Nieman Foundation at Harvard
HOME
          
LATEST STORY
Are you willing to pay for CNN.com? Prepare to be asked before year’s end
ABOUT                    SUBSCRIBE
Feb. 28, 2024, 2:55 p.m.

Is The New York Times’ newsroom just a bunch of Ivy Leaguers? (Kinda, sorta.)

They’re not a majority, based on a new look at education data, but they are wildly overrepresented.

The New York Times is the most prominent news organization in the United States — and, by general consensus, the pinnacle of the journalism career ladder. Sure, star reporters sometimes leave the Times for a rival — but more often, it’s the Times that’s busy snapping up other outlets’ talent. Fifteen years ago, it employed about 1% of all American newspaper employees, a number that had held steady for decades; today, that number is approaching 7%. Its remarkable financial success has made it one of the very few news organizations where the next few years can be viewed with more optimism than dread.

So who works there? Who are the 1,700-or-so people1 writing the stories, editing the headlines, shooting the photos, building the interactives — and taking up an ever-growing share of the news universe as local media shrivels?

The stereotype of a Times journalist — what in Gay Talese’s day was called a Timesman — is deeply intertwined with their education. The Timesman is a product of the Northeastern educational elite — from money, perhaps, but also with a fancy degree from an Ivy League school. (In The Kingdom and the Power, Talese described the Times’ 1960s hiring editor as someone “who preferred hiring as copyboys tweedy graduates of Ivy League colleges who swore by The Times, who would eagerly accept employment in the Times building even as window washers…there were copyboys employed at that very moment who had master’s degrees and Ph.Ds.”) But stereotypes are just stereotypes — what sort of educational background actually points the way to a Times job?

A few weeks ago, the Times did something that lets us have a peek inside. It redesigned the bio pages that you reach when clicking on a journalist’s byline. Most had previously featured only a bare-bones bio, if that. But now they would feature expanded background information, “designed to bolster trust with readers by letting them know who we are and how we work,” according to a memo from editors Marc Lacey and Matt Ericson:

The bios also give us a chance to tell readers about our deep expertise. They might not know that our Supreme Court reporter used to be a First Amendment lawyer. Or that we have several architects who build 3-D models for our graphics presentations. Or that one of our health and wellness journalists holds a doctorate in experimental psychology. Or how one of our economics reporters writes his own code to analyze employment data.

And readers may be surprised to learn that we are from all over the United States, and the world, and that most of us are not from New York. Or that some of us served in the military. Or once pastored a church.

With the increasing prospect of more A.I.-generated content filling the internet, we want to address this head-on by emphasizing the people behind our work.

Not every Times newsroom staffer has an expanded bio page yet, but by my most recent count, 460 do. And most, in the course of laying out their professional backgrounds, list what colleges they attended. I saw the chance to finally examine the Times alma mater question in a systemic way.

So that’s what I did: I read through all 460 and pulled out every mention of attendance at a college or university. Of those, 331 listed at least one alma mater. For the remaining 129 — plus 14 who had only listed a graduate program — I went diving across the internet for more info, checking out everything from LinkedIn profiles to personal websites to book-jacket bios. In the end, I was able to track down what I believe to be accurate university info on all but 11 of the 460. (I emailed those 11 last week but didn’t hear back from any. Understandable — it’s an odd question to get out of the blue.) While my data still only represents a fraction of the Times newsroom, it’s nonetheless a meaningful fraction.

So what did I find?

  • The Ivy League is, in fact, a major feeder to the Times newsroom. Of the eight colleges most common among the staffers in my study, six are Ivy League schools. (In descending order, those are Yale, Columbia, Harvard, Brown, Cornell, and Princeton. The two non-Ivies are Northwestern and U.C. Berkeley.)
  • Even outside the Ivy League, staffers’ alma maters are disproportionately highly selective private colleges — think Stanford, Duke, Georgetown — or top state flagship schools like UNC, Michigan, or Texas.
  • When it comes to graduate school, Columbia is king, by a wide margin.

Before I go any further: This seems like as good a place as any to note a few very obvious things. Nieman Lab, the website you’re reading, is part of — and thus I am an employee of — Harvard University, which is about as Ivy League as Ivy League gets. Even worse, many years ago, I graduated from Yale. (I was a first-generation college student from a small Louisiana town, if that helps!) Several other Nieman Lab staffers also have Ivy degrees. It’s a little weird to hear even a gentle “maybe hire some more non-Ivy Leaguers?” from a doubled-down Ivy Leaguer. Given all that, you are free to view this piece as hypocrisy, as irony, as class warfare, or as a cosmically funny joke — the pot calling the kettle elite. It’s up to you!

