Homes sections used to be one of the prime gravy trains of journalism-free lunches for the writers and cases of booze for the editors. But that was a long time ago. Newspapers now have strict policies against accepting gifts in order to prevent editors and reporters from even subconsciously feeling obligated to advertisers or anyone else the paper may report on. So how come homes sections continue to pump out stories like this one, taken from The Toronto Sun last October?
“The hills are alive… with the sounds of young couples and their new families enjoying life on the shores of Lake Simcoe. It’s Alcona Woods, the latest project by Econ Homes, and the quality ~ houses aside, it’s a location that’s drawing attention for its vibrant mix of rural and urban. In fact, even empty-nesters – are showing interest in the locale, which is only an hour from Toronto, 10 minutes from Barrie and right smack dab in the middle of Fun Country…
“Econ is offering certain quality items in these brick-and-siding houses as standard specifications. The bricks are clay. The wood using [sic] for framing is kiln-dried, which means bye-bye nail pops and other nuisances caused by green wood drying out. The subfloors are made of o/a-inch tongue-and groove plywood, for squeak-free sturdiness. The basement boasts a rough-in for a two-piece bathroom, and a ceramic backsplash embellishes the Eurostyle kitchen. And to top it all off, every homes [sic] comes with a fireplace brick front with mantel.”
Sloppy prose aside, the place sounds great. If the newspaper says glowing things about the project, developer and location, they must be good, right?
Not necessarily. One of the primary goals of these sections is to make money, and the best way to do that is to keep the advertisers happy. As a result, the editorial content may become a public relations vehicle. Although homes sections across the nation tend to fall into this trap, the effect of the sections in The Toronto Star and The Toronto Sun is more widespread because they are operating in the most active real estate market in Canada. The stories in both sections are surprisingly flattering to the builders and their products. They tend to make both sound flawless.
No one can attest to the positive nature of new home reports (also known as site stories) better than the builders. “They write nice things about whatever project or builder they’re writing about,” says Alex Amon, vice-president of marketing and sales at Georgian Homes, a frequent advertiser in both papers. “It’s a form of free advertising.” Dellbrook Homes has never had anything negative written about its projects in the homes sections either. Perhaps that’s because all the information for the site stories is provided by the builders.
Even The Toronto Sun’s New Homes editor David Henderson acknowledges that site stories are a form of boosterism, a freebie for the builder. “These stories are supposed to be accurate but they’re very positive,” says Henderson. “It’s like a lawyer trying to put someone’s case in the best possible light.” Unless there is a way of making something negative sound positive such as “the homes offer easy access to the GO Train” instead of “the proximity of the GO Train will rattle your brain “-these undesirable features stay out of the stories. “Sometimes you can do it obliquely,” Henderson adds, “but we tend not to mention railway lines.” As New Homes editor, he is responsible for the editorial content of the section: choosing wire copy, sorting through press releases, turning out a column and writing site stories or assigning them to freelancers. What his position doesn’t include is the selection of site stories-that’s left to the advertising department.
Sales representative Dan Chirnomas determines which builders get site stories and when, and he bases those decisions on advertising. It’s quite simple. The more you advertise, the more “editorial support” you get. “Obviously, the guy who runs the most ads, I have to take care of,” says Chirnomas. “I have to prioritize; I can’t ignore a company that does three times as much advertising as anyone else.” Thus Greenpark Homes, which runs four to six pages of advertising in the Sun per week, demands and gets 12 front-page site stories a year. Geranium Homes takes half as many ads as Greenpark. “As long as they maintain that level,”says Chirnomas, “I will allot Geranium half as many front-page stories.”
At The Toronto Star, the New In Homes editor Warren Potter and his assistant choose the site stories. The selection process occurs in one of three ways: Potter and his assistant go through the ads in the section and assign some of the sites that either haven’t been covered recently or haven’t been covered at all; they also sift through requests for coverage they receive in the form of press releases or brochures and assign stories from among them; and finally, Potter says, “Now and again, one of our salesmen will say ‘Hey, so and-so is a good customer. Can you put him in a site story?’ I say, ‘Sure, give me the details,’ and I assign it.”
The Star prides itself on keeping editorial independent of sales in the New In Homes section. But David Henderson, who was Potter’s assistant at the Star before joining the Sun, says it’s almost impossible to keep advertising and editorial totally separate. Though he acknowledges that the link between site stories and advertising was less direct at the Star, he doesn’t think that makes much of a difference. In his experience, Henderson says, the Star was still publishing “advertising freebies.”
To its credit, the Star risked the wrath of advertisers and attempted to assert some editorial autonomy when Dennis Morgan took over as assistant managing editor of editorial special sections in March 1988. He removed site stories from the front page of the section, and both he and Potter have been reminding writers “to cut out the flowery bullshit” so that site stories don’t sound so much like rave reviews.
