The private-school beat is one of the toughest and most elusive for any New York publication. (When I was at the New York Observer, it was one of the beats that the editors would talk about wanting to devote a reporter to, always with a wistful look in their eye. They did at one point try to have actual high-school-age private school reporters, but that experiment didn't go so well.) Private schools are notoriously secretive. Private school parents are rich, powerful, and lawsuit-happy. Private school kids—until NYC Prep!—generally believed that talking to the press could only bode ill for their college applications. Private school teachers knew that if they talked to the press or wrote about their schools, they could get fired.
But of course, writing about private schools is a beat that's just about as New York as it gets—and the popularity of Gossip Girl has only fueled the craze. "Yes, we're finally doing it: Creating a full-time beat covering New York's private schools. It is, perhaps, the one topic other than real estate that lights up cocktail party conversation," Sexton writes in his memo (reproduced in full below). Perhaps he needs to be going to more interesting cocktail parties, but the fact of the matter is that, yes, rich and not-so-rich New Yorkers are obsessed with private schools. Look at the scary documentary "Nursery University," which followed a bunch of 2- and 3-year-olds and their parents as they attempted to gain admission to the city's elite preschools, or just tune in any day to the UrbanBaby NY Schools board, where the neuroses of the rich moms of (mostly) Manhattan are on naked, anonymous display.
But is it possible that one of Sexton's best internal candidates was laid off from the Times last month? Eric Konigsberg, who was originally hired at the NYT to cover rich people, got canned along with 25 or so of his colleagues in December. On the surface, it seems like he would've been ideal—he seems to have had the sources and the knowledge of that world. But sometime around last summer, Konigsberg seems to have moved over to the Culture desk, where in the last few months before he got laid off he was often relegated to compiling the Arts Beat. We wish he'd kept writing about rich people.
January 13, 2010
Wanted: Reporter to Cover NY Private Schools
Joe Sexton writes: Metro is looking for a tiger. Or a bulldozer. Pick your metaphor, we want a reporter who penetrates closed institutions, who compels the powerful to reveal their innermost secrets and fears, who believes "no" means "ask me another way," who can unrave internecine warfare. Someone with a strong sense of fun who enjoys the pure enjoyment of reporting on kids and how they learn.
Yes, we're finally doing it: Creating a full-time beat covering New York's private schools. It is, perhaps, the one topic other than real estate that lights up cocktail party conversation.
Dalton. Brearley. Fieldston. Spence. Collegiate, Horace Mann and Riverdale. And, yes, Regis and Ramaz and St. Ann's and The Little Red Schoolhouse, too. They are bastions of aspiration and privilege both, places that inspire fierce competition and intense curiosity, worlds known to few outside their citizens yet critical to the shaping of the wider one. OK, maybe that's a bit much, but we know this: The stories are yakkers that race up the most e-mailed list and get noticed; we're talking about the kids of the people who run the world here.
Stories like Adam Liptak's recent A1 stunner about censorship at The Daltonian. John Schwartz's front-page feature on the Trinity grads who studied the city's sushi. Eric Konigsberg's hilarious expose of the chauffeured cars lining up outside the 92nd Street Y's nursery school. Fernanda Santos on the Oprichniki, a terrorist cell of mean girls at Miss Porter's in Connecticut. Or New York Magazine's look at the Facebook wars inside Horace Mann.
What banker bought his son into kindergarten by way of a board membership? Which guidance counselors and college admissions officers are in collusion to predetermine where kids go? Why do students that enter the elite institutions in high school outperform those who start at age 4? Exploring the company that controls the ERB test for admission. Analyzing the impact of the economic downturn on endowments, applications, financial aid. Having a ball with the latest trends in academics, college resume-building, even fashion. Profiling the incredible kid or teacher.
And we should take care to say: these schools, like all others, are often great, full of novelty and experimentation and essential to building foundational social networks that shape the world for the good. We are coming at them with wide-ranging interest, not pre-determined attitude. Our reporting can serve the kids and parents of these schools as much as open up an exclusive world to a general readership.
We have tried from time to time to dip into the private school universe, but we are now committed to jumping in with both feet. And we're looking for a reporter eager to dive deep and swim fast. Experience covering education, or wealth and power, a plus.
If interested, contact [xx]@nytimes.com.