Publisher Amir Korangy started The Real Deal out of his Brooklyn apartment nearly two decades ago, shortly before he was joined by Editor-in-Chief Stuart Elliott and Yoav Barilan, who today helps oversee sales operations. The publication was initially a Variety-style tip sheet with columns of text packed onto the cover. But a lot has changed since then: TRD is now a multifaceted media company known for award-winning investigative stories and the most popular real estate news site on the web, having complemented the New York City base with operations in South Florida, Chicago and Los Angeles. To mark TRD’s 250th issue, Korangy and Elliott sat down in the publication’s Hudson Yards headquarters to discuss the evolution of the company and some of their favorite war stories.
Stuart: Do you remember how you first pitched the magazine?
Amir: There were pubs out there like Real Estate Weekly, GlobeSt.com and Real Estate Forum, but I thought they were either not good enough or too divided and not the whole of real estate. They only focused on leasing or just one part of the business.
I envisioned real estate to be all one community. Residential impacted commercial and lending impacted both, and development changed everyone and everything involved — basically what The Real Deal is today. Initially, I came up with the idea of what I thought the front cover should be. I decided on a Variety-style magazine, which is tabloid-size glossy. I created that front cover. Then I made a list of all the communications departments at all the different firms to go and tell them about what I was starting and for them to share their info with us. Back then people faxed stuff. Of course, it was hard to get those meetings. I remember going to some places and pretending like I had a meeting. Sometimes that worked or people would just agree to meet with me. There were a lot of rejections and they were defeating, so to encourage myself I used to have a cheesy mantra I repeated to myself: “The belief of one man is stronger than the doubt of a thousand.” And it actually worked.
I remember going to Rubenstein and meeting with Alan Segan, who is a true gentleman. He said that he thought this was great and was surprised no one had thought of it. He was one of the first people to book me big clients for interviews. He was great. My pitch was that I wanted to create something for the real estate universe as Variety was for Hollywood. People liked the idea. Some people didn’t know Variety, so I would use Crain’s [as an example].
Yoav sold our first ad, and I couldn’t believe it because the magazine didn’t exist. And the advertiser agreed to do it at full rate. I just couldn’t believe that someone would take a full-page ad at full rate without the magazine even existing.
Stuart: Our first big get was in our third issue — the Donald Trump interview.
Amir: The fourth. We had done a story about how Trump was going to get a reality TV show, and you wrote something that the bigger [real estate] families in New York don’t consider Trump one of the skyline builders. Trump made the effort of ripping the page out and with a black Sharpie writing on it, “Why all the anger, Stuart? Love, the Donald.” And he ripped it out and found our office in Brooklyn and had it delivered to us. So we reached out and we were like, “Look there’s no anger — we would love to do a story of you on the cover.” And he agreed to be on the fourth edition.
Stuart: So at that time, like starting in 2003, it was a huge boom that lasted five years. And you would see crazy things, like there would be lines at new condos like the night before [sales offices opened]; people were buying off blueprints. And then there were sales centers that were open 24 hours a day. And it was just kind of this hysteria that was going on, and we kind of rode that wave.
Amir: And the parties that were happening back then were surreal. I mean, I remember [Extell Development’s] Gary Barnett, he had Sting at one of his parties, and Michael Shvo had John Legend for his Armani party down in FiDi.
Stuart: And actually one of the things that happened right when we started up was the Time Warner Center opened [in 2003], and [the previous building there] was a huge eyesore and this was a huge project. I think it was the biggest building since 9/11. And I remember Jewel and Jon Stewart being onstage and the real estate crowd there, they were just ignoring them. And that was my first taste of the real estate crowd that you see at the REBNY gala. Like they’ll just network through anything and they just are not fazed.
Amir: So, you know, we always get inspiration for different features in the magazine from other publications. Graydon Carter had some great ideas and the Proust questionnaire at the back of Vanity Fair; we thought we should have our own interview [on the last page] of the magazine. And [an editor], Tom Acitelli, said — without even blinking — “The Closing.” And I thought that just was the best name for it. So we started doing the Closing interview, and I remember in 2007, right before the market collapsed, Charlie Kushner had just come out of prison. And he agreed to have the very first interview that he does being with The Real Deal, which I thought was great.
