Q&A: How Trump is helping real estate coverage
Michelle Jarboe is the real estate reporter on the Cleveland Plain Dealer’s business news desk and the outgoing president of the National Association of Real Estate Editors, which just held its annual conference in Denver.
Jarboe has been with the Plain Dealer since 2007 covering commercial real estate, development and the housing market for Ohio’s largest daily newspaper. Before that, she worked at The News & Record in Greensboro, North Carolina, where she wrote about retail, development, planning, zoning and consumer utilities on the paper’s business staff.
Jarboe, a UNC-Chapel Hill graduate, improved her knowledge of real estate by receiving a graduate certificate in urban real estate development and finance from Cleveland State University.
Jarboe spoke with Talking Biz News by email about real estate coverage. What follows is an edited transcript.
What’s your opinion of how real estate is covered by the media today?
I’m clearly biased because of my day job at The Plain Dealer and my work with NAREE, but I think real estate journalism is having a standout moment. The most recent round of Pulitzer Prize winners included newspaper articles and books focused on real estate issues, ranging from eviction to offshore investment in U.S. property.
The presidential race and the election of Donald Trump generated a flurry of real estate coverage, and I expect that sort of reporting to continue. Though there’s a plenty of real estate fluff online (and, yes, there’s a place for eye candy and ruins porn), journalists also are producing thoughtful, weighty coverage of housing policy, economic issues, development trends and the role of real estate in our everyday lives.
What areas of coverage do you think can be improved?
Over the last two years, real estate stories tied to the Panama Papers and coverage of the often murky world of shell companies by an array of publications were good reminders that we need to do more digging. At regional daily newspapers, which are so depleted, it can be tough to find the time to tackle investigative work and in-depth projects. But the world of real estate can be opaque and confusing. And journalists are in a unique place to pick apart that complexity and to find the stories that matter to readers’ lives and pocketbooks.
I also think we can do more with collaboration, within our organizations and with other media outlets. With fewer resources in traditional newsrooms, it’s important to shake off our anxiety about sharing stories and getting scooped – and to find ways to team up for readers’ benefit.
Why is real estate such an important beat these days?
Real estate touches every part of our lives. I think the housing bust was a good reminder of just how important it is. A home is shelter. It’s financial security. In some cases, it’s pride. It can be the dividing line between wealth and poverty, affecting families for generations.
Many Americans work in offices, which are changing to reflect the evolution of jobs. Shifts in manufacturing techniques impact industrial real estate, driving demand to particular types of buildings and making some cities winners while others are losers. Changing shopping habits are, of course, a huge story. And brick-and-mortar retail’s struggles have a ripple effect on cities and suburbs alike. On top of that, the growth of public-private partnerships means that government is playing a hefty role in some real estate projects, from planning to financing to ownership.
I’m convinced that every story involves a real estate story. Just look a marijuana legalization in Denver, where NAREE held its conference in mid-June. Legal pot instantly became a real estate play. At the end of last year, growers took up more than 4 million square feet of space in metro Denver, according to a recent report from CBRE brokerage. And a lot of that space was lower-grade industrial stuff that was renting at above-market prices.
Lastly, I think real estate reporting gained additional visibility when Donald Trump was elected president. With a developer in the White House, it’s even more crucial to have reporters who not only can understand real estate but also can explain complicated real estate issues – and potential conflicts raised by them – to everyday readers, listeners and viewers.
Some media outlets focus more on commercial than residential real estate. Why does that happen?
It depends on the outlet – and the audience. Publications tailored to business audiences seem to skew more commercial, and transactional, while daily newspapers and outlets that cater to general audiences tend to focus more on homes.
That said, I write for a major daily paper, and my work is 60 to 70 percent commercial. Part of that is, probably, due to my interests. Part of that is the audience response. Stories about real estate projects (including apartments), historic buildings and even some transactions – major shopping center sales, for example – typically draw lots of online readers. And part of that is the nature of Greater Cleveland. The housing market presents opportunities for great stories, but it can be pretty humdrum compared with what’s happening in other parts of the country.
