Is This What Passes for Real Estate Journalism These Days?

First, watch (or not watch) this:


Even though this video looks like hundreds of other listing videos that real estate agents have been shooting for years now, with the help of companies like Real Estate Shows and WellcomeMat, that video, you see, constitutes journalism. It comes from the Wall Street Journal, from their Developments Blog, as part of a feature they call House of the Day. The entry above says:

The latest video is of Bob and Linda Glassman’s home on the market, fitting for the upcoming Independence Day holiday. It dates to the late 18th century and was built for the nephew of a man who led a battle at Concord in 1775.

The photos are “courtesy of Coldwell Banker Residential Brokerage”. Good for them, I say, to get so much free advertising for one of their listings, one priced north of $4m. Because those photos are exactly what you’d see in a listing.

Listen to the well-spoken narrator recite, “has a game room, an exercise room, and a two bedroom, one bathroom apartment”. She talks about the wonderful granite countertops in the kitchen, crown moldings, custom cabinetry, and the like. Sounds like a decent real listing agent, except she simply doesn’t sound all that excited about the property.

The reason, you see, is that this narrator is a journalist. It says so right at the start of the video: “Reporter: Sushil Cheema”. One assumes that this reporter is the same Sushil Cheema who has a BA in Anthropology and a MS in Journalism, both from Columbia University (our most-brilliant-President-ever’s alma mater) and has joined the WSJ in 2008 as a “multimedia reporter”. She must be narrating these not-so-great real estate ads through gritted teeth, telling herself that this sort of whoring is the price to do real journalism at some point in the future.

I yield to no man in my admiration for the WSJ as a newspaper and as a journalistic organization, but in this case, our friends have badly erred.

We need a rather sharper distinction between real estate journalism and real estate marketing these days, especially as real estate brokers and agents get better and better at producing “content”. WSJ and other outlets that purport to be “real news” organizations ought to stop bothering with these easy eye-candy pieces, and just link to well-produced videos by actual real estate professionals.

Journalists Wanted: Report on Real Estate Matters

I suppose I get why the WSJ Online wants to do these eye-candy pieces: they’re popular with the audience. When you’re in the business of selling eyeballs to advertisers, it doesn’t much matter what you’re producing. Look at the sheer number of celebrity real estate stories all over the Web, from Yahoo Real Estate to Zillow’s Blog to AOL Real Estate. Does the fact that some movie starlet is selling her $8.4 million doghouse in Beverly Hills make any difference to any of our lives? No. But we all care a great deal for some reason, living in the celebrity-obsessed culture of the 21st century America.

At the same time, perhaps now more than ever, given the depth of the crisis in real estate, given that the proximate cause of our Great Recession (now officially worse than the Great Depression!) was real estate, given the importance of real estate to every single family in the nation, and given how much stuff is going on in real estate… we need journalists to do that thing they call “reporting” on real estate.

Sushil Cheema should be producing videos trying to answer why JP Morgan Chase and Bank of America have been proactively doing loan modifications for borrowers who didn’t request one instead of narrating a listing video. Or maybe she could look into what’s going on with the QRM debate; we know it’s happening, but it’s awfully opaque from out here. Stories like this one from the Santa Ana Examiner are welcome, but all it amounts to is free publicity for the organizations pushing changes.

What’s going on with multifamily financing? What’s happening inside the banks and the loan servicing companies that have been raked so harshly over the coals on Foreclosuregate? What happened to HUD’s gigantic PETRA program to change public housing as we know it?

Maybe it’s selfish of me, as a blogger, to want journalists to report news I can use, comment on, and discuss… but isn’t the job of a journalist ostensibly to report… you know… news? Get information the rest of us can’t, or won’t, and tell us what’s going on? Isn’t that value why they get paid a salary (meager as it may be) while we bloggers opine away for free?

A Suggestion to News Organizations

Lest it be said that all I do is complain, let me suggest a possible solution to the various newspapers, online news organizations, and the like as it comes to reporting on real estate.

Launch a new affiliate program that can help you get the eye-candy content you want to generate the eyeballs so you can pay the bills, while your Columbia-trained journalists get around to digging around for real information. Here’s how it would work.

