Mr. Barbaro’s arrival at the Times was not particularly auspicious.
For one thing, he had not been recruited. After graduating from Yale in 2002, Mr. Barbaro worked as a retail reporter at the Washington Post, covering Wal-Mart and longing to move to New York and work for the paper of record.
The son of an Italian firefighter and a Jewish schoolteacher, he grew up in North Haven, Connecticut, working a paper route for the New Haven Register with his older sister. On the weekends, the Barbaros assembled Sunday editions as a family before the children biked them around town.
When Michael was a teenager, his parents began subscribing to the Times, a development that he tells people changed his life. In high school, he aspired to be its Jerusalem Bureau Chief.
In 2005, Tracie Rozhon, the Times reporter on Mr. Barbaro’s beat, whispered in his ear that she was vacating her job. Mr. Barbaro called editors relentlessly until he was granted an interview.
His first day on the job, October 1 of that year, was overshadowed somewhat by Judith Miller’s release from jail and the bizarre newsroom celebration that ensued. Undeterred by the tense program of reform and reconstruction then underway at the paper, Mr. Barbaro quickly fell in with a clique of twenty-something reporters, including Julie Bosman and Jeremy Peters.
He first gained notoriety in 2007, when his steady stream of scoops about Walmart (occasionally citing leaked internal memos) prompted one loyal Walmart technician to intercept Mr. Barbaro’s phone calls.
Mr. Barbaro found out from a Walmart chief executive, who called the reporter to apologize after a Federal investigation was announced. His primary concern was that he and his sources had chatted about their personal lives before talking shop.
Mr. Barbaro transferred to the City Hall desk in 2008, where his background in business reporting annoyed veteran Room 9 reporters. Some thought his disinterest in the grind of the city government machine was a sign of arrogance, others were probably jealous that in spite of his inexperience, many politicians went to the Times with big announcements. As for Mr. Barbaro, he found Room 9 too claustrophobic; he occasionally burned his hands using a Rotunda radiator as a makeshift desk.
Before long, he was promoted to the Times “regional political rover position,” which allowed him to head up to Albany whenever necessary, cover city politics more broadly, and escape the surveillance of rivals, retreating to the Times newsroom.
Mr. Barbaro’s promotion coincided with Carolyn Ryan’s move to metro editor. The Times Metro section had recently been collapsed into the front section, and Ms. Ryan was tasked with designing a beat for Mr. Barbaro that would frame local political coverage for a national audience. To that end, she was lucky to have Michael Bloomberg—one of the nation’s wealthiest businessmen—as a subject. And she was lucky to have Mr. Barbaro, a reporter who would become possessed by the prospect of getting inside the mayor’s head.
Former Bloomberg employees speculate that Mr. Barbaro’s many sources among captains of industry gave him a competitive edge in the coverage of his primary subject. He is at ease in Mayor Bloomberg’s non-political milieu. He belonged to a secret society at Yale (Manuscript, the artsy one) and, in an industry that tolerates schlubs and stay-at-home bloggers, Mr. Barbaro is known for his natty wardrobe. (He has an electric tie rack.)
Shortly after Mr. Barbaro joined the City Hall desk, one Bloomberg aide was shocked to hear that the Mayor had run into the reporter unexpectedly at waterfront cocktail party in Westchester County.
“I can’t think of any other Room 9 reporter whose life would intersect with the mayor’s like that,” the aide said.
Former Bloomberg campaign manager Bradley Tusk kicked Mr. Barbaro out of the mayor’s 2009 victory party—it had been a close race and a long night. He later found out his fellow staffer Howard Wolfson had told Mr. Barbaro he was welcome.
Additionally, Mr. Barbaro rents an apartment comically close to Gracie Mansion, on 80th and York, with his partner of five years, Tim Levin, the founder and CEO of Bespoke Education, a tutoring company, and a fellow Yalie.
Mr. Barbaro reunited with a former journalistic collaborator, Ross Douthat, in 2009, when he was named New York Times op-ed columnist. The two had been classmates at the Connecticut prep school Hamden Hall, where Mr. Douthat edited the literary magazine and Mr. Barbaro edited the newspaper.
Together, in secret, they founded and edited La Vérité, an anonymous underground newspaper that aimed to expose the school’s changing admissions policies. Following the construction of a major new athletic facility by an alumni donor and sportswear mogul, they alleged, academic admissions standards had been lowered in hopes of building a competitive basketball program.
Mr. Barbaro and Mr. Douthat played on the b-team.
In an all-school assembly intended to guilt the anonymous radicals into ceasing and desisting, one English teacher praised the publication for being well-written.
Mr. Barbaro wrote an editorial in the school newspaper attacking the underground paper, and then penned an anonymous counter-attack in La Vérité.
Although Mr. Douthat followed the alternate trajectory to Harvard and then Washington, D.C., the two remained friends. Mr. Barbaro was the best man at Mr. Douthat’s wedding in 2007. Whether Mr. Douthat would return the favor if asked is a stickier question. The columnist publicly opposes gay marriage. Asked if the issue had been a source of strife between the two, Mr. Douthat said, “Mike and I have disagreed about everything political since we were very, very young, and I think that he’s always been gracious about putting our friendship in front of that issue.”
When gay marriage was legalized in New York, Mr. Douthat called Mr. Barbaro to congratulate him, both on the news and on his coverage of it, which included a tick-tock—a retroactive and analytic look at how the headline was made. The form has become Mr. Barbaro’s hallmark.
“The Road to Gay Marriage,” published the day after the law was passed, revealed the personal motivations of the politicians—including the fact that Sandra Lee, who has an openly gay brother, had been pressuring Mr. Cuomo to pass the law, and that State Senator Carl Kruger’s girlfriend’s gay nephew had cut off contact with him due to his opposition.
“Michael has a gift for earning people’s trust,” a former Bloomberg campaign staffer told The Observer.
Mr. Barbaro’s social skills were apparent in his early days as Mr. Douthat’s co-conspirator. “Ross has word magic, you have people magic,” Mr. Douthat’s father told Mr. Barbaro.