Dawn Wotapka's Media Movers

Media Movers: CoStar’s Tony Wilbert

August 21, 2023

Posted by Dawn Wotapka

Tony Wilbert

If you want to know something about commercial real estate, ask Tony Wilbert.

He’s written about the topic for years and has also led a public relations agency representing commercial real estate clients. Being both a hack and flack in an industry filled with movers and shakers gives him rare insight into the worlds of journalism, PR and building ownership and management — and how the three intersect. It is an enviable and valuable skill set. I will argue that PR people and journalists should switch between both sides of the fence more often because knowing how the other side thinks is a strategic differentiator. I know that’s almost heresy to some, but Tony proves my point.

These days he’s on the journalism side as a senior news writer for CoStar News. I talked to Tony about his career, the return to office debate and ChatGPT:

Dawn: Tell me about your job.

Tony: I edit CoStar News’ People newsletter that is distributed every Tuesday. I come up with many of the story ideas for the newsletter and work with reporters who write stories for the newsletter. I find a lot of ideas of people to profile on LinkedIn, and Instagram and Facebook are good sources to see what people in the industry are doing outside of the office and what charitable efforts they’re supporting. I also write the “People of Note” column about who’s news in commercial real estate. We also just started our “Person of the Week” feature, and I’ve written the first installments for that.

Dawn: Your career has involved a lot of real estate watching. What is it about real estate that interests you?

Tony: While it’s easy to see the important role residential real estate plays on our daily lives, it’s commercial real estate that affects everyone every day and impacts their lives just as much as where they live. Most people who work go to an office or warehouse, even as hybrid schedules become more popular. College students attend classes in institutional real estate, many of which were founded as land-grant universities. When we need things, we go to retail real estate to buy them. When we want to have fun, we go to sports and concerts venues, restaurants, clubs and movie theaters. They’re all usually commercial properties.

While the buildings are cool, it is the people of commercial real estate who make it most interesting. To be successful in the industry, people have to form a network of relationships and cultivate and nurture it. Brokers who serve as intermediaries are independent contractors who “eat what they kill.” Developers usually are some of the most visionary people you can meet. They look at a piece of land or derelict property and see what it could become. They take big risks and at times epitomize a swashbuckler persona with a little movie producer personality mixed it. Journalists who cover commercial real estate should understand the importance of creating a good network of sources. While public documents help real estate reporters cover their beat, most of the information they need is private. So building trusting relationships with people in the industry is critical.

Dawn: You left journalism for PR. Why?

Tony: The principal of a well-known Atlanta PR agency approached me about a job in PR while I was at The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. While I initially rebuffed the recruitment effort, it got me thinking. I realized that if I ever decided to make the move, I could leverage the knowledge I’d accumulated and network I built. And as my now ex-wife, who also was a reporter then, and I thought about having a family, we realized the better pay and advancement opportunities the PR firm offered were important.

Dawn: You also worked at both an agency and in corporate comms. Which one did you like better and why?

Tony: I started at an agency and liked the variety provided by working on several client accounts. When I moved into corporate comms at Home Depot, focusing on a company reminded me of covering a beat, and that was appealing. But ultimately, I enjoyed the energy of PR agencies more, and I also really liked going after new business.

Dawn: You then returned to journalism. Was it easy to be a career conversion reversion?

Tony: I found it a natural move to go back to journalism and covering commercial real estate because the PR firm I founded focused on clients in the industry. So keeping up with what was happening in Atlanta and across the country was vital to serving clients and winning news one.

Dawn: Is there anything you learned in PR that helps you be a better journalist?

Tony: Definitely. I learned much more about how a business works and how much I did not know about stories I thought I had on lockdown. I also got insight into how different companies viewed the media and how media relations played into their business plans. As a business owner with real estate clients, I got to know their mindsets and modes of operation, and that proved quite insightful. Working in PR or another business would benefit every business reporter.

Dawn: What has been your favorite job so far?

Tony: Running a PR agency. The thrill of chasing (and winning) new clients is hard to beat. Plus, it afforded me the chance to meet and work with Jay-Z, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Ludacris and to work on a mayoral campaign.

That said, being back in journalism is cool. Working at CoStar News provides an opportunity to do pure journalism and work with colleagues across the country and the Atlantic. I’ve worked in CoStar’s London office, covering the property market there. That was hard to beat. It’s also nice to work for a news organization that’s part of a growing company that is investing in our group, as opposed to dramatically cutting costs as many media companies are doing now.

I really like my current job. Covering and editing people stories is a great gig.

Dawn: You write a lot about commercial real estate. What are your thoughts on returning to the office and emptier office buildings?

Tony: The pandemic altered a key perception of most working Americans. Before COVID, it was expected and accepted without much forethought that we went to the office Monday-Friday to do our jobs. The world’s office market is predicated on that. The pandemic upended that and has changed the office market forever. That means owners and developers have to pivot and quickly figure out how to make offices more appealing than before the health crises and also what to do with older office buildings that have emptied. The office-to-residential conversion trend shows some are already acting on their ideas.

Dawn: Do you see AI and ChatGPT affecting journalism?

Tony: I do, yes. They’re already having some impact, though some of the stories I’ve seen written by ChatGPT seem a little off. When I asked for story on “Tony Wilbert, real estate writer,” the story said I worked for several of the companies that were my clients. That said, news organizations need to take the potential for AI and ChatGPT to disrupt and compete with their businesses more seriously than they took the internet when they decided to leverage the web by giving away their content for free.

Dawn: What advice would you give to a college student trying to decide between communications and journalism?

Tony: If you can get a job as a reporter, do that first. The skills people learned as a news writer or editor are valuable and transfer every well to communications. Be ready to make a career change at any time because and be open to a job in PR or corporate communications. When I left journalism, I quickly realized that PR is a big part of the news pipeline – just on another end. Once you’re the newsroom, don’t look down on PR and communications people. You might need to ask them for a job one day.

Dawn: What is the best career advice you ever received?

Tony: On the journalism side, a managing editor at the Savannah Morning News told me that, as a reporter, I owed my sources fairness and accuracy, nothing more or less. He also told me to never surprise a source with a story.

On the PR side, it was to give clients the best advice you can, even if you know it’s not what they want to hear.

Dawn: Finally, what do you do for fun?

Tony: I’m taking Korean classes. They’re difficult, but fun. I also have seen some K-pop concerts. While Tom Petty always will be my first musical love, I’m a Blink now.

Dawn Wotapka is a former Wall Street Journal reporter who loves to read and write. She lives in Atlanta with her husband and two children. She is a slow runner and an avid Peloton user. To submit tips for her Media Movers column, you can connect with Dawn on LinkedIn


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