Thursday, April 12, 2007

Un-Corrected Correction

If that makes you say, 'Huh?", it should, just as the inspiration for that did to myself. The online version of the WashPost's recent Page 1 article regarding the recent deal with North Korea "To Prod N. Korea, U.S. Relents in Counterfeiting Case" link heads with a bright red correction:

Then farther down in the article is the original, un-corrected text:

So if you missed the note at the top, there it is, not "debilitating" but "dilapidating", which of course makes no sense. How about in addition to the notice at the top simply correcting the text and putting a footnote or popup link to the information about the correction? That would probably better reduce further the likelihood of un-necessary reader comments about the mistake long after it had been acknowledged.

Sunday, February 25, 2007

Should You Trust Local Real Estate Ads?

Should you pick your Real Estate Agent for your next purchase or sale from an Advertisement in Your Local Newsletter/Newspaper?

The easy answer is that no, an answer that can make the difference in thousands of dollars of unnecessary cost/lost income needs more research than just what you get by seeing an ad. In theory at least real estate agents advertise because they believe those ads do help influence us into choosing their services, but should they? What follows below is a road map that just about anybody can follow to see with how large of a grain of salt they take when considering their local real estate agents.

As recent purchasers of a home shortly after what had been a peak in local home values, we are more than casually aware of the current softness in the market, and so try to pay at least some attention to recent sales trends so we have it in the back of our heads should we ever need/choose to start looking to move. But then each month I saw the real estate ads in our local community newsletter, the All Fairlington Bulletin put out by the Fairlington Citizens Association, and the journalist in me kept wondering just how creatively the local advertising community might be in trying to avoid discussing the reality of a market where property value assessments went over the course of 1 year from a 19 percent increase from the previous year to a 5 percent decrease.

Finally, I took advantage of the public records on real estate sales in Arlington County and Alexandria City Virginia, and used them to compare to the sale dates of trumpeted in the ads, with the assumption being that they are the recent successes from agents and agencies represented.

First of all, one doesn't undertake such an adventure without at least some healthy skepticism over the difference between reality and how what may be an unscrupulous advertiser would portray it. That being said, honest advertising is really the best, easiest method of the consumer getting some basic information in their hands about something like this, as it engenders a basic sense of trust in the agent with a clear communication of the kind of results to be expected.

That being said, anything that feels weaselly, depresses that, so what did I find?

This was from the March 2007 All Fairlington Bulletin

Page 4 (Bonnie B Remax 100,
$590K 200 Uhler terrace (actual sale date: 12/06/06)
$460K 3425 S. Wakefield St (sold: 9/29/06)
$400K 3501 S. Wakefield St (sold: 9/22/06)
(no price) 3021 S. Buchanan St. (sold for $386k on 11/20/06)
$463K 3609 S. Wakefield St. (sold: 6/20/05)

Page 6 (Lois Robinson and Lynn Gant,
$434,900 4618 S. 36th St. in Mews ("listed Sunday, Sold Monday")(too current for web)
$410k 4247 S. 35th St. in Meadows (too current for web)

Page 8 (Tom Team,
$579K 3548 S. Stafford (5/26/06)
$465K 3445 S. Wakefield (6/22/06)
$476,100 3276 S. Utah Street (5/25/06)
$455 4458 S. 36th Street (6/9/06)
$464K 4113 S. 36th Street (5/26/06)
$505k 3473 S. Stafford (6/8/06)

So it's clearly a slow market, but why would the "Tom Team" still be referring to sales 8 and 9 months ago? And for that matter, why would "Bonnie B", who otherwise had sales in the last couple of quarters, all of a sudden throw out a number also from 9 months ago?

Just for the heck of it, I checked the February "Tom Team" ad and found only 1 listing different from the March issue, and it was for a more recent sale: $447,900 4436 S. 26th St. (sold: 11/15/06).

So before you get too wound up about the sales numbers spouted on an ad, do a little research, and if you feel mislead at all, you probably want to think twice about using them, and an advertiser should know that. In order for advertising to work for a business, it needs to at a minimum not your customers uncomfortable with dealing with you, like somehow they're being misled. If advertising fails, than little newsletters like our "All Fairlington Bulletin" will have to struggle that much more to make ends meet.

