SAN FRANCISCO — Pioneers in new media have some advice for real estate professionals coping with change: Use, don’t fear, the public’s voracious appetite for information acquired and shared over the Internet.
In some ways, journalists and real estate professionals are in the same boat because they have been accustomed to controlling the flow of information the public wants access to, said panelists who discussed “Citizen Journalism” Wednesday at Inman News‘ Real Estate Connect conference.
Technology and the Internet have traditional newspapers, radio and television stations scrambling to reinvent themselves, said Paul Grabowicz, assistant dean and director of the new media program at the University of California, Berkeley.
Grabowicz defines citizen journalism as “people telling their own stories, and communities covering themselves.” That includes not only bloggers, but “small (Web) sites popping up where (traditional) media is doing a bad job or not covering them at all.”
These local sites sometimes have a small paid staff, but get much of their content from local residents who, like most bloggers, work for free.
“I think what the Internet and digital technology did was unlock the frustration that had been growing for decades,” Grabowicz said. “It wasn’t like the Internet created something new — there was clearly this discontent there that we weren’t covering the stories that people cared about.”
“For us as journalists, the challenge is where do we fit into that, if at all?” Grabowicz said. A former Oakland Tribune reporter, Grabowicz said the paper has created a “hand grenade committee” to shake up the way it reports the news. “We have to blow up the newsroom,” he said.
Craig Newmark, founder of the online classified service Craigslist.com, came to the defense of traditional journalism, which provides much of the raw material that fuels online blogs and news sites.
“I remind people there is no substitute for professional journalism,” in which information is gathered directly from sources and fact checked, Newmark said.
What appeals to Newmark about citizen journalism is that “people in the community are more willing to speak truth to power. Reporters will tell you they know when a politician is lying to them, but they can’t print that.”
Lockhart Steele, the publisher of the real estate blog Curbed, said citizen journalists not only speak to power, they can speak to readers in the same informal voice they use with friends. He said New York City’s inflated real estate market should be lots of fun to talk about, but “mainstream media coverage about real estate, I think, is kind of boring.”
The principle that reporters should be objective, and refrain from making personal comments about the subjects they write about, is deeply ingrained in American journalism. Columnists, however, have always been free to adopt the opinionated, talky style now employed by many bloggers.
The key to the popularity of citizen journalism may be less about style than content. When anyone can be a reporter, there’s more information coming from more perspectives.
Steele said he originally started Curbed to share his knowledge about New York City neighborhoods and real estate with readers. But he soon realized “the value of the site was not what I knew, but what they knew. Some online publishers (are) still a little afraid of their audiences, I think.”
For example, Steele said, magazine publisher Conde Nast is letting its writers blog, but other bloggers don’t think much of the results. That’s because the Conde Nast blogs don’t accept comments from readers, and the links they provide are to other sites within the company, not the world at large, Steele said.
Grabowicz said some traditional news outlets, like the Los Angeles Times, have had problems when they opened up their sites to reader comments. The paper experimented with letting readers add their comments to editorials, he said, but ended up discontinuing the “wiki” after having “all kinds of problems with it.”
Judy’s Book — a sort of user-generated Yellow Pages where readers rate everything from restaurants to service provided by painters, car mechanics and real estate agents — relies on readers to sort truth from fiction, said co-founder Andy Sack.
“We do things to make the site more … transparent to consumers,” Sack said. “If someone is trying to scam the system, they usually only write one review. The people who are really passionate have hundreds of reviews, people tend to trust them more.”
At Curbed.com, Steele said, “I tend to just let kooks run their course. I think they’re part of what’s fun about reading this kind of stuff.”
“Let’s assume people are bringing their brains to the game,” he said. “People are intelligent, they can tell when people are screwing around. You don’t need to spend a whole lot of time telling your audience, ‘This guy is a lunatic.’ They know he’s a lunatic.”
But it’s a good idea to keep an eye out for what people are saying about you, Sack said. “If people are writing reviews about you … you need to be aware. Good and bad reviews are out there. Over 90 percent of our reviews tend to be positive because of the way the question is asked — ‘Who do you recommend?'”
But that’s not always the case, and because of the way search engines operate, sometimes reviews on a popular Web site like Judy’s Book will show up higher in the rankings than the person or business reviewed.
“I would encourage everyone to go to Judy’s Book,” Sack said. “Log on and make sure your info is correct, and see what people are saying about you.”