Let’s look at some numbers — first, undergraduate. The Times employs journalists from around the world, so naturally some went to college in their home countries. Since I’m most interested in the Times’ interaction with the American university system, I’m stripping those out here.2 And a handful of people listed more from one college, having transferred from one to another mid-degree; I’m counting both here. Those two decisions leave us with 393 known undergraduate alma maters. Here’s how they break down.

Most common U.S. undergraduate colleges for New York Times staffers
26
██████████████████████████

Yale University
21
█████████████████████

Columbia University 3
20
████████████████████

Harvard University
14
██████████████

Northwestern University
13
█████████████

U.C. Berkeley
10
██████████

Brown University
Cornell University
Princeton University
8
████████

Georgetown University
New York University
Stanford University
University of Pennsylvania
7
███████

Duke University
Middlebury College
University of North Carolina
6
██████

University of Michigan
University of Texas
5
█████

Boston University
University of Chicago
4
████

Emory University
Penn State University
University of Maryland
University of Missouri
University of Southern California
University of Virginia
University of Wisconsin
Vassar College
3
███

Carleton College
College of William and Mary
Indiana University
Rutgers University
Syracuse University
University of Texas Rio Grande Valley4
Williams College
2
██

Amherst College, Bates College, Boston College, Brandeis University, Claremont McKenna College, CUNY5, Dartmouth College, Emerson College, Florida A&M University, George Washington University, Hampshire College, Haverford College, Howard University, Illinois State University, Ithaca College, Marquette University, Michigan State University, Oberlin College, Pomona College, Reed College, SUNY Purchase, Swarthmore College, Temple University, U.C. Santa Barbara, U.C. Santa Cruz, U.C.L.A., University of Florida, University of Georgia, University of Iowa, University of Miami, University of Mississippi, University of Nebraska, University of Notre Dame, Whitman College
1

Arizona State University, Asbury University, Bard College, Berklee College of Music, Bowdoin College, Bryn Mawr College, Bucknell University, Cal State Chico, Catholic University, Colgate University, College of the Holy Cross, Defense Information School, DePauw University, Elon University, Fort Valley State University, Goucher College, Grambling State University, Grinnell College, Gustavus Adolphus College, Hamilton College, Hartwick College, Hofstra University, Mount Holyoke College, Kenyon College, Lafayette College, Lake Forest College, Lipscomb University, Louisiana State University, Loyola University Chicago, Loyola University New Orleans, M.I.T., New School, Northeastern University, Ohio State University, Ohio University, Principia College, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, Rice University, Saint John’s College, Sarah Lawrence College, Shippensburg University of Pennsylvania, Skidmore College, Smith College, Southern Methodist University, St. Bonaventure University, St. John’s University, Stony Brook University, Tufts University, Tulane University, U.C. Davis, U.C. San Diego, U.N.L.V., U.S. Naval Academy, University of Buffalo, University of Central Arkansas, University of Colorado, University of Delaware, University of Illinois, University of Kansas, University of Kentucky, University of Massachusetts, University of New Hampshire, University of Rochester, University of Vermont, University of Washington, Vanderbilt University, Villanova University, Virginia Tech, Wake Forest University, Washington University (St. Louis), Wellesley College, Westminster College, Wheaton College
Note: These are colleges staffers say they’ve attended; they may or may not have actually earned a bachelor’s degree there. A few staffers list more than one undergraduate college; each listed is counted here. Colleges are taken from Times bios, LinkedIn profiles, or other online bios.

The top of that list looks a lot like the stereotype: a bunch of Ivy Leaguers. Indeed, the eight Ivy colleges alone make up 107 of the 393 staffer alma maters listed here — about 27.2%. Yale (26), Columbia (21), and Harvard (20) are the top feeders, with Brown (10), Cornell (10), Princeton (10), and Penn (8) in a second cluster and Dartmouth (2) bringing up the rear.

Your reaction to these numbers likely depends on the assumptions you brought to them. If you thought that Harvard and Yale types were a numerical majority in the newsroom, you might be surprised to learn that roughly three-quarters of staffers aren’t Ivy Leaguers.6

But there’s no denying these schools are wildly over-represented compared to their peers. Collectively, the Ivies enroll around 16,000 new freshmen each year — a tiny sliver of the 2.3 million new freshmen at all American colleges. And despite some progress in diversifying their student bodies, they still look little like America. (More than half of Harvard students come from the top 10% in terms of family income. Fifteen percent come from the top 1%.)

