MEDIA ROUNDUP: Real estate remains a hot topic during tough times

With interest rates low, coverage of home buying is on the rise in both national and local media. One of the keys to securing coverage, finds David Ward, is predicting emerging trends on the local market.

With interest rates low, coverage of home buying is on the rise in both national and local media. One of the keys to securing coverage, finds David Ward, is predicting emerging trends on the local market.

The combination of record-low mortgage rates and soaring home prices has triggered a surge of home-buying and refinancing that's helped soften the impact of the current economic slump. It's also helped turn residential real estate into one of the hotter media topics in the US these days. Indeed, in some parts of the country (most notably in California, but also in cities throughout the Midwest and East), the price of housing has become a community-wide obsession that both local and national media have quickly picked up on. "In the last four or five years, the interest has really increased," notes Jeff Lubar, communications director with the Mortgage Insurance Companies of America. It's not the traditional business real-estate reporter who's driving the increase in coverage, because those writers tend to focus primarily on commercial properties. Instead, the stories on home buying and selling are being written by journalists from a wide variety of disciplines. "This beat has become so big and covers so much territory, that we get calls from transportation reporters, education reporters, and local-government reporters," says Trisha Riggs, communications director for the Washington, DC-based Urban Land Institute. "It doesn't require a lot of persuading to get the media interested in this story. It's an issue that really sells itself." News you can use Increasingly, however, real-estate stories are being framed as "news you can use," and are being integrated into personal-finance coverage, offering advice on everything from when is the right time to buy or sell, to how to get into a house with less money down. With the public remaining leery of investing in the stock market after a few years of poor performance, many consumers now view their four-bedroom, two-bath split-levels as not just a place to live, but also as the foundation for their financial future. "Home-related subjects are hot right now," says Jamaison Schuler, account manager with Indianapolis-based Borshoff Johnson Matthews Public Relations & Marketing Communications. "Typically, it's front page of the business section, but sometimes it's the front section of the paper. At the end of the year, we'll do a state-of-the-real-estate-industry pitch, and how central Indiana came out. When we've had a record year - which we've had the last two years - it's been front-page news." Ron Hanser of West Des Moines, IA-based Hanser & Associates agrees that media interest in residential real estate is high, but says that doesn't necessarily make it easy to get any home-buying story covered. "We still need to pitch a solid 'first' or hard-news angle - first golf-course community, first single-family housing community with a neighborhood clubhouse, or first dedicated sales staff specializing in new-sale homes," he says. Like politics, housing is, for the most part, local. That means that even when there is national residential-real-estate news, it often ends up getting interpreted differently in various cities across the country. "What you do is look at the trends that are found nationally, and then see how the local market stacks up," explains Lubar. "If the local market is doing better, you have a story. But even if it's doing the same or worse, you still have a story." Some PR people add that there are a few opportunities for getting a local story national or regional coverage, but note that most of their clients aren't that concerned about getting into USA Today or Time. "We all like to go after the big, high-profile hits, but you have to be very strategic, and realize that a small weekly paper could oftentimes be just as advantageous," says Michael Cherenson, VP of The Cherenson Group, which represents the New Jersey Builders Association, as well as several developers. The haves and the have-nots Another interesting thing about housing stories is that there is rarely a community-wide consensus on what constitutes good news, since for the most part, the audience's interest is divided between the haves - homeowners - and the have-nots. "When you're looking for a home, you want new development everywhere, and you want home prices to drop," says Cherenson. "But the second you buy a house, you want prices to shoot up, and you want to pull the drawbridge up and have no more development." Most newspapers, as well as many regional lifestyle publications, have a solid financial interest in a strong local housing market because home listings are a major advertising stream. Thus, in addition to their traditional residential real-estate coverage, many print outlets have a dedicated home-buying section that consists primarily of ads and advertorials run by their advertising departments. But, PR people say, even these sections often look for editorial content such as bylined articles and other news from local real-estate experts. "Most people don't really know the difference, and look to those sections for their news and information on new home communities," Cherenson says. "So that's a great opportunity for PR people looking to get some placement." Even with the rise of websites such as, the bulk of residential-real-estate media coverage tends to be print-driven. But there are growing opportunities on radio and television, especially locally produced business, lifestyle, and home-improvement programming. "We have one of the mortgage experts from [client] Hubbell Homes, who has a brief weekly guest shot on a Sunday-morning television show," says Hanser. As far as advice for pitching home-buying- and selling-themed stories, Schuler says the key is obviously building relationships with reporters, but also trying to predict emerging stories. "I'm not even issuing so many releases as I am expert advisories," he says. "These are just quick one-page or one-paragraph e-mails that say, 'This is a trigger event coming up,' or, 'These are some statistics that we've pulled together, and we have somebody ready to talk to you.'" The focus on personal finance If there's a concern with residential-real-estate coverage, it's that the media may be shifting too much toward personal-finance-themed coverage. "That's just one side of the story, and it tends to be the shorter-term view," says the Urban Land Institute's Riggs. "The longer-term view deals with the whole issue of workforce housing and people's ability to move into an area." Carl Larsen, editor of the Home section of the San Diego Union-Tribune, as well as current chairman of the National Association of Real Estate Editors, agrees that many outlets may be missing the bigger picture. "The concept of real estate in its totality is something that a lot of papers need to get back into," he says. "It's for people interested in design or revitalization, and how their communities are evolving. Not only is it healthy for communities to debate these issues, but, Larsen argues, it ends up being good for the media outlet itself. "Because, otherwise, they're just going to get that 12% who are looking for a new home at any one time," he says. "That's a limited readership, so you want to draw the full readership into the real-estate section." ----- Where to go Newspapers The New York Times; The Wall Street Journal; USA Today; San Francisco Chronicle; Los Angeles Times; Chicago Tribune; The Washington Post; daily and weekly community papers across the US Magazines Better Homes & Gardens; Time; Newsweek; BusinessWeek; Architectural Digest; Fortune; Kiplinger's Personal Finance; New York; New Jersey Monthly; other regional lifestyle outlets Trade Titles Mortgage Alert; Real Estate Investor; Real Estate Weekly; Real Estate Forum; Realtor; Builder; Builder & Remodeler TV & Radio CNBC; CNNfn; CNN; Today; HGTV; E!; Discovery; NPR Internet;;; multiple online listing services across the US

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