About the Times Union/real estate agents situation

tu newspaper boxYou might have seen the Romenesko post about how the Times Union is apologizing to real estate agents over a piece it published a few weeks ago about ignoring real estate agents' advice. The post has been circulating locally on Twitter ever since it was published late Tuesday. And the Biz Review followed up on Wednesday afternoon.

We've been thinking about this episode since sharing the link on Twitter last night. And for what it's worth, here are those thoughts...

+ This is one of those situations where pretty much no one ends up looking good. (Especially in follow up comments like this.)

+ As a publisher -- which we are, in our small-scale owner/publisher/editor/everything way for AOA -- we probably would not have handled the situation like this. For a few reasons:

1) It opens the door for readers to wonder if advertisers are pulling strings on content. We don't think that's true at the Times Union -- comping someone a bunch of ads isn't the same as letting them dictate content -- but stuff like this plants the seed of doubt in people's minds.

2) It opens the way for other advertisers to start yanking the chain in an attempt to get the publication to jump.

3) It undercuts a staff member. If we were Kristi Barlette -- who put together the piece -- we'd be upset about how this played out. And we'd be irked that we didn't get the chance to publicly defend the piece and engage the issue. The real estate agents think this is wrong? OK, let 'em make their case in a letter to the editor, an op/ed, an accompanying interview, or any other way that's usually open to a party expressing a contrasting view. (We're friendly with Kristi, but have not talked about this episode with her. This is just the way we imagine we'd feel if we were in her place.)

+ We don't think there was necessarily anything wrong with the piece that prompted this episode -- but we probably wouldn't have done it that way. It's OK to ask readers/crowd members for their insight and experience -- we do it often. In this case, though, it would have been better to ask people for both the good and bad advice they've gotten from agents. The reason is that, just like any profession, some real estate agents are smart and effective -- and others are... less so. We've seen this firsthand. Not only is it fair to ask for the good, but also: why leave helpful advice on the table?

+ Following up on the format of the piece, we've seen a few people frown on the "ask the crowd" approach. Again, we don't think there's necessarily anything wrong with that method. And as mentioned, we use it frequently. One reason is that it's a shortcut to finding answers. Another is that we respect the fact that members of our crowd are smart people with valuable experience. Why turn our backs on that? Sure, it's not traditional "journalism." And if the Times Union turned to only doing that, then yeah, that would be bad. But it hasn't.

+ Some of the reactions on Twitter were along the lines of "don't bite the hand that feeds you." And if anything, this episode illustrates how important a revenue source the real estate industry must be to the paper.

+ This is one of those cases where it's easy to take the moral high ground about how George Hearst should have told the real estate agents to simmer down. And back in the golden age of newspapers (whenever that was), it would have been an easy move. You're upset? Too bad. We have 25 percent profit margins (or whatever), we're going to politely not care that your knickers are in a twist over criticism that wasn't even that harsh.

But. This isn't the golden era. The industry is going through a painful transition. Many newspapers are scraping to get by. They've been cutting off pieces of their bodies to stay alive. While in theory it's easy to say what should have been done, it's another to actually tell hundreds of thousands of dollars to walk out the door when you're already thisclose to being in the red. That doesn't make what happened right. But when you're routinely facing existential threats to your business, people are going to make mistakes.

Update: Rob Madeo -- who has a lot of experience in local media -- has posted some thoughts on the situation, with some perspective.


I already aired this under Grievances: "...the Times Union filling its pages with free (to it) social media junk ("articles" made up of blog comments and tweets) instead of original content and real reporting."

However, I have to say Hearst is pretty pathetic in rolling over like a whipped dog over this. I suppose there could be an article about good advice realtors gave that got a house sold. (Like "You might clean up this pigsty before we schedule an open house.")

I think the offer to run the free ads looks bad.

That said, that "article" was an embarrassment. What is there to publicly defend by the "reporter"? That wasn't an article. Essentially it was the comments section of a real estate blog. Has that reporter ever done any in depth reporting on the local real estate market? You know, something that might educate readers?

The real question is why did they run it in the first place.

"Let's run an article letting random people whose stories we aren't corroborating that is one sided and attacks one of the industries that provides us with some of what remains of our ad revenue. What do you think Rex?"

"Sounds great. How about we put it in the Sunday section of the paper dedicated to their industry?"

"Sure can! And next week we'll ask random people to tell us the worst things they can about car salesmen and run it right next to all of their ads. It will be a hoot!"