What about beyond the Ivies? The term “Ivy Plus” is a fuzzy one — sometimes used to mean the Ivies plus only a few other top schools like Stanford and MIT, sometimes a slightly broader group. Here I’ll define it as all the other private universities in the top 25 of U.S. News’ annual rankings of national universities.

This slightly broader group represents another 51 of the 393 staffer alma maters — about 13%. (Northwestern 14, Georgetown 8, Stanford 8, Duke 7, University of Chicago 5, Emory 4, Notre Dame 2, MIT 1, Vanderbilt 1, Washington University 1.)

What about public universities? The largest flagship campuses in each state tend to get many more resources than their directional peers. Then there are the “Public Ivies,” another fuzzy term used to describe some public campuses with high-end reputations. So let’s look at states’ big flagship universities, plus a few other public universities I spotted on various Public Ivies lists online. Those represent another 100 out of the 393 alma maters, or 25.4%. (In descending order: UC Berkeley 13, North Carolina 7, Michigan 6, Texas 6, Penn State 4, Maryland 4, Missouri 4, Virginia 4, Wisconsin 4, William and Mary 3, Indiana 3, Rutgers 3, CUNY 2, Michigan State 2, UC Santa Barbara 2, UC Santa Cruz 2, UCLA 2, Florida 2, Georgia 2, Iowa 2, Mississippi 2, Nebraska 2, Arizona State 1, LSU 1, Ohio State 1, Ohio U. 1, Stony Brook 1, Buffalo 1, UC Davis 1, UC San Diego 1, UNLV 1, Colorado 1, Delaware 1, Illinois 1, Kansas 1, Kentucky 1, UMass 1, New Hampshire 1, Vermont 1, Washington 1, Virginia Tech 1.)

Together, the colleges in those three groups make up about two-thirds of all the Times alma maters — again, within this specific group of journalists with extended bios. Overall, they account for less than 10% of total college enrollment nationwide.7

And what about the colleges outside those groups? The other schools that account for more than two Times staffers are nearly all private schools with annual tuitions above $60,000. Among small private colleges — a.k.a. “Little Ivies” — we have Williams, Carleton, Middlebury, and Vassar — currently ranked Nos. 1, 9, 11, and 16 among national liberal arts colleges by U.S. News. And among the larger private campuses, you find USC, NYU, Boston University8, and Syracuse — ranked Nos. 28, 35, 43, and 67 among national universities. (The only exception here: the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley, which has educated three Times staffers despite a middle-of-the-pack reputation and in-state tuition under $10,000 a year.)

To sum up: In this group of hundreds of Times staffers, more than a quarter are literal Ivy Leaguers. A roughly similar number attended other somewhat-elite-to-definitely-elite selective private universities. About a quarter went to a flagship or flagship-like state school, with the rest a mix of smaller private and public colleges. (Six staffers listed an HBCU as an alma mater — two each from Howard and Florida A&M and one each from Grambling State and Fort Valley State.9)

It would be foolish to expect the Times to perfectly align with the educational backgrounds of the broader public. After all, only about 40% of American adults have a bachelor’s degree (depending on how you do the math); that number is near 100% among Times journalists. And while people who attended fancy colleges are unrepresentative in many ways, some of them are also very good journalists!10

But here’s the reality: The contemporary American news industry is unrepresentative in a long list of ways. Diversifying news outlets can be hard work — but it’s especially hard in periods of decline, when more people are exiting the newsroom than entering. (That’s true even when contracts don’t mandate seniority preferences in layoffs.) So those rare publishers who are still growing have an extra responsibility to do the work. (Especially when their business models are increasingly based on reaching the richer and more highly educated segments of the public.)

You may remember a kerfuffle over this back in 2019, when Theodore Kim, then the Times’ director of newsroom fellowships and internships, tweeted out what he described as a “super unscientific opinion on which U.S. schools churn out the most consistently productive candidates”:

Best (no order): Columbia, Northwestern, UC Berkeley, Yale

Honorable Mentions Tier 1 (no order): Missouri, Harvard, Florida, USC, Duke, Stanford

Honorable Mentions, Tier 2 (no order): Howard, Texas, Maryland, UPenn, Cornell, UNC, Syracuse, Illinois, Arizona State, Colorado State, Florida A&M, NYU, Miami of Ohio, Western Kentucky, UC San Diego

I also forgot to mention the Newmark School (formerly CUNY), which is definitely in the mix…

My number crunching would suggest that list lines up pretty well with who the Times actually hires.

