01.The big sell
Real estate sections in newspapers seem to be getting bigger, despite the fact that print media advertising revenues are steadily declining, along with circulation figures.
Through this investigation, CHOICE has found the distinction between advertising and editorial in the real estate press is largely absent. The industry has argued that the property section is commercial, but this distinction may not always be clear to consumers.
Vested interests CHOICE has found examples of real-estate industry professionals portrayed as 'everyday' men and women in positive property market stories.
Perks including favourable profiles and overseas junkets, provided by newspapers in return for real estate agencies reaching sales targets.
No room for criticism The relationship between media and real estate is apparently so cosy in some instances that big spenders are kept happy at all costs.
If you were browsing the Sydney Morning Herald online on 3 September 2011, you may have come across this article: "Spring property season not off to a great start”.
But while the news may seem bad on the surface for potential home-sellers, you needn’t worry, because as another headline on the same day proclaims: “Spring property market set to bloom late.” You should hurry and “spring into action” to “beat the seasonal rush and put your house on the market early”, according to yet another article.
Another article placates buyers - it’s “Hunting season… if you’re looking to buy a new unit, this spring is a great time...[it] is going to be the best time to buy for the last few years and for the foreseeable future”.
The articles are contradictory: if you’re buying, get in quick because the market is weak and you won’t see prices like these again. If you’re selling, now’s the time!
But how can both be true?
“It’s a complete myth, there’s no evidence of it at all – in fact last year spring was the worst time of the year to sell. But people believe it because they keep hearing it. Now you’ll have a lot of people putting their houses on the market, and you’ll never find any of that challenged in the newspapers,” says Terry Ryder, columnist with The Australian and founder of Hotspotting, a website that sells reports on tracks real estate trends. Mr Ryder is also a former property editor at Brisbane’s Courier Mail newspaper.
“Ad budgets influence editorial. There’s very little or no scrutiny by journalists when they receive press releases from the industry - either the developer lobby or real estate agents. Most of what is written about real estate is a very thin rewrite from press releases,” says Mr Ryder.
Alan Smith (not his real name), a former manager at Australia’s largest community newspaper group, the News Ltd owned Cumberland Courier Newspapers, agrees that "editorial" in real estate sections online and off should never be taken for granted.
Who pays for the real estate section?
“It's a commercial section of a newspaper... The real estate market works on the basis that the people who advertise their properties are paying for that section. While editorial isn’t necessarily paid for, it’s a symbiotic relationship where the online service will say 'I've got this percentage of space for editorial, submit something to me', and if it's good enough it will be published."
Smith says "real estate journalists will take a feed of guff from the real estate industry any day. Journos can’t possibly write a commercial section all themselves, so they’re going to rely on information from the industry” .
One veteran industry insider and current real estate academic is shocked people still think the real estate press is a credible source of information.
“It staggers me that people still read [newspapers] with the expectation that they’re getting property advice,” he says. “It’s a similar principle to getting marketing material in your letterbox. It’s very rarely a bad time to buy or sell, it’s always ‘buyers wanting more property contact us now’.”