There are few things that The Observer loves reading about more than the lurid world of ultra high-end real estate. From Eastern European oligarchs buying $88 million dorm rooms for their daughters to billionaires butting heads over custom renovations to their mega-penthouses, real estate is a both a personal and a professional obsession. And during this past year, there are few reporters that we have enjoyed reading more than New York Times’s Alexei Barrionuevo, who has chronicled the ups and, well, the ups of the trophy market in his Big Deal column over the past 16 months.
So we were sad to hear that Mr. Barrionuevo will be leaving his column and The Times to work on a documentary series called Project Allegro.
“It was a very tough decision, but I decided to resign to pursue a documentary series exploring the origins of electronic dance music and the rise of superstar DJs. I had been itching to do this project for a while and it was consuming more and more of my free time so I had to decide whether to drop it — or take a chance,” Mr. Barrionuevo wrote The Observer in an email.
Mr. Barrionuevo told The Observer that his decision to leave the Times after eight years—he joined the Gray Lady in 2005 as a national business correspondent in Chicago—came from his passion for the subject matter and from a desire, after more than 20 years in daily journalism, to tackle a more in-depth project. (He also confided that he would have preferred to take a six-month leave to work on the series, but that the paper denied the request to take time off for a “passion project.”) Besides real estate, Mr. Barrionuevo spent five months in 2006 covering the criminal trial of former Enron executives Kenneth Lay and Jeffrey Skilling, and worked as a bureau chief in both Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo. He has also worked for The Wall Street Journal and The Dallas Morning News.
Below is an abbreviated version of our email exchange about covering high end real estate, working for The Times and about deciding to go.
The Observer: Why did you decide to go at this point?
Mr. Barrionuevo: It was the moment in my career to take a chance. The New York Times is the best news organization in the world, and it is a cozy place that treats its staffers like family, but I felt I needed to challenge myself. And like many writers at the paper, given the challenges facing newspapers (including the Times) I was having a hard time seeing a 20-year career ahead filled with professional and financial growth. I hope that conditions improve and that the Times can successfully reorient its business model, and I would not rule out returning to the paper.
The Observer: Any real estate stories you wished that you’d done before leaving?
Mr. Barrionuevo: Yes, there is one! I was dying to do a big blowout on super yachts, the most private and in many cases sumptuous living spaces, or “real estate,” of the global billionaires.
The Observer: Did your thoughts and opinions of it change during that time of covering it?
Mr. Barrionuevo: Certainly, I would say that I was constantly amazed at the depth of the spending power and appetite of the super-rich of the world for “trophy” properties. You almost become jaded, especially in New York, by apartments regularly costing $20 million or more. And I learned that in the United States, with the exception of the NYC co-op world, there are few checks and balances on who is buying these mega-properties, whether the money is coming from internet billionaires or oligarch gangsters who may have ordered the deaths of rivals back home. The industry players—the real estate brokers, developers and PR professionals—are among the most aggressive with media spin that I have ever encountered in my career, with the lone exception of the energy trading industry around the time that Enron, a company built on lies, collapsed.
The Observer: How did the Times change during the years that you worked there?
Mr. Barrionuevo: I think the Times continued to churn out fantastic journalism during my time there, as evidenced by the four Pulitzers the paper just won, all well-deserved. As a foreign correspondent, with the ample resources the paper gives you to travel and pursue stories throughout your territory, I hardly felt the winds of change. In New York the feeling is different. What has changed, because of the staff cuts and financial pressures facing the company, has been the sense that it was a place that someone of my age and experience level could aspire to retire from. For many journalists reaching the Times is the last stop on the train of a carefully constructed, well-fought career. Why would you want to go anywhere else? But that feeling changed somewhat for me and has for some others. After I returned from Brazil I finally could imagine a life outside of the Times, and outside of daily journalism.