And I know what I'm talking about. My dad's the editor of a big time newspaper. And I always listen to him. He's so savvy!

Also -- weird question here, but is this brouhaha the reason there was no real estate section in the T.U. this past Sunday? Because there's always a Sunday real estate section, but not last Sunday, not in my paper.

Perhaps the Times Union should do some truth in advertising, and change the motto in its front page nameplate to Readers are our consumers and advertisers are our customers.

I think the article was really weak and I shook my head when I read it. I think it was a bad business move to run it when real estate advertising is so important to your business model. And I think that Anthony G's grandstanding about being so upset regarding the comment that real estate agents are more interested in a quick sale than getting top dollar has a bad smell to it. I don't know Anthony at all, but studies have consistently shown this to be true on average. Well maybe that is why he is upset... the sharing of the opinion rather than the opinion itself.

@chrisck, it was just you - we had a RE section.

So wait a minute. A reporter had the idea to ask people for their experiences and because of that an informative piece was published. Reatlors threatened to pull ads. The paper apologized and ran free ads to appease the realtors. And we're actually DEFENDING this? Seems to me like Smalbany gets the newspaper (and realtors) it deserves.

First, this piece is great. Fair and reasonably considered. Great assessment of the situation.

Perhaps part of the issue is that this wasn't simply a TU blog post, like Kristi's OTE blog or Places and Spaces. Personally, I always read the blogs expecting a somewhat editorial perspective. As a reader, I might be inclined to give it more weight seeing it in print, or even online as a "news item" rather than "blog post". Do you think the reaction would have been less harsh if it had run as a blog? And also, am I wrong to approach the TU blogs in that way? Do they go under the same editorial scrutiny as stories that fall under the news banner?

It was funny that the publisher of the TU interrupted his three-week vacation to apologize to realtors. He must not be happy. Making fun of realtors in a Real Estate section doesn't seem very bright. I wonder how the Times union is doing financially because a lot of other major papers are struggling.

"Do they [TU blogs] go under the same editorial scrutiny as stories that fall under the news banner?"

I don't see how they possibly could. Look at how much content is pushed through the TU blogs daily, it would require an army of fact checkers alone.

It seems that Steve Barnes treats his blog differently than his journalism, and I remember him saying as much on his blog (but then I have a terrible memory). I guess we'd have to know what the TU's editorial standards are to answer the question.

I think this piece, like all of Kristi's pieces, belong on her blog. She is a good blogger. A journalist? Not so much.

Post script: Although it is expert in airing everyone else's dirty laundry in public, I can imagine the TU is reluctant to air this incident publicly. The TU seems to be taking a 'hunker down and wait it out' approach. But, given the special role that newspapers play in our society, I think the public would benefit from a more transparent and open discussion, and I'd be interested in hearing the TU's side of the story. Given recent events, I'm learning to lower my expectations.

The link on the times union wasn't really a story. It seemed to just be a summary of Twitter, Facebook blog comments? It's great to know that my grandparents now have access to Twitter in paper form.

Freakonomics has a great section about real estate agents and motivation in a chapter titled "How is the Ku Klux Klan Like a Group of Real Estate Agents?"

There's a difference between asking people to tell you about their experiences and picking and choosing a select few comments to publish in the print version. That's the problem that I see here. She picked and chose comments that all reflect a single perspective, which is that realtors are trying to rip people off.

The blog post was presented as, "For next Sunday’s real estate section we are writing about ignoring your Realtor. What advice did he or she give that you ignored? Why did you decide not to take their advice, and how did it turn out?".

If you set out to write a piece like that, I think it's the a reporter's job to seek out the folks who ignored their realtor's advice to their detriment, but I suspect those folks would be less likely to want to publicly air their mistakes. It seems like there was no effort made to get that other side, and it was strongly implied that there would be more than one answer to "how did it turn out", but all they presented was "I got a new realtor" or "sold my house anyway". There's no balance.

Don't pin this on Kristi. Where's the editor in charge of that section? They didn't stand up for their employee and work they approved -- and that sucks.

I'm still pondering over the 'vegetables' tag for this post. I would have gone with 'turkeys'....

A while back I came to the conclusion that the TU is more interested in driving traffic to its website than journalism. Stirring up petty controversies to rile people up, then bemoaning the nasty feedback they get in their comments section seems to be their preferred MO.

This area deserves a better quality paper.

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