The blowback Kim got was intense. Some of it was driven by pride — people claiming their alma mater should have made the list. But some was about the kinds of schools on the list — or even the existence of a list at all. “I mean, we knew newsrooms are rife with elitist bias but gee whiz.” “This list is completely unnecessary and it shows what those of us who didn’t go to one of these schools face.” “These are just really expensive schools.” “Give me a kid from a working-class commuter school any day.” “Elitism is not the future of journalism.” “Elitist, arrogant, disrespectful, and just plain ignorant.

Kim apologized for having “sounded elitist and narrow.” But the outrage reflected the degree to which many journalists see an expensive degree as the unfair key to the Times’ lock. Educational attainment is increasingly the dividing line in American political life — not least because, in today’s economy, it’s a huge factor in how optimistic you can be about your future. For the Times, the rupture is less between college and high school than between elite colleges and other colleges — but it’s still a divide.

The difference can even show up in our coverage. Check out this paper that came out last fall, by lead author Dominique Baker of the University of Delaware. It looks at how journalists write about the issue of student loan debt and connects it to the colleges those journalists attended. She looked at articles from major newspapers, both national (the Times, Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, USA Today) and regional (Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Chicago Tribune, Los Angeles Times, Philadelphia Inquirer). When Baker looked up the educational backgrounds of the reporters who wrote them, the results had a familiar skew toward the Ivies, Ivy Plus, and state flagships. Compare the bars for reporters (green) to those for the total college population (blue):

Baker was interested in whether or not reporters’ stories made any reference to the disproportionate impact loan debt has on people of color, especially African Americans. She found that reporters who had attended less elite and more diverse colleges were significantly more likely to mention this racial relationship in their stories.

Would it surprise you to learn that, in the past year, the Times has mentioned the word “Harvard” 7.4 times as often as it has mentioned “community college”? Or that the ratio is 4× for “Stanford,” 3.5× for “Yale,” and 2× for both “Cornell” and “Princeton”?

Finally, as an addendum, let’s take a quick look at the data on graduate schools.

I was surprised, frankly, how few of the Times staffers in this dataset appear to have graduate degrees. Of the 451 staffers for whom I was able to determine at least one alma mater11, only 175 — about 39% — listed any sort of graduate education. (That’s not too different from college graduates as a whole; around 37% of those with a bachelor’s degree also report having a master’s.) And of those, the overwhelming majority were in master’s programs; only 16 listed a doctoral or professional (mostly law school) program.

(Among the Timesian terminal degrees: James Glanz’s Princeton Ph.D. in astrophysics, Alexis Soloski’s Columbia Ph.D. in comparative literature, Katrina Miller’s University of Chicago Ph.D. in physics, and Chris Wood’s Ph.D. in media and arts technology from Queen Mary University of London. Oh, and Paul Krugman’s M.I.T. economics Ph.D., obviously. I honestly expected to find a few more doctorates and M.D.s here among professor types who’d transitioned to journalism mid-career.)

Among the 165 staffers listing a master’s program, there was a very clear No. 1: Columbia University, with a whopping 61 — more than a third of the total.

Most common master’s-level graduate schools for New York Times staffers
61
█████████████████████████████████████████████████████████████

Columbia University
15
███████████████

New York University
9
█████████

U.C. Berkeley
7
███████

University of Oxford
5
█████

London School of Economics
Northwestern University
4
████

Princeton University
University of Cambridge
3
███

Harvard University
University of Chicago
University of Missouri
2
██

American University in Cairo
City University of London
CUNY
Johns Hopkins University
King’s College London
Sciences Po
University of Maryland
Yale University
1

American University, Arizona State University, Australian National University, Bhimrao Ambedkar University, Birkbeck University of London, Courtauld Institute of Art, Fuller Theological Seminary, George Washington University, Georgetown University, Hankuk University of Foreign Studies, M.I.T., McGill University, Mississippi State University, Ohio State University, Ohio University, Pratt Institute, Seattle Pacific University, Shandong University, SOAS University of London, Syracuse University, Tokyo University of Foreign Studies, Toronto Metropolitan University, Trinity College, Tufts University, U.C.L.A., University College London, U.C. Santa Cruz, University of Hong Kong, University of Kansas, University of Kentucky, University of Leeds, University of Michigan, University of Pennsylvania, University of the Witwatersrand, Warren Wilson College, York University
Does not include doctoral or professional (law, medicine, etc.) programs. Staffers may or may not have earned a degree. Programs taken from Times bios, LinkedIn profiles, or other online bios.

