Neil Barsky is a United States-based journalist, former hedge fund manager, filmmaker, and philanthropist, best known for making the 2012 film Koch and for founding The Marshall Project, a journalism nonprofit intended to shed light on the United States criminal justice system.
Early life and education
Barsky was born in the Bronx in New York City. He moved to Long Island and then New Jersey. In 1973, he returned to New York City, this time living in Long Island. He went to the Walden School for high school.
Hedge fund manager
Barsky started work as an analyst for Morgan Stanley in 1993, working on commercial real estate and the gaming industry. Within a year, he got listed in the All-Star Analysts list of Institutional Investor.
In 1998, Barsky and fellow Morgan Stanley alumnus Scott M. Sipprelle started a hedge fund called Midtown Research. Barsky stayed with the fund until 2002. In November 2007, a few months before the global stock market collapse, Sipprelle closed down the fund. Sipprelle would subsequently become a venture capitalist and would also be the Republican candidate for the House of Representatives in 2010.
In 2002, Barsky left Midtown Research and opened his own hedge fund, Alson Capital Partners, named after his children, Alexandra and Davidson. The fund made successful investments in Sears Holdings and shorted newspaper and furniture companies. It also exited the housing sector in early 2006 before the bursting of the housing bubble, although Barsky incorrectly believed that there was no bubble. After correctly predicting the popularity of the Atkins diet, the fund shorted Panera Bread and Krispy Kreme.
At its peak, the fund would have $3.5 billion in assets under management. In 2008, as a result of the global financial crisis, Alson lost 24% of its assets, down to $1.5 billion, primarily due to its large holdings in energy and utility stocks, all of which fell more than 50% after producing big gains in previous years. At the end of May 2009, the fund shut down, returning $800 million to investors. Alson's former chief operating officer said that Barsky made sure that all employees had equity and got generous severance packages, so that the closure did not cause any of their lives to be ruined.
Over his entire career as an investor (August 1998 to March 2009) Barsky made an average 12.1% a year.
New York Times journalist Joe Nocera said that during his years as a hedge fund manager, Barsky was an important source of information about the workings of finance to Nocera, but was generally referenced anonymously because hedge fund managers feared that visibility would make investors think they weren't doing their job.
Barsky's interest in journalism was sparked by a high school project on the effect of busing legislation on communities in Boston. He failed to get a journalism job right out of college, and therefore went to the Columbia Journalism School. In 1986, he started work in the news business, working the business desk at the New York Daily News. In 1988, he moved to the Wall Street Journal, where he covered commercial real estate and the gambling industry. He left the Journal in 1993 for a career in finance, where he would stay until 2009. Despite being successful in finance, Barsky continued to identify as a journalist. In 2009, after shutting down his hedge fund, Barsky renewed his exploration of journalism.
Barsky has been skeptical of journalism's almost-exclusive reliance on advertising for revenue, a skepticism that also informed his decision to short newspaper companies while operating his hedge fund. As chairman of the board of overseers of the Columbia Journalism Review, he encouraged the organization to play an important role in coming up with new business models. He similarly pushed the nonprofit Youth Communications to think about what projects would financially sustain the organization.
Barsky's interest in new models for journalism would eventually lead him to co-found The Marshall Project along with former New York Times executive editor Bill Keller. First announced in November 2013 by Barsky, the project got Keller on board in February 2014.
Journalistic Coverage of Donald Trump
Barsky has reported extensively on the business career of current President Donald Trump since 1985, mainly for The Wall Street Journal and The Daily News. He has interviewed Trump dozens of times over the course of his journalistic coverage. In 1991, Mr. Barsky won the Gerald Loeb Award for Deadline and/or Beat Writing for his "Coverage of the Collapse of Donald Trump's Financial Empire" while at The Wall Street Journal.
In August 2016, during Trump's presidential campaign, Barsky wrote a piece for The New York Times about his experience covering Trump as a businessman. He recounted when Trump was "on the brink of financial ruin" and noted that he was a "walking disaster as a businessman for much of his life," but also stated that he was "a skilled negotiator with an almost supernatural ability to pinpoint and attack his adversaries’ vulnerabilities, as several of his Republican primary opponents discovered."
Trump threatened to sue Barsky multiple times over the course of his journalistic coverage, though he never followed through. Trump wrote of Barsky in his 1997 book, "The Art of the Comeback," "Of all the writers who have written about me, probably none has been more vicious than Neil Barsky of the Wall Street Journal."
Journalistic Coverage of Rikers Island
Following numerous revelations about stark conditions in the New York City jail complex, Barsky wrote an opinion piece for the New York Times called, "Shut Down Rikers Island" in July 2015. In the piece, Barsky argued that "the only way to transform Rikers is to destroy it; it needs to be permanently closed. The buildings are crumbling. The guard culture of prisoner abuse and the gang culture of violence are ingrained. The complex is New York’s Guantánamo Bay: a secluded island, beyond the gaze of watchdogs, where the Constitution is no guide. It is a place that has outlived its usefulness." In this piece, Barsky later made the case that "the closing of the country’s most notorious jail would serve as a powerful message" for national criminal justice reform.
