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Four hours into her search for the perfect writer to take on a new assignment traveling to our 2018 picks for 52 Places to Go, our travel editor, Monica Drake, began to realize that this would be no ordinary recruiting process. Already, the applications were flowing in. Within 24 hours, there were 2,400.
Ultimately, in the nine days the position was listed in late October, Monica received 9,000 applications.
The posting spawned at least one internet meme and inspired applicants to launch websites and to mail Monica gifts. One applicant traveled hundreds of miles to visit the office unannounced. A 1980s R&B heartthrob made a YouTube video urging Monica to hire his friend.
Monica went on Facebook Live on Friday to talk about the job and the applicants and to give an update on the hiring process. Here is a condensed and edited version of her talk.
What is 52 Places to Go and how did you come up with the idea for this job?
Every year we create this really lavish, beautiful interactive, 52 Places to Go. And we keep it at 52 places because we want readers to think about going to a new place every week.
So this year what I decided to do in addition to having readers think about the places every week is to actually send someone to every single place on the list in 2018. And apparently that’s something a lot of people want to do. I was just flooded with job applicants.
Tell us about the cultural phenomenon that ensued when you posted the listing.
People seized on things I said in interviews and started sending me things unsolicited. You can see some of it sitting in my office. I said I was looking for the perfect unicorn who has it all. So I got my unicorns.
I also got a stuffed unicorn that is I think about three feet high. We can’t keep gifts like that. So I actually donated that to raise funds for our Neediest Cases Fund. So it went to a worthy cause.
One of my favorite reactions to the job was a Medium post. Someone claimed to crack the code to getting the job and created this lovely flowchart that starts out, “Are you or are you not Anthony Bourdain?” If the answer is yes, you just don’t change a thing and presumably you would get this job. I followed this flowchart, and based on it I don’t know if I would get the job.
And people created memes.
Justin Trudeau did not apply for the job. This is satire.
People did create websites to promote their applications. One guy who created one is a friend of Al B. Sure!, who made this video on his behalf.
A 14-year-old version of me is very excited that Al B. Sure! knows my name right now. Actually, current me is very excited that Al B. Sure! knows my name right now. But things like this have no bearing on whether you get the job, because I didn’t ask everyone to submit a celebrity friend video.
So obviously everyone who ever dreamed of spending a year traveling the world applied for this job. Tell us a little about their backgrounds.
I was really heartened by the wide variety of people who applied. We got a lot of people who don’t have a traditional background for being a reporter for The Times. First of all, a lot of baristas applied.
We got a lot of people from tech companies. We got somebody who used to be a coal miner and was trying to become a travel photographer. We got a lot of teachers — a lot of history teachers. We also got flight attendants, probably because they like to travel and don’t get to do it at a slower pace.
Actors, actresses, we got some models, a mechanic writing from Russia, an airplane refueler. We got a physics professor, a dance professor.
We got a lot of writers who are really great feature writers. We got a lot of applicants who were photographers or make documentaries.
We also got a lot of people who work in television. We got a lot of people who work in broadcast television, anchors or hosts. A lot of people who work on sports too — a lot of people who cover sports, a lot of anchors, a lot of producers.
With 9,000 applications, how did you manage to evaluate everyone?
We looked at every single one of them, I’m proud to say. There was a team of four of us and we set up sessions. We divided up the list, created these immense spreadsheets with titles, positions, experience skills, and scanned the spreadsheets. If anything jumped out at us, we would dive into the application material to find out about the person.
That yielded a lot of surprises. A lot of people who I wouldn’t expect to be good at writing and putting together a story were actually good at it.
What are you looking for in this travel writer?
The qualifications are quite broad because I wanted to make sure that people who applied were not just travel journalists and not just writers, but people who are really good at visual storytelling.
I’m looking for someone who loves travel. We got a little pushback at one point for asking for someone who has travel experience. Even though travel seems fun, working and writing while you’re traveling is actually a job and it’s a skill that you get better at over time. I’m looking for someone who can really parachute into a place, get to know what it’s like, share with our readers and viewers what it’s like on social media, using video, using images; someone who can write a piece that appears on our site and in print as well.
Where are you in the process?
We are now sort of narrowing down and selecting the top candidates. For the top candidates, we’re thinking of choosing more along the lines of 100, rather than just 10 or so. We’ll be reaching out to those people for the next couple of weeks, just asking for more information and asking questions.
We’re also trying to figure out how to engage all of the applicants, regardless of whether they make the cut, trying to figure out how to engage them in the trip and get their perspective. I’ll have some updates on that going forward.
After we reach out to everybody, we’re going to announce our selection. I’m calling it informally — in house — the traveler job. We’re going to announce our traveler when we publish our next 52 Places list in mid-January.