Consumer advocacy group CHOICE has launched a stinging attack on the real estate industry claiming real estate advertisers control editorial content ensuring property news is always presented in a positive light.
The assualt was aimed at various media outlets, including Fairfax - publishers of The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age - and one prominent Adelaide-based agent was singled out for criticism.
“Through this investigation, CHOICE has found the distinction between advertising and editorial in the real estate press is largely absent,” the organisation claimed in its ‘real estate’s influence on newspapers’ investigation, published on October 19.
“The relationship between media and real estate is apparently so cosy in some instances that big spenders are kept happy at all costs.”
CHOICE said it had identified examples of journalists using real estate professionals as “everyday men and women in positive news stories” in positive property market articles; perks being given to real estate advertisers; and no room for criticism of advertisers.
CHOICE focused particular attention on Fairfax’s The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age; The Courier (Ballarat); The Australian; The Daily Telegraph (Sydney); The Courier Mail (Brisbane) and Adelaide Now (website of the Adelaide Advertiser).
Sources used by CHOICE to highlight the alleged advertiser, editorial ties include ‘Alan Smith’ - (not his real name), “a former manager at Australia’s largest community newspaper group, the News Ltd owned Cumberland Courier Newspapers”, and Terry Ryder, who told CHOICE that “he resigned from The Courier Mail in the late 1990s because he wasn't able to write freely without being dictated to by the real estate industry.”
Fairfax, along with one prominent Adelaide-based real estate agent named in the report, reacted strongly against the claims made by CHOICE.
Peter Gearin, sections editor for The Sydney Morning Herald and The Sun Herald, told Real Estate Business that CHOICE did not contact him to check the claims made in the ‘investigation’.
”It all seems strange to me they would go and speak to our commercial director...[Tony Blamey, general manager – real estate at Fairfax Media] rather than speak directly with editorial about issues of balance, and about how much integrity we have,” he said.
“Certainly, from our perspective, it’s a pretty outrageous slur on our professionalism and independence, something that we value very much. Not only in the Domain area but across all the different areas where we practice journalism.
“To suggest that somehow we’re at the beck and call of the commercial arm of the company is ridiculous.”
Mr Blamey was equally indignant at the claims made in the CHOICE report.
“What our clients do from an advertising point of view, and that somehow giving them favourable editorial coverage, we certainly don’t operate that way," he told Real Estate Business. "We enjoy a reputation around independent journalism, high quality, and that’s sacrosanct for us.
“Our advertisers are certainly not always happy with the editorial we write but we’re unashamed about that. We’re writing for a discerning, sophisticated reader, and that’s what our advertisers are after.”
He also dismissed claims that an annual overseas trip for agents who meet certain sales targets – which is run by The Age – was funded from vendor paid for advertising, as claimed by Mr Ryder.
“It’s absolutely not,” he said. “That’s based on a corporate advertising spend. It’s related to the agents’ branding themselves, it’s not related to the spend on [property] listings. It’s an important distinction to make.”
Anthony Toop, managing director at Toop&Toop in Adelaide, was another to appear in the report, accused of gaining favorable editorial coverage.
CHOICE said an article in Adelaide Now that featured Mr Toop’s return to the industry after a six-month “hiatus” was, according to the opinion of Angelo Karantonis, a “property expert”, and associate professor of the School of the Built Environment at the University of Technology Sydney (UTS), entirely linked to his advertising spend with the newspaper.
“Apart from articles directly related to local real estate issues, getting Toop-based editorial into The Advertiser has been extremely frustrating, even when we believe the story is genuinely newsworthy. And the article referred to [in the Choice report] was in The Sunday Mail,” Mr Toop told Real Estate Business.
“This article was entirely initiated by the paper as I had been totally off work for seven months from December 2010 to 1 July 2011, and we spend $0 per year in The Sunday Mail.”
“We have had so much difficulty getting editorial we established our award winning ‘InsideStory’ column and blog, and we completely fund this. In October 2009 we set up the first ‘online real estate TVs’ with Toop.TV , a weekly live and interactive real estate show to get our message out.”
Furthermore, and similar to Fairfax Media’s editorial department, he said CHOICE had never contacted him about this article.
“In my view this is a very poor example to hang their hat on,” he said. “As for a Sydney expert explaining how Adelaide works, well clearly he was misquoted or has no experience/knowledge of small cities. It is like someone comparing a semi trailer with a motor bike, [they’re] vastly different in more ways than just size.”
Mr Toop said The Advertiser didn’t need to curry favour with advertisers, as it was the only major daily newspaper in Adelaide.
“It would make no difference to their revenues how they treat us on these editorial matters, they have a monopoly,” he said. “We would be out of business without them, they are completely unaffected by our whims.”
“It wouldn’t matter what they did, or how we reacted, they would still get our advertising. It is the only daily paper in South Australia, and in any case this article was in the paper where we do not spend a cent.”