Many of the Times bios don’t list the specific graduate program someone was enrolled in. But it’s clear from those that do — along with common sense — that the overwhelming majority enrolled in one of the Columbia Journalism School’s master’s degree programs.

Of the Times staffers with a Columbia master’s, 10 got their undergraduate degree outside the U.S. — meaning Columbia likely served as a sort of bridge into a career in the U.S. Of the 50 Columbia master’s alums with an American undergrad degree12, only 8 had attended a public university for undergrad. The rest had attended private universities, most of them without journalism degree programs. (Twenty-one had gone to Ivy Plus schools.) This would seem to support the conventional wisdom that Columbia is a common path for people who decide to get into journalism after getting their bachelor’s. (As I have written before, I believe there’s real potential in creating some alternative path for these people that doesn’t involve spending $100,000 and moving to New York City for a year.)

Beyond Columbia, second-place NYU illustrates the pull of New York City. You’ll also note sizable representation from U.K. universities — a roughly even mix of native Brits and Americans crossing the pond for grad school. (Note that several of these British universities — LSE, City, King’s, UCL, SOAS, and Birkbeck — are all constituent colleges of the federated University of London. If counted together, they’d represent 12 Timesian master’s programs — in third place, behind NYU.)

Photo of the ivy-covered wall of Princeton’s Nassau Hall by Tim Alex

  1. With 42 newsroom jobs posted at this writing! []
  2. For those interested, the top non-U.S. undergrad alma maters are overwhelmingly in the U.K. and Canada: McGill 5, Oxford 4, Cambridge 4, City University London 3, Leeds 3, Toronto Metropolitan 3, London School of Economics 2, Queen’s 2, Sciences Po 2, Calgary 2, Edinburgh 2, Sydney 2, Toronto 2, University of the Arts London 2, and 24 others each with 1. []
  3. I am including here and throughout five Times staffers who listed Barnard College, the women’s college that is part of Columbia University. []
  4. Included here are two who listed the University of Texas Pan American, which was merged into UT Rio Grande Valley in 2018. []
  5. One City College and one Brooklyn College, for the record. []
  6. I should note that, while the 460 expanded bios represent many different corners of the newsroom, they are disproportionately reporters rather than editors. (That makes sense, given that editors don’t usually have bylines to click on.) So I separately looked up the undergrad alma maters of the 12 people currently on the Times’ news masthead. Five were undergrad Ivy Leaguers (two Harvard, one each Yale, Columbia, and Cornell), five attended other private colleges (Williams, Notre Dame, Bates, Northeastern, and the University of St. Thomas), and two attended state flagships (Minnesota and Iowa). []
  7. See page 52. Note that this study by Dominique Baker et al. uses slightly different definitions — for example, its “Ivy Plus” adds only Stanford, Duke, MIT, Northwestern, and Chicago. []
  8. Full disclosure: I teach at BU. []
  9. Update: I originally had this total as five, mistakenly omitting Fort Valley State. []
  10. Noting again for the people in the back: This is a website based at Harvard! We may have a certain amount of affection for the institution that pays our bills. []
  11. For the number-sticklers: This includes the 449 for whom I was able to determine an undergraduate program for — the group in the data above, after adding back in the non-U.S. schools — plus two who listed only a graduate degree and for whom I couldn’t find undergrad info. []
  12. The eagle-eyed among you will note 50+10≠61. I’m excluding one person with a Columbia master’s whose undergrad I couldn’t determine. []
Joshua Benton is the senior writer and former director of Nieman Lab. You can reach him via email (joshua_benton@harvard.edu) or Twitter DM (@jbenton).
POSTED     Feb. 28, 2024, 2:55 p.m.
Show tags
 
Join the 60,000 who get the freshest future-of-journalism news in our daily email.
Are you willing to pay for CNN.com? Prepare to be asked before year’s end
The cable news network plans to launch a new subscription product — details TBD — by the end of 2024. Will Mark Thompson repeat his New York Times success, or is CNN too different a brand to get people spending?
Errol Morris on whether you should be afraid of generative AI in documentaries
“Our task is to get back to the real world, to the extent that it is recoverable.”
In the world’s tech capital, Gazetteer SF is staying off platforms to produce good local journalism
“Thank goodness that the mandate will never be to look what’s getting the most Twitter likes.”