Morgan is also thinking about other possible changes to the section such as printing floor plans in addition to artists’ renderings so that writers can spend less time describing homes and more time describing locations-including such hitherto unmentionable details as the proximity of railway lines and industrial sites. “We should start mentioning those sorts of things,” he says, “but these things have been done in such a way for so long that it takes a while to reeducate people.”
In the meantime, homes sections continue to draw healthy revenues. The base rate for a full-page black-and-white ad in the Sun’s New Homes section is approximately $3,500, and the section generates around $3.5 million in annual advertising revenue. A full-page ad in the New In Homes section of the Star costs $14,000 on average, but the Star won’t reveal exact advertising revenues; it does admit, however, that the section drew somewhere between $10 million and $20 million in 1987.
But none of this is new, and profit driven sections are accepted in the industry precisely because of their long history. “Years and years ago, when The Toronto Star was an exemplar of fierce and independent attitudes towards advertisers,” says media critic Walter Stewart, “it nevertheless gave away the homes section.” In magazines, revenuerelated sections are generally considered acceptable if they are clearly identified as such, and if the body type is different from the publication’s standard type face. Stewart argues that the same guidelines should apply to newspapers-that every site story in the homes section ought to be identified with a reverse white-on-black line in at least 18-point type saying” Advertising Feature.” Adds Stewart, “That might help some, but if the body type is the same as the rest of the newspaper, what we’re trying to measure is, how dumb is the reader?”
Readers aren’t that easily hoodwinked, according to Mike Strobel, managing editor of the Sun: “Any reader who is in a position where he or she can buy a house is intelligent enough to realize that virtually all homes sections, regardless of which newspaper they’re in, will essentially be advertising vehicles.”
Yet the Sun’s section editor disagrees -Henderson says there’s a danger of misleading the public. That’s why he put a little disclaimer at the end of each site story in the November 27, 1988 issue of the Sun saying they were based on information provided by the builder -an idea reminiscent of “fine print” tactics, and a rather feeble warning when compared to Walter Stewart’s 18point reverse white-on-black label. Even such a small change, however, was discontinued after that issue. Henderson’s boss, Sunday Sun editor Mike Burke-Gaffney, believes that readers are aware of the nature of homes copy so there’s no need to tell them. That’s the stock answer at the Star as well. Morgan agrees when Potter says, “Most people with a grain of sense realize that these are not endorsements. Why put something in that’s fairly obvious?”
But is it? Despite what the editors say, site stories do lend builders credibility and, for many readers, appear to be an endorsement of the product. The advertisers know it. David Henderson has received letters from advertisers saying “Thanks for running that site story. We sold $7 million in homes last week.” Debi Jones, marketing director of Dellbrook Homes, agrees, adding that site stories work 100 percent better than ads: “It’s one thing for a builder to say I’m wonderful but it’s another thing for somebody else to write about it. A site story gets into the prospective purchaser’s mind that this project must be good if the Sun or the Star is writing about it.”
The Sun’s sales rep knows it, too. “People tend to be naive,” says Dan Chirnomas. “Rather than a pandering piece of advertorial, they see [site stories] as literary gospel.” And, even if the decision-makers also acknowledged that readers see site stories as endorsements, the Sun wouldn’t risk making editorial changes that might upset advertisers. “Before we implement a change in format or content,” says Chirnomas, “we always go to the builders first and say, ‘Here’s what we’re doing, what do you think?’ ”
Now the damage has come full circle and advertisers are generating their own pseudo-editorial copy. Some are designing ads to look like site stories with a headline, an artist’s rendering 01 the home and body copy set in columns. But you can’t blame the advertisers-they know what works.
Whether they admit it or not, homes section editors realize the PR they pump out is baiting the builders’ hooks. They even attempt to exonerate themselves by counteracting the blatant biases in the site stories with general warnings in their own columns. Without naming names, they constantly urge readers to check the builder’s history and not to trust the sales agent, who will say almost anything to make a sale. Very commendable. But it’s the builders themselves who provide all the information for the site stories.
One way to mitigate the damage would be to cover only reputable builders. At the Star, Morgan claims they know who the good builders are and do tend to concentrate on them. But Potter, the day-to-day decision-maker, contradicts Morgan: “If we get a request for a site story, as and when we can fit it in, we fit it in. If we chose only the really good builders, we’d be fairly limited.” Still, he doesn’t feel it’s his job to sit in judgement. The majority of new homes are now sold from plans, he says, so the paper is writing about homes that haven’t been built yet. Even if a builder has a bad reputation, it may redeem itself in a new development. “Besides,” he argues, “we cannot, in my column or anywhere in the section, say ‘This builder’s a lousy builder, don’t buy from him’ because we’d get sued.”
As they stand now, neither paper is at risk of a libel suit for anything in the homes sections. The builders couldn’t be more pleased with the content if they wrote it themselves. If nothing negative is written about builders, and the privilege of editorial coverage is not reserved for only the “good” builders, then readers are clearly being misinformed. It would be a sorry paper that bolstered advertisers to such an extent in its news pages. Yet obvious exceptions are made when it comes to homes sections.