The media and the real estate industry in the past have enjoyed many cocktails together, toasting a relationship of convenience.
But amid headlines screaming “bubble,” “cartel” and other real estate unmentionables, and with television plucking the most venal agents for use on “reality” real estate shows, the relationship is no longer so convivial.
We can point to housing bubble hype to illustrate this. Real estate, like any other industry, has its ups and downs. But talk surrounding real estate’s “down” began long before there was any sign of it. This sent what was first felt as a shiver of concern through the marketplace. By 2006, articles penned regarding “overpricing” and “the bottom falling out” bled from every nook and cranny of the print media. But coverage was not limited to home prices — it also veered into the value proposition of today’s real estate practitioner.
Over the past several years print advertising revenue generated from real estate has been on the decline. While delivering a recent speech to the Women’s Council of Realtors, I predicted that within five years real estate will no longer spend a dime on print media advertising. That prediction received a standing ovation. Afterward, I asked several people why they reacted so strongly and I became aware of the underlying resentment felt by real estate practitioners toward the media.
I was intrigued. So I decided to conduct a survey with my wife, who owns a small real estate writer’s syndication firm. She called real estate editors and asked them a series of questions. Is there a smear campaign against traditional real estate? Are they party to it? Is there a love affair with new models? Have they dealt with any backlash from the Realtor community?
She spoke with 25 newspaper editors. Each agreed to be candid provided their name and paper are not revealed. Here’s a sampling of what they had to say:
Midwest: “Realtors are great people and let’s leave it at that.”
Southeast: “News is about what’s new. Zillow is new. Good or bad. It’s true that in our paper there’s an inherent bias against tradition because our news is only about what’s new. Traditional anything isn’t new. It’s therefore going to be judged as what it is: old.”
Midwest: “Here, there’s only one discount company. You pay for only those services you need. Most Realtors pay little attention to it. Homes are not priced here like they are in California so selling real estate at a discount is just plain stupid. I published a piece once on the subject and received a few calls and told the agents to go complain to someone who gives a ****. That wouldn’t be me. Shall I have them call you next time?”
East Coast: “Real estate people are portrayed exactly as they are. If they view that as negative, it is what it is. Frankly, if I were them, I’d be far less concerned with how the news portrays them and be far more concerned with how they portray themselves. I’ve been dealing with them for a long time. The articles in question are not off base.”
Southwest: “I don’t want to comment other than the fact that Realtors have it coming. They’ve been stroked forever, but these days their value is limited despite their belief. Everything they do is for their own benefit. From open houses, which aren’t about selling the home as much as it is about building their client book, to using listing ads to promote their names and faces. Listen, the discounts offer something new, different. Realtors don’t and that’s the story. Period.”
West Coast: “There is this really weird defensiveness that Realtors have when it comes to objective reporting of any kind. They have trouble accepting challenging points of view. I have no idea where that comes from or why they are like that. We are just a newspaper covering a story. Our coverage is fair and well researched. We’ve never published anything negative.”
East Coast: “Real estate people own the real estate section of our paper and take offense when anything that doesn’t feature them is published. They wield enough control here to where I’ve lost great columnists because their articles didn’t paint every transaction as perfect. My section is now filled with poorly written, hardly researched nonsense submitted by local agents instead of qualified reporters and columnists.”
Midwest: “Over the past I don’t know how many years, real estate has been good. Too good. A lot of people made a lot of money. More than they’re worth. It went to their head, and the demands they make of our paper are worthy of its own story.”
West Coast: “Interesting. It’s not uncommon to get called on articles covering alternative real estate companies or unethical industry behavior. This occurs in every industry, but real estate tends to be very thin-skinned about it. Through their own quest to build recognition, real estate people become public figures. As an industry, it’s very high profile so there will be public scrutiny. If that bothers some, they need to get thicker skin and deal with it.”
Midwest: “Reporters are not biased in the least. They are just people. They make $50,000 a year. They report on this industry and see people with far less credentials earn three to four times what they do. Perhaps some let that affect their perspective. Not at this paper however.”
Not one paper acknowledged a “smear campaign” of any kind. They all appeared to be surprised by my assessment and defensive of their position that whatever I read is simply newsworthy.
A Realtor doing a great job is not newsworthy. A traditional brokerage expanding its office is not newsworthy. Neither sells ads or gains readership. But fraud, misconduct and market downturns do, as well as emerging new models that launch amid national fanfare, huge venture capital and skyrocketing Web traffic.
Members of each side of the relationship had their own stories to tell. They sounded more like tales told by old married couples than whispers of a conspiracy. You be the judge.
Marc Davison is vice president of OnBoard, a real estate data provider based in New York. Davison previously served as vice president of VREO, a provider of electronic signature and Web site software for the real estate industry. He can be reached at email@example.com.