What do you see as real estate stories that will garner more coverage in the future?
Can I just say “Trump?” Clearly, anything related to the Trump family’s real estate holdings and business interests will be the subject of ongoing scrutiny and abundant coverage.
I suspect that we’ll see more residential real estate stories on affordability, poverty and housing insecurity. We’ll see more writing about the death of retail as we know it, though that narrative seems overhyped at times. There will be stories about whether developers are overbuilding – apartments, in particular – and whether we’re heading for a recession and a real estate slump.
And while the chatter around re-urbanization and the state of cities isn’t going away, I wonder whether we’ll see more stories about rural real estate issues, in the wake of the 2016 election.
Realtors and real estate companies are big media advertisers. Does that influence coverage?
I hope not. At The Plain Dealer, I’ve never encountered pressure – directly or indirectly – from an advertiser to write, alter or spike a story. I’ve received the occasional call from folks in the advertising department asking whether I’d consider writing about a client’s project or event, but there’s no pushback when I politely decline.
When real estate professionals mention their advertising spending to me, they’re usually people who aren’t used to working with reporters and who honestly don’t understand the hard wall between the departments.
How has the launching of real estate news websites in the past decade impacted how it’s covered?
The growth of online journalism and the proliferation of “content providers” of all sorts has, in my view, muddied the waters. There are a lot of real estate industry websites that also publish editorial content. At times, it can be tough for readers – and even for reporters – to tell who is paying for what and whether a business agenda is shaping what otherwise looks like journalism.
On the plus side, there’s so much great reporting and writing out there. Many accomplished real estate journalists are doing stellar work for nontraditional employers – or for themselves. That makes for increased competition, which always seems like a good thing. The downside is that there’s a lot of content on the Internet that’s not entirely trustworthy.
What’s our strategy for getting developers and others in the industry to talk about projects when they’re hesitant?
Patience, persistence and politeness. When someone balks at talking to me for a story – unless they hang up the phone and completely shut down the conversation – I try to understand why they’re hesitant and to find ways to overcome that reluctance. Public records can be levers for convincing people to talk.
If there’s a survey, a state corporation filing or a mortgage record, for example, that’s often enough information to support a story. I explain that an article will be more complete if the major players talk to me. Sometimes that works. Sometimes it doesn’t.
Other than public records, what sources do you like to use when covering real estate?
People are No. 1. There’s no substitute for a face-to-face meeting or a long phone call. I try to get out of the office as much as possible, not only for interviews but also for events and public meetings where I pick up ideas. My feet and my car are invaluable.
Some of the best sources are the people that nobody pays attention to – people who process permits, handle documents, work in construction or do other unglamorous jobs. It’s worth getting to know them, and you can’t do that while manning a desk or starting at a laptop.
I also lean heavily on universities, libraries and private-sector researchers. And I have frequent conversations with companies that collect and disseminate real estate data. New businesses tracking foreclosures, rents, single-family investors and other slices of the market seem to pop up every day. But there’s a wide range of quality there, so journalists need to be careful.
How do you see real estate coverage evolving in the next decade or two?
The wealth of online data only will grow, which is good for real estate reporters and consumers alike. Open-data initiatives and civic-tech collaborations will put much more information at our fingertips – and help us interpret it. Data-visualization tools (Tableau is my current favorite) will help us better explain numbers and trends to readers and allow them to interact with stories.
I believe – and hope – that real estate reporters will be able to do a better job of connecting the dots for readers and covering trends in real-time. I think we’ll see more collaborations between media organizations. But I worry that solid local or regional real estate coverage will grow more scarce as newspapers continue to cut staffs and consolidate beats.
I know real estate reporters who also cover economic development and workforce issues, or who are jacks-of-all-trades for shrinking business teams. It’s tough to do a job well when you’re doing several people’s jobs.
If media organizations don’t allocate enough resources to real estate coverage, then we could end up with more limited choices: either inside-baseball industry stuff for paying customers or free clickbait loaded up with photo galleries and slideshows of houses but devoid of substance. I don’t think that’s where we’ll be 10 to 20 years from now, but sometimes I worry.