Finally, this posting is meant to be instructive to both consumers, advertisers, and small publishers like myself. The consumer advice was above. My advice to advertisers is to remember that in the internet age, every potential customer has the tools to find out much more about you with you ever knowing today than ever before, and if your business works with public records like real estate sales, there is even more hard data to be found. Expect that somebody is going to check your numbers and if something looks really out of whack, like 9-month-old numbers with no indication of this important detail, they might take the 15 minutes to post a note to all of their friends and family questioning your motivations and integrity. As anybody who has ever posted anything remotely controversial online has found out, internet judgement can be swift and severe, and sometimes unfairly so, so best to be as open and honest with your customers as possible.

And for small publishers, we need to take the responsibility to actively review anything that goes into our publications and give our advertisers the benefit of our insight into any potential negative reactions our audience might have. Theoretically that is one of the benefits that we provide to the advertisers, not just a passive audience, but active engagement in how to best communicate with them.

Sunday, December 31, 2006

Not ALL of the news, just all that fits

"if it was edited out of the report that aired, then doesn't that mean it's probably not necessary?"

I never cease to be amazed by how many professional journalists make fundamental mistakes like Tom Shales's rhetorical question above deriding the additional content news producers include in their online components.

No, Mr. Shales, that does not mean that it's "probably" not necessary. It means that an editor made an editorial/commercial decision that whatever was left out was not important enough for the amount of space available, not specifically that it wasn't necessary.

An argument could be made that nothing other than the headline and maybe a short summary paragraph is actually "necessary" for most articles, thus all those syndicated wire service summaries on out-of-market stories you see in almost every section of every newspaper around. But I would imagine that just about every decent reporter around in theory has already eliminated all of the truly un-necessary elements out of their story before they submit it to their editor, especially at larger newspapers like the Washinton Post/NY Times, etc. That is after all their jobs, not just to fill space, except on slow news days, right?

Instead what shows up in print, on the air, online, etc., is a version of the story generally edited for criteria other than necessity, generally to fit the news hole available after sucking out all of the ads/commercials necessary to pay for the distribution and overhead of a publishing enterprise. Even non-commercial entities still have a finite amount of space available to fill due to the physical limitations of their medium.

In print the limitation is the cost of printing: how much does it cost for whatever the next larger available multiple of pages to be produced? If you have a magazine where a printed sheet is cut into 16 individual pages, then you are dealing in increments of 16, so every addition has that consideration. In a newspaper, it's as little as the front and back of a single page, so you don't add just a paragraph, you add a minimum of 2 pages, but that single page often seems to slip out of the paper, so it's much more common to see a full 4 pages added rather than the minimum.

In broadcast, there is no such flexibility, since an hour is an hour any which way you slice it. If you extend a story, it's almost always at the expense of another story, rarely if ever at the expense of even an extra 15 second spot due to the relative cost of air-time.

However, online your limits are generally what the editorial staff has placed on themselves, and of course the attention span of the viewer. Even with ad rates as cheap as they are today, an editor would be silly to cut something that even an extremely narrow segment of the audience would be willing to read/watch, since it truly is lost revenue.

For an example, take a hypothetical current event story about a G-8 summit in Moscow. In print and on the air that story will have to fight with everything else that is going on that day to justify its space in the news hole. Online the only competition is for the precious real estate on whichever section/home page the site uses to link to the story. Once a user clicks on the story, why would you limit the amount of information that you display to that user to what could be justified in the above equation for a newspaper article?

Even more, online you could take an extra 5 minutes and add in links to pre-existing background materials, generating more clicks/page-views and ad impressions. And if you really want to earn your money, you could take a little extra time and maybe have the reporter add a sidebar listing the strange trivia items that generally accompany any such meeting of high-powered/high-ego personalities: what they ate, who sat next to whom, why the French President insists on kissing instead of shaking the hand of a fellow President just because it is a woman, etc. Maybe even add in a little local color, like the recent Economist article detailing the typical experience going through Russian airports ( link for paid online/print subscribers), because how many of your readers are likely to get to go to Moscow?

So long as the additional material generates enough additional ad impressions to pay for the minuscule additional labor necessary, you're on the positive side of the profitability equation, and since that's what pays the bills for the companies that pay reporters to report, that looks like a pretty positive thing to me. As a journalist, I'm interested in informing my audience as fully as I and the limitations of my medium are capable of, and whether that's done in print, on the boob tube, or online, I don't care.