Stuart: But I remember that period in 2007 we had a cover, I think it was in September 2007, which was when the subprime crisis happened. It was a funny period from a news point of view, because you saw when the stuff hits the fan, lawsuits start to proliferate. People need to read news [even] more. You know, we were writing about the Interstate Land Sales Full Disclosure Act, which was the most ingenious thing. It was Adam Leitman Bailey, the lawyer, coming up with this obscure federal statute, which required [developers] to disclose something about swampland in Florida, but it was a federal statute. And none of the developers here had added it to their projects’ disclosure forms. So he basically figured out a way to get all his condo buyers out of the projects or get price reductions by saying, you didn’t [adhere to] this  law about swampland.
Amir: And I remember that Howard Lorber was just starting to invest with developers through his New Valley subsidiary, and he really didn’t want us to write that story because he thought other people are going to find out about [ILSA] and then pull out of their contracts [to buy new development condominiums]. And we still wrote the story, obviously, and people did pull out of their contracts. And that really damaged our relationship for several years.
Stuart: Luckily, we didn’t have to make any layoffs during that period [when the recession hit].
Amir: In fact, we ended up hiring people. The [New York] Sun closed down, and we were able to get a lot of great journalists from there.
Stuart: In the early years we had these covers that had a lot of stories on them. We would have six or seven stories on the cover. We were trying to jam-pack as much information as we could just because we were always nervous. Like, will people see the value in [the magazine] if we don’t include as much information right on the cover as possible?
Amir: The idea was to be a Variety-style publication. And then for our 10-year anniversary, for the first time we did a single story on the cover. And then we went back to doing the regular Variety style. And then I get a call late one night from [Donald Trump’s attorney] Michael Cohen. He was like, “Why don’t you guys come in and do a story? We’ll show you all of our paperwork on what the Donald is worth and how we came to this $8.5 billion valuation.”
Stuart: The documents they said they were going to give us never materialized. So we were like, how do we do this story? It was tough.
Amir: But we did all these photos of him and we were like, “How should we post them on [the cover]?” And we decided to just put half of his face on there. And from that point we continued to do single-story covers.
Stuart: We did one of the first profiles of [WeWork co-founder] Adam Neumann, and I remember one of the anecdotes in this story was him at the Woolworth Building, where he was doing a handshake deal. And it just came across that he was this charismatic guy. So even then, he seemed like just this, like outlier, this guy could come in and shake hands with people and do these megadeals. But what I loved about the cover story we did on him: It was the first and only time that I saw Neumann in a suit.
With all these TV shows and movies and books coming about him, I know the opening scene is going to be him barefoot. Just want to put that out there.
And around this time, too, we also started doing a lot more investigative stories. Foreign buyers had been in the market for a while. We started doing a lot more investigative stories about money laundering. I remember we had a headline “Developers’ hidden money backers exposed.” It just really formed the basis of a lot of the deep-dive stuff we did over the subsequent years.
Amir: One of the first sort of social [issue] stories that we had on the cover was talking about diversity in the real estate industry, and I was surprised. I didn’t think that many people would be interested in it. The amount of feedback we got was tremendous.
One of the covers I really enjoyed, and we went back and forth on this a lot, was Steve Croman, who was a major landlord who ended up going to jail for a brief period. And we put him behind bars with cornrows. It was an illustration.
Stuart: One of the funny things is you ran into him at a dinner [after he had gotten out of jail].
Amir: And I thought, he’s going to lash out at me. He turned out to be a huge fan of The Real Deal, and he actually loved the cover.
One of [my favorite] covers was Harry Macklowe, about his divorce [and the real estate implications of it]. And I remember he found out that we were going to do a cover story on him and he sent me this beautiful, eloquent letter explaining his reasoning of why we shouldn’t cover the divorce. And I was really touched by it, but of course we had to cover it.
Stuart: To me, Harry Macklowe is the ultimate real estate figure. You can’t get any more archetypal as a real estate player than that. And to write a story about his divorce, where he was also arguing that he was worth no money and basically had to portray how bad a businessperson he was, it was mind-boggling.
So I just think it’s such an interesting time for real estate now. On the one hand, you have legislators talking about why is there for-profit housing at all? It’s a kind of Marxist, socialist point of view. And then on the other hand, we had somebody in the industry saying Amazon not coming to New York was 9/11 all over again. Just incredibly tone-deaf. So you kind of have these two poles that are existing right now, and they’re not talking [to each other] yet. Part of our role in the coming period of time is where we kind of sit in the middle of these two groups and we’re writing about the dialogue between them — or the lack of dialogue.