The Los Angeles Times has ceased publication of its weekly real estate section — born more than a century ago — amid major staff cuts.
In mid-July, newspaper managers began to carry out the "largest staff and production cuts in the newspaper’s history," according to an article in the Times, citing "a continuing slide in advertising revenue." The newspaper has a circulation of more than 1 million and ranks among the largest newspapers in the nation.
Staff and content cuts are certainly nothing new for newspapers, and a media analyst told Inman News that similar downsizing will likely continue to plague the industry as ad dollars continue to shift online.
The cutbacks initiated last month at the Los Angeles Times had initially targeted about 150 newsroom employees, or 17 percent of the company’s newspaper and Web site editorial staff, according to the Times article, with plans to cut 100 positions in other departments.
Times Publisher David D. Hiller resigned the day after the cutbacks began. Times Editor Russ Stanton announced on July 30 that 135 newsroom employees were laid off, and content cuts have led to 14 percent fewer pages.
Such major cuts at that paper and others have triggered questions about how the industry can properly inform readers about community news in the face of staff cuts, the article notes.
Stanton had earlier stated in a letter to readers that "The future of the Los Angeles Times, in print and online, rests in our ability to meet the needs of our readers and deliver news and information that is unique, far-reaching and indispensable. In-depth journalism remains our hallmark and we are committed to that mission in the face of economic challenges to our industry and our nation as a whole."
He announced that the newspaper’s "Home" section would move from Sundays to Saturdays and would combine with "Real Estate," amid other changes — "Book Review" was merged with an "Arts & Books" section to become "Arts and Books," for example, and the Times had earlier announced the termination of its weekly magazine, among other reductions in content.
Lauren Beale, real estate editor for the Los Angeles Times, wrote in a July 27 blog post at the newspaper’s L.A. Land blog, "because of reductions in staff and space, the Sunday Real Estate section has printed its final edition."
She noted that the newspaper would continue to publish real estate coverage throughout the week and a few regular features of the section would continue in the Saturday "Home" and Sunday "Business" sections.
Beale began working for the newspaper’s Real Estate section almost 29 years ago. "There’s a journalism term for finishing an edition’s work: You put the section to bed. When I started as a part-timer in this department … under then-editor Dick Turpin, I never dreamed that one day I’d be putting the section to bed for good," she wrote. The newspaper’s Real Estate section had launched in 1901.
She told Inman News that some other major newspapers have abandoned editorial-produced real estate sections in favor of advertising sections that she referred to as "advertorial," or ad-based real estate content.
Readers’ online comments about the end of the weekly Real Estate section ranged to the extremes, from anger at its cancellation and the media company’s owner Sam Zell to ugly condemnation of the section.
A supporter of the section wrote, "it was informative (plenty of question-and-answer columns for renters, condo and home owners), presented the facts, and provided some entertainment." That reader planned to cancel the newspaper subscription over the loss of its Real Estate section, according to the post.
"I’m more of a news, business, sports guy, so I didn’t read the Real Estate section," wrote another Times reader. "But I am disturbed by the prospect of some of our big city papers being dramatically downsized or going away. The Internet (is great at) distributing other people’s content, but not so much at originating it … papers like the L.A. Times, imperfect though they may be, still frequently play an important role in keeping our other institutions honest."
Meanwhile, another wrote, "I’m probably not going to miss the Real Estate section. The only thing I ever read in the Real Estate section was the story of how some self-absorbed celebrity is selling his mansion for $10 million, which was always curiously $8 million more than similar-sized homes in the same area."
Helene Lesel, a real estate writer whose syndicated "Rental Savvy" columns have run in the Los Angeles Times for the past seven years, said her column is one of the casualties in the demise of the weekly section.
"They’re not going to accept anymore syndicated material — there’s not anywhere to put it," said Lesel, whose columns are distributed by Inman News. "I had read that section since I was a little kid." The Times seems to be focusing more on the Web these days, she said. "It’s a whole new world out there."
Stanton’s letter last month did state that the newspaper’s Web site "just recorded its biggest month ever in June with 115 million page views, a 50 percent increase over last year," and Stanton also noted that readers "embraced" some of the Web site’s new blogs.
Real estate ad budgets are shifting toward online media — and that shift is likely permanent, said Colby Atwood, president for Borrell Associates, a media research and consulting firm.
"Real estate advertisers during this downturn are going to be trying the Web, some of them for the first time, and once they do they won’t go back," Atwood said.
There has been a drop-off in real estate advertising spending in print publications, owing to the housing downturn and this shift to online media, which can be "more efficient, more trackable" and offer a better return on investment.
"It is not surprising that newspapers are starting to scale back their real estate sections. The decision by the L.A. Times is an example of things that we’re going to see more of as (newspapers) manage the contraction of their business — which is what metro daily newspapers are going to be about for the foreseeable future," Atwood said.
And while some of the ad problems newspapers are facing now with the severe downturn in the housing market are cyclical, Atwood said not to expect ad money to flow readily back into print when the market recovers and rebounds.
"Truly fundamental shifts are taking place in the advertising industry and a lot of advertising media are not coming back. (Advertisers) are going to be hard-pressed to justify spending money on things they now know are inefficient," he said.
A Borrell report released last week states that the newspaper industry suffered a record decline in revenue from classified print ads in 2007, "driven largely by a 23 percent fall in real estate classifieds."
The report also states, "Newspapers are beginning to understand that their most valuable franchise is not local news, but local sales information," and about half of the people who buy a newspaper do so for the advertising content.
Local news may not be a big selling point for local advertisers: "The epiphany that newspaper managers are beginning to experience is that local news and community information (as opposed to national news) may not attract a large or particularly attractive audience for small advertisers," according to the report, noting that the Internet is quickly growing in popularity among small advertisers, with local online advertising increasing at a rate of 61 percent this year.
Residential real estate agents and brokers are expected to spend about 25 percent of their ad budgets with newspapers this year, with 12.8 percent going to online sources and 24.2 percent toward television ads.
Meanwhile, residential real estate developers are projected to spend about 47.9 percent of their total ad budgets with newspapers and about 30.2 percent online; and mortgage providers are expected to spend about 8.9 percent of their ad budgets in newspapers and 22.1 percent online this year.
–Inman News reporter Matt Carter contributed to this report.
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