In March 2017, de Blasio announced his support for plans to close the Rikers Island complex through reducing the number of inmates from 10,000 to 5,000 and establishing a system of smaller jails in all five boroughs, which were released by an independent commission studying Rikers Island created by City Council speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito. Previously, in February 2016, de Blasio had called the idea of shutting down Rikers Island a "noble concept," but described it as unrealistic due to the cost.
Barsky was inspired to work on documentaries after observing the success of Waiting for Superman and Gasland in sparking discussion about their respective underlying issues (charter schools and fracking). He produced and directed Koch, a documentary released in 2012 (and theatrically released February 2013) about the role that former New York City Mayor Ed Koch played in transforming the city in the 1980s.
The Marshall Project
In his byline for an op-ed for the New York Times in November 2013, Neil Barsky mentioned that he was working on The Marshall Project, with a one-sentence description and a link to a preliminary website. In February 2014, former New York Times executive editor Bill Keller announced that he was joining the project to lead the editorial team. The project had two of its investigative journalism pieces published in Slate and the Washington Post respectively, and it launched in November 2014 with funding from Barsky and many other sources, including the Ford Foundation.
- Benner, Katie (September 5, 2013). "Neil Barsky: Reporter, hedge fund manager, movie director". Fortune. Retrieved October 13, 2015.
- Ghert-Zand, Renee (11 February 2014). "'Koch' director tackles US criminal justice system". The Times of Israel. The Times of Israel. Retrieved 11 May 2017.
- Smith, Randall (April 14, 2009). "Barsky to Shut Down His $3.5 Billion Fund". Wall Street Journal. Retrieved October 15, 2015.
- Barsky, Neil (July 28, 2005). "What Housing Bubble?". Wall Street Journal. Retrieved July 15, 2016.
- Nocera, Joe (May 15, 2009). "Hedge Fund Manager's Farewell". New York Times. Retrieved October 15, 2015.
- "Mission Statement". The Marshall Project. Retrieved May 8, 2015.
- Ellis, Justin (February 10, 2014). "Bill Keller, The Marshall Project, and making single-focus nonprofit news sites work. The former New York Times executive editor explains why he's jumping to a nonprofit news organization focused on criminal justice issues". Nieman Lab. Retrieved May 7, 2015.
- Calderone, Michael (November 16, 2014). "The Marshall Project Aims Spotlight On 'Abysmal Status' Of Criminal Justice". Huffington Post. Retrieved May 7, 2015.
- "Marshall Project Kicks Off With Look at Legal Delays". New York Times. November 16, 2014. Retrieved May 7, 2015.
- Doctor, Ken (February 12, 2015). "Newsonomics: Bill Keller's Marshall Project finds its legs covering criminal justice. The Marshall Project is trying to get beyond the narrow newsroom focus on "cops and courts" and tackle the bigger systemic issues". Newsonomics. Retrieved May 7, 2015.
- Barsky, Neil (2016-08-05). "Trump, the Bad, Bad Businessman". The New York Times. ISSN 0362-4331. Retrieved 2017-04-27.
- Thomson, Susan (June 1991). "Loeb Winners Announced" (PDF). The Business Journalist. 30 (1). Society for Advancing Business Editing and Writing. p. 3. Retrieved February 2, 2019.
- Trump, Donald J.; Bohner, Kate (1997-10-27). Trump: The Art of the Comeback (1St ed.). Times Books. ISBN 9780812929645.
- Barsky, Neil. "Opinion | Shut Down Rikers Island". Retrieved 2017-05-02.
- Goodman, J. David (2017-03-31). "Mayor Backs Plan to Close Rikers and Open Jails Elsewhere". The New York Times. ISSN 0362-4331. Retrieved 2017-05-02.
- Corasaniti, Nick (2017-04-02). "Rikers Island Commission Unveils Plan to Shut Down Jail Complex". The New York Times. ISSN 0362-4331. Retrieved 2017-05-02.
- Goodman, J. David (2016-02-16). "De Blasio Says Idea of Closing Rikers Jail Complex Is Unrealistic". The New York Times. ISSN 0362-4331. Retrieved 2017-05-02.
- Jagernauth, Kevin. "DVD Review: Neil Barsky's Documentary On New York City Mayor Ed 'Koch'".
- Scott, A.O. "Hizzoner on Screen: Regrets? That's Not His Style".
- "Neil Barsky". Internet Movie Database.
- Barsky, Neil (November 15, 2013). "Chill Out, 1 Percenters". New York Times. Retrieved May 8, 2015.
- Somaiya, Ravi (February 9, 2014). "Bill Keller, Former Editor of The Times, Is Leaving for News Nonprofit". New York Times. Retrieved May 8, 2015.
- "The Marshall Project to launch in November". Capital New York. October 23, 2014. Retrieved May 7, 2015.