While it's been around seemingly forever, home improvement journalism is still fine-tuning its audience. David Ward finds that a realistic project is a bigger sell than the latest hammer or drill.Thanks in large part to television shows like This Old House and the Home & Garden cable network, home improvements and do-it-yourself projects are finally shaking their media image as the weekend hobby of your parents and grandparents, and acquiring a cache all their own.
Driving this phenomenon is the ever-growing realization among both consumers and reporters that a home is not only one's castle, but a financial foundation.
Home owners are figuring out that a hammer, nails, and some sweat can do a lot to improve their homes and, by extension, their futures.
Tim Carter, whose Ask The Builder syndicated newspaper column, radio show, website, and TV program have made him a household name in the home improvement business, says there's always been a huge market for do-it-yourself (DIY) information. "What made it seem somehow new is this enormous splash it's made in the media, and most of that is down to TV."
Indeed, ever since This Old House began attracting viewers to PBS, TV has jumped on the home improvement bandwagon. From the Today show to The Learning Channel, there are hosts everywhere offering step-by-step instruction on everything from installing a light switch to building a whole new addition to a house.
But it isn't just home improvement TV that feeds this renovation interest.
Luke Lambert, SVP and co-general manager of Gibbs & Soell's New York office, also gives some credit to the rise of cooking shows and channels - like Food Network - that whet consumers' appetites for high-end kitchens with the latest appliances.
While most of home improvement TV shows welcome pitches, PR pros stress that most are more interested in new projects rather than the latest saw or drill. "They're not necessarily interested in the latest whiz-bang new product,
says Grant Deady, a PR21 account supervisor who represents Skil Power Tools. "They're looking for a realistic project that a regular person can complete from beginning to end."
Michael Morris, a freelance home improvement writer, who also serves as a VP with Sumner Rider & Associates, adds that many of these TV programs are wary of promoting specific branded tools on the air. Instead, they allow the companies whose products are used during a particular program to purchase the advertising spots before and after the segment.
Carpenters turned journalists
Morris says many home improvement journalists started off as contractors and carpenters, and thus have firsthand knowledge of the tools and effort needed to build and renovate a house. "The top guys at This Old House magazine were former home-building carpenters, and the same goes for the editors at Family Handyman,
Among the leading home improvement journalists are author and master carpenter Norm Abram, who hosts The New Yankee Workshop; Ask the Builder's Carter; Dean Johnson and Robin Hartt of the TV show HomeTime; syndicated columnist and Today show regular Lou Manfredini; This Old House magazine editor David Sloan; Home magazine editor Peter Lemos; and Leon Frechette, host of the radio program Tool Talk.
Even though home improvement journalism is far from new, it's still fine-tuning its audience. Traditionally, it's been considered a male domain.
PR21's Deady says he had success pitching Skil power tools to the emerging young men's media market. "We're very focused on magazines like Maxim and Stuff because they're always featuring gadgets that we can pitch them,
But Gibbs & Soell's Lambert, whose clients range from faucet, flooring, and cabinet manufacturers to construction companies, suggests this is one of the few categories where an older audience is desired. "A lot of the money on home improvements is being spent by that baby boomer population of, say, 35 on up,
Perhaps the biggest growth area for home improvement journalism over the long term may be in women's publications. "More and more women are getting involved. One of the reasons for that is they feel empowered by a lot of these DIY shows where the host is a woman,
explains David Olsen, spokesman for the Black & Decker tool and appliance company. "If you look at Woman's Day, they have a publication called Home Remodeling, and Good Housekeeping now has a special-interest magazine called Do It Yourself."
Skill level is a story's selling point
Olsen says press releases don't necessarily have to be tweaked by gender.
But PR pros do agree that home improvement story ideas need to be segmented by skill and experience level. "We don't come up with different news releases, but when we talk to a reporter about a specific DIY project, we will tell them what skill level is required and whether it's for beginner, intermediate, or advanced,
says Deady. "We would never assume that a beginner would be able to put a skylight in their home, for example."
In fact, some of the renovation home improvement magazines are better defined as lifestyle outlets, where the goal isn't so much to explain to readers how to put in a new kitchen as it is to give them design ideas.
"I used to write for Home magazine, and they would not let me use the term 'do it yourself' in a story, because it implied that the reader had to do it,
Morris says. "What they wanted to impart to their audience is what's on the design side - how do you get this done, who do you call, and what do you ask for?"
Many PR pros suggest that most of their efforts go into magazines and television rather than newspapers. While most papers now have Sunday home improvement sections, "there are only a handful of papers in the US that have an actual reporter covering home improvement,
says Deady. "They may have an editor, but that person probably doesn't do a lot of writing. What they do is fill up those sections with syndicated columnists."
Deady says his geographic target for virtually every story is the suburbs.
"What we really look for are high-circulation newspapers that are widely distributed in the suburbs,
he says. "We've had great success with The Washington Post, Chicago Tribune, and The Dallas Morning News."
Syndicated columnist and on-air host Carter predicts that home improvement will remain a strong evergreen journalism category simply because there will always be new people entering the housing market, and then quickly realizing they don't know the first thing about flooring, painting, faucets, or termites.
But Carter bluntly says that many PR pros are hurting their clients' chances of getting through to this audience simply by not doing their homework. "I am constantly getting calls from journalists who don't know what I've done because they have not been to my website,
he says. "They don't even know the best way to submit releases - even PR people who send stuff to me that way can have a better chance of me using them."
WHERE TO GO
NEWSPAPERS: The Washington Post; Chicago Tribune; LA Times; The Dallas Morning News; Atlanta Journal Constitution; Newsday
MAGAZINES: Family Handyman; This Old House; Home; Electronic House; Better Homes & Garden; House & Garden; Maxim; Stuff; House Beautiful; Southern Living; Sunset; Smart Home Owner; Dwell; Woman's Day Kitchens & Baths; Country Living; Natural Home; Today's Homeowner
TRADE TITLES: Woodworker's Journal; Home Improvement Executive; Kitchen & Bath Business; Kitchen & Bath Design News
TV: This Old House; Home & Garden TV; Trading Spaces; Ask the Builder; Discovery Channel; Hometime; Today
WEB SITES: Askthebuilder.com; Beconstructive.com; Livinghome.com; HGTV.com; Homestore.com.