First, offer “free” content publishing to the real estate industry. That listing video above could very easily have been produced by the listing agent (and for all I know, may have been). Create a program where real estate brokers and agents can send you content, and if it meets your approval, you will publish it. Yes, it’s an ad; yes, those people are just trying to expose a client’s listing to more people. And yes, they’d love it if their listing video got picked up by for “House of the Day” or some such. But what of it? Just let your audience know that the video came from Such-and-such Realty, and they won’t mind.

Second, create an open-ended Contributor Program. Many a blogger would give you a permanent license to a post of theirs if a big major news company wanted to republish it. Give them some small percentage (15%? 10%?) of ad revenues generated by their post, in exchange for a permanent license. They get to keep the copyright jointly, so they don’t lose ownership (as they do in so many of the $100/post freelance blogger contracts), but you get content you only pay for upon performance. Many people would do this just to have the opportunity to have one of their posts up on or on Forbes or whatever. As long as you’re not obligated to publish everything someone writes, you have a nearly unlimited source of free content.

And many of those bloggers would go out of their way to blog about LeBron’s new house, or some celebutard’s overpriced beach house in Malibu.

Third, create an advertising affiliate platform. I just don’t know why newspapers and local TV with their professional ad sales teams don’t bother with this. Even at some crazy splits like 60/40, and at microscopic CPM’s, many a blogger would gladly embed a little advertising code for a few extra dollars a year.

With those three programs, perhaps your Real Estate Department can make enough money to keep paying your reporters to go out and write hard news stories. We all surely could use more of those, and less of what passes for journalism in real estate these days.

Or, ignore me and you go on with your bad self “reporting” on a listing video. See where that gets ya.




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Rob Hahn

Managing Partner of 7DS Associates, and the grand poobah of this here blog. Once called "a revolutionary in a really nice suit", people often wonder what I do for a living because I have the temerity to not talk about my clients and my work for clients. Suffice to say that I do strategy work for some of the largest organizations and companies in real estate, as well as some of the smallest startups and agent teams, but usually only on projects that interest me with big implications for reforming this wonderful, crazy, lovable yet frustrating real estate industry of ours.

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6 thoughts on “Is This What Passes for Real Estate Journalism These Days?”

  1. like what you’re saying. however, if the “mainstream” media did a better job distributing relevant information, i may have never started my blog. i was motivated to do so because my wife indicated that my yelling at the TV would not solve the mortgage crisis. however, if society is going to keep lobbing mountains of cash towards the education of journalists, it would be nice to see some returns. great post Rob.

  2. It’s a sad commentary that a listing video (average at best) made it as news on WSJ. They’re not digging for the important news stories about real estate because they’ve probably been told not to publish anything that might show the banks, the government, congress in a “negative” light. We’re losing our freedoms one by one, and freedom of speech is one of them. JMHO You’ve got great ideas, Rob. I’d like to see more news worthy reporting than what we’re getting.

  3. “Third, create an advertising affiliate platform. I just don’t know why newspapers and local TV with their professional ad sales teams don’t bother with this. Even at some crazy splits like 60/40, and at microscopic CPM’s, many a blogger would gladly embed a little advertising code for a few extra dollars a year.”

    The trick with this one IMO is the admin overhead needed to maintain/track/grow an affiliate platform. For someone like CNN, WSJ, or NYT – maybe it makes sense. But everyone else? Doubtful it’s worth the overhead.

  4. The U.S. media landscape for coherent real estate reporting is practically non existent.

    Aside from CNBC’s Realty Check segments and online video reporting by Diana Olick, there isn’t enough “beat” reporters covering the national real estate scene.

    While I have seen some sites aggregate (or syndicate) content from tightly focused blogs to and other major news sites, it’s often handled by a third party (perhaps as a firewall to maintain journalistic integrity).

    Maybe the failure in seeing a national real estate beat being covered by major news outlets is because of Real Estate’s initial premise:  It’s All Local.

    So rather than have national news organizations covering real estate news and issues in their regular reporting, it could best be handled by local broadcast outlets who could see a benefit in having more eyeballs on their web site for their advertisers.

    Great post again, Rob.

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