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How to tell a great real estate story

Learn the New Luxury Playbook at Luxury Connect | October 18-19 at the Beverly Hills Hotel

Real estate is serious business, but reading about it doesn’t have to be — not if Emily Gitter has anything to say about it.

Gitter is the editor of the Wall Street Journal’s 2-month-old luxury real estate section, "Mansion," and it’s her job to decide what will catch the attention of the Journal’s sophisticated, global audience.

Journal readers tend to be affluent, highly educated and business-oriented, Gitter said. But that doesn’t mean content for them has to be dry.

"We want people to have fun looking through the section and feel a sense of lightheartedness," she said.

Gitter and three other panelists will discuss "What makes a great real estate story?" on opening day of Real Estate Connect New York City, which runs Jan. 16-18 at the Grand Hyatt New York.

Gitter said the Journal’s editor-in-chief, Robert Thomson, has been very influential in how she answers that question.

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"He’s very focused on making sure that every aspect of the page is super lively and attracting the reader in different ways, making sure we inject humor and fun," Gitter said.

It was Thomson who came up with the name of the 16-page weekly real estate section that debuted Oct. 5.

"I think they just wanted something that was sort of surprising and a little bit fun and got at the issue that we were covering luxury real estate but also had a little bit of pizzazz and fun to it," Gitter said.

(Declaring that the name "Mansion" lacked "a certain sophistication," reporters at the rival New York Observer jokingly suggested "10 better names" including "Oh Castle, My Castle," "Third Homes and Gardens," and "Jealous?") 

The logo for the Wall Street Journal’s "Mansion" section.

Gitter was chosen to edit Mansion after working as deputy editor of the paper’s Weekend Journal.

"Many of you already know Emily for her sharp editing skills, her excellent judgment, and a wit as elegantly edgy as a rough-hewn granite benchtop in a just-refurbished Old Greenwich home," Thomson said in announcing Gitter’s promotion.

Gitter, 37, first joined the Journal in 2005 as an assistant news editor for its lifestyle section, Pursuits. Before that, she was the features editor at the New York Sun.

She began her journalism career as a researcher and reporter at New York Magazine. It was there that she discovered her calling as an editor.

"When I started at New York Magazine, I just knew that was the part of the business that I enjoyed the most — looking at stories, trying to make them better. I just find it really satisfying," she said.

One of the most important things she’s learned from her new post is to keep an eye out for what her staff of about 15 is good at — and then stay out of their way, she said.

"I’ve been really impressed by how talented the people I work with are — everyone from people in my art staff to my reporters," Gitter said. "Putting together a section from scratch … I didn’t know how much direction I would be needing to give people. I have found that letting them shine and bring their talents to bear gives the best results."

Although she covered some real estate stories at New York Magazine, Gitter said her work had mostly focused on arts and entertainment before she was picked to head up Mansion. What surprised her about the topic is how broad real estate can be, she said.

"The types of subjects that real estate can touch on (range from) psychology and anthropology to global financial profiles," Gitter said.

"We do tend to focus on the higher end of the market, but the word ‘mansion’ — we give that a very broad definition. It could be a house with a great view or a house that is special to someone."

For instance, one regular feature of the section is "House Call" where a well-known person reminisces about a particular home. The home could be from that person’s childhood, for example, and doesn’t have to be particularly grand.

The key is for that person’s story to resonate with readers on an emotional level, Gitter said — perhaps reminding them of a home they’ve lived in, or aspire to live in. Architect Frank Gehry, science educator Bill Nye and chef David Chang have been among the contributors to the feature.

"Our formula for the best real estate stories is just having great stories," Gitter said.

"Usually it’s a combination of a story that’s going to be compelling, or an interesting read, with a strong character and also market underpinnings," she added. The story could be a "fun voyeuristic peek at someone’s home" or it could highlight an interesting trend, she said.

Whether or not a reader is a real estate junkie, he or she will find appealing stories in the section, Gitter said.

The section speaks to people with varied interests, including those who want to "read juicy profiles or are interested in design or are interested in global markets," she said.

A strong or an interesting character is often crucial, Gitter said. The section’s first issue, for instance, focused on the real estate portfolio of Maya Angelou, who owns one home in New York and two in North Carolina.

"She spoke about the importance of different objects in her home (and) where she does her writing, which was really fun," Gitter said.

Another story, "The Man With a Million Acres," focused on the fourth-largest landowner in America, Brad Kelley, who made his money manufacturing discount cigarettes and whose hobbies include making his own bourbon and breeding rare, exotic animals.

"It was a story about landownership, but also a profile of this very unusual man. So, I think the best stories have more than one ingredient," Gitter said.

At the Connect conference, Gitter will be on stage with competitors from The New York Times, The Real Deal, and Curbed NY. She notes that while rivals may cover only one city or neighborhood, Mansion’s focus is both national and global.

"We almost always have at least one story in the section that focuses on property overseas, so we’ll look at the London market, or Berlin, or … an up-and-coming neighborhood in Hong Kong," she said.

In the domestic arena, the section hones in on markets that have been "frothy" with overseas buyers, such as Miami, Los Angeles, and, of course, New York City.

The New York City real estate market is distinctive in at least two ways, Gitter said. The first is the volume of listings it takes to be successful.

"We did a story where we looked at the top-earning brokers in different markets. The person that had the highest value portfolio in New York was in the double-digit range; in Atlanta, (the broker) had something like 700 listings," Gitter said. In New York City, agents "can have a relatively small number of listings, but still have a huge value portfolio."

The second distinguishing factor is that "in New York, brokers will know property on a building-by-building level, which I think is pretty unique," Gitter said.

While in other markets, brokers know their area on a street-by-street basis, in New York, brokers have a "microscopic knowledge" of a building’s amenities, who lives there and whether it will appeal to a particular client, Gitter said.

A native New Yorker, Gitter has never lived anywhere else, apart from her college years at Yale University. She’s never lived in a mansion, she said, but some of her favorite museums in Manhattan are former mansions, including the Morgan and the Frick.

She bought her first home three years ago — an apartment in Brooklyn. She was used to navigating New York’s hot rental market, so the time it took to purchase a home surprised her, she said.

"We started looking about a year before we actually bought. We had a really patient real estate agent willing to educate us about the process," Gitter said. In the rental market, she was used to looking "at five homes and they were going to be gone in a couple of days. This was more of a long-term process of educating ourselves."

Gitter says that because real estate shoppers are "much more informed than they’ve ever been," they "want the most detail right upfront that they can get from a website."

Her content advice to real estate agents? Great visuals. "I think people really want to know what they’re looking at and get a look inside the house before they even get there or even decide whether it’s worth it to go," Gitter said.

Whether video tours or photos, "I think people really love looking at real estate porn," Gitter said. She defines "real estate porn" as "anytime you’re looking at lush, beautiful photos and getting a look at someone’s house — sort of the most voyeuristic aspect of covering real estate."

In her free time, Gitter enjoys art, reading novels — her latest is "David Copperfield" by Charles Dickens — and swimming. She says if she could have one superpower it would be the ability to breathe underwater.

At the office, she can often be found munching on something tasty, usually a baked good. "I’m a very huge and notorious snacker, so I’m pretty much eating at any point in the day," she said.

Emily Gitter will be a featured speaker at Real Estate Connect New York City, which takes place Jan. 16-18 at the Grand Hyatt New York.

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