boston Globe
and was just a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. Michael Crowley, who's an
editor at The New Republic. Dan Kennedy, who's a terrific media writer,
and is now writing a book. Sarah McNaught, also a very good writer. And Yvonne
Abraham, who's now a statehouse reporter for The Boston Globe. Oh, and
Gareth Cook and Stephen Heuser, both of whom went on to the Globe.
Then, an opportunity at the Observer came up. I'd known
two people from Boston who'd gone on to the Observer: Andrew Goldman
(from Boston magazine) and Elizabeth Manus (from the Phoenix).
You've certainly had no qualms about moving from city to city.
Well, the Observer was a place I'd really wanted to work
at. I'd gotten a subscription when I was on the Vineyard, and it was unlike
any newspaper I'd ever seen extremely well-written, funny, unafraid.
This was right at the time when [Candace
Bushnell's column] "Sex and the City" was taking off.
All right, you're not going to like this next question.
Why is the Observer so mean?
I don't think we're mean. Mean for the sake of mean doesn't do
us any good. Peter Kaplan really pushes us to be reporters and part of reporting
is being fair. If you're thorough and tough and can write with flair, I think
you can make [your story] fun to read. When we're at our best, we can do good
reporting and do it with a wink.
What do you read regularly?
I try to read all the dailies. I read the
Postexcessively, almost every single word of it. It's my
subway paper. I read the
Voice. I read "Mugger" in the
Press. I read two columns by Tom Scocca like crazy: 8
Upper, a sports column, and Funny
Paper, where he and a colleague review the comics, like "Beetle Bailey"
or "For Better or Worse," which is just a genius idea. I'm such a
periodical person. I'm terrible at sitting down and reading a novel.
Aside from writing the "NYTV" column, what do you
do at the Observer?
I edit two columns: "New
York World," which runs on page two, and the "Off
the Record" media column. Occasionally, I'll edit feature stories from
either staff or outside writers, maybe once a month.
What's your mandate for the "New York World" section?
It's hard to put hard rules on the "New York World"
because its content is all over the place. But generally the best items are
short, authentic, fresh stories about the city original writing, people,
scenes, ideas that cut to the chase very quickly, and say something about the
city right now. Sometimes it's just someone talking about what they saw on the
street, or just getting something off their chest in 300 words. We want it to
be fun, and not obvious. That's important. We're not so into the kind of old-chestnut
city tales you've read about a million times pie-eating contests, kooky
weathermen, fat kitties who live in stores, etc. The only other thing I'm prejudiced
against is porn. It was fun for a while, but if I read another smart writer
rhapodizing about porn or a porno star, I'm going to keel over.
I know there's so no such thing as a typical day, but maybe
you can describe how your week usually goes?
We publish on Wednesdays, so our cycle is broken up into two parts.
On Wednesdays and Thursdays, we talk about ideas for next week's paper or, if
we're lucky, a few weeks down the line. Hopefully, reporting begins on those
days. Mondays and Tuesdays are primarily production and editing days. There's
almost always a Wednesday full-staff meeting around 11 a.m., run by the editor-in-chief,
Peter Kaplan. Each writer and editor is called upon to talk about what stories
are in the pipeline. Often Peter will simply ask what we're seeing out on the
streets, on our way to work, or when were out last night. He really tries to
encourage the observational genesis of an idea.
Are you working through the weekend?
Occasionally, yeah, sure. Weekend work is pretty common here.
A lot of reporters have beats that require them to go out evenings, to social
events and premieres, things like that. If it runs until midnight or 1 in the
morning, that can be a pretty long day.
You know, I watch less TV than people think, because the nature
of my column is more reporting than reviewing. I guess I watch about an hour
to an hour and a half each day, mostly in teeny little segments. I turn it on
in the mornings, to check the weather and news, and then again when I get home.
What kinds of stuff do you watch?
A lot of really bad TV. Golly. I watch all those horrible
dating shows they're weirdly comforting. I think I've watched the Jennifer
Lopez VH-1 special a thousand times. I've had, and still have, the most bland
TV tastes: tons and tons of sports, tons of MTV. I pay close attention to late-night
Letterman, Leno, Jon Stewart and cable news, since the news industry
is the principal beat of the ["NYTV"] column.
I will watch almost any kind of professional sporting event. I
will watch any movie I like, even if I've seen it 900 times or yesterday.
What do you watch at 11 p.m.? Are you a Seinfeld, Blind
Date, or Charlie Rose man?
You know what? [Laughs.] This isn't avoiding the question,
but I'm a relentless clicker, and 11 p.m. is when I take my clicking to the
level of professional artistry, because you really do have to cover all the
bases: You've got the news, SportsCenter, Seinfeld, Charlie
Rose, Blind Date, MTV's Jackass repeats, which I love...
Eleven o'clock is sort of like New York's primetime hour.
Absolutely. In fact, one story we did that was a lot of fun to
write was when WNYW Fox 5 [New York's Fox affiliate] got rid of The Simpsons
at 11 and replaced it with Seinfeld. I like both shows, but some
people take sides. The Simpsons fans really flipped out.
I can't answer that, although I did see Sarah Michelle Gellar
once at a WB event, and she's one of the smallest people I've ever seen. I don't
understand the Buffy phenomenon, and I feel like I didn't catch the wave
at the right time, but you're absolutely right. It does seem to have taken this
obsessive route, and people I really respect and think are savvy are into that
By the way, what's up with you and those musty, gee-whiz words,
like "golly" and "hunky-dory"?
My parents were huge sticklers about not cursing, so I've developed
a pretty good vocabulary of non-curse expletives, like "Oh, sugar,"
instead of "Oh, shit."
You know, before I called you up, I Googled you, and the first
thing that comes up is JasonGay.com.
Yeah, he's a Christian folk singer.
You know this guy?
Oh, well... Who doesn't self-Google? I've never met him, but years
ago, he emailed me once. Like, "Funny, we have the same name." Apparently,
he's a pretty big deal. Very talented. I feel weird saying this.
His latest album is entitled A Place Called Hope.
Yeah. [Laughs.] I wish I could say I play the guitar, but