A new journey awaits the real estate sector, and so does a new story for journalists.
By Rajesh Mahapatra
I am no expert on real estate, nor have I ever covered real estate as a journalist. Nevertheless, I agreed to write this short essay on real estate and journalism’s role in it for three reasons.
First, the real estate market has been among the hardest hit in the wake of the Covid_19 pandemic. This sector also holds the key to restoring the livelihoods of millions of people who have been lost due to the disruptions that followed the pandemic outbreak. No journalistic chronicling of Covid_19, and the crisis it has triggered, can be complete without capturing the narrative around real estate.
Secondly, since the Indian economy broke into a high-growth trajectory in the 1990s, the rapid transformation of the real estate sector became an essential manifestation of the nation’s aspirational journey. If Covid_19 has halted the story of aspirational India, it isn’t easy to visualize its resumption without a revival of the real estate sector. Lastly, and most importantly, I am writing this because I can’t say no to my friend, Sanjeev Kathuria. So here goes a string of stray thoughts and arguments on the topic – real estate at a crossroads and the role of journalism.
To begin with, let us try to understand how the media has so far covered real estate. Real estate emerged as a designated beat only in the 1990s. Before this, most news on the real estate sector appeared either through advertisements and announcements around housing projects or as occasional stories of an investigation into scams, urban land disputes, and consumer grievances. All that began to change with India’s economic liberalization programme.
The Good Days:
The mid-1990s saw a real estate boom that sowed the seeds of a radical transformation of the sector in later years. It paused for a few years following the 1997-98 Asian financial crisis, but by the time the Indian economy was turning around by 2003 — to enter the best growth phase in its history — the real estate sector was already on fire. In the decade that followed, property prices surged across urbanizing India, averaging an annual growth in the range of 12%-18%.
Indian real estate became a favoured destination for global investors. At home, real estate stocks became hot picks while many established corporations began to foray into the real estate business. From architecture to the expanse of projects, from finance to policy regulations, the sector saw a fascinating transformation.
Needless to say, these developments had to get mirrored in the media, and they did — in ways more than one. Real estate came to be a vital source of advertisement revenue for media companies and emerged as a subject of considerable reader interest. News relating to policies, trends, and developments around the real estate that affect society and the consumers at large began to get more space in newspapers and more air time on television channels.
By the turn of the millennium, whether it’s a newspaper, a magazine or a television channel, they would have one or more journalists dedicated to the real estate beat. Financial newspapers and channels often set aside more power and more space and time to cover the sector. Around the same time, we also saw the emergence of websites that came to be focused exclusively on real estate – some of them doubled up as news sites as well as transaction facilitators.
As real estate journalism gained momentum, two new strands of reportage emerged –
Service journalism and Solution journalism
The first category covered reportage that primarily provided information and trends relating to real estate in different parts of the country. These would typically include news about project launches, price trends, advisories from experts, and all such information that could guide consumers to make their buy/sell decisions or help builders and developers find new consumers. A certain amount of coverage was promotional.
Although news organizations generated most of the content on their own or in partnership with consultants or research firms engaged in the real sector, it was often paid for. At a national level, newspapers like the Times of India and Hindustan Times set up full-fledged editorial and production teams to bring out voluminous weekly supplements with such content.
A substantial amount of space in these supplements was sold to real estate companies for display advertisements. Television channels like CNBC TV18 and NDTV Profit also had their versions of similar content. These trends also found similar reflections at a regional level in the language media.
The second category of reportage, namely solution journalism, gained currency in the aftermath of the global financial crisis of 2008. Real estate, like the financial markets, had crashed, leaving the market, the investors, and the real estate firms high and dry. The media and the industry saw it was in their mutual interest that they come together to revive the sector.
So newspapers and television channels became the platform where ideas and solutions could be shared, debated, and shaped. At the time, I remember having launched a special weekly editorial series, titled Reality Bites, in the Hindustan Times, which brought together voices from the industry, the consumers and the experts to explore ways to revive real estate.
In the later years, when the realty sector saw a brief period of revival, the focus of solution journalism shifted to regulatory norms, delayed realty projects, and consumer grievances. But before some of these new strands in journalism around real estate in India could mature and gain a strong foothold, the sector slipped again amid a broader economic slowdown that now threatens to get worse with the outbreak of Covid_19.
The crisis that has engulfed real estate through the past decade also saw a steady and sharp decline in the sector’s contribution to the advertisement revenue of traditional media. It had happened not only due to the industry slowdown to spend less on the advertisement, but also because the advent of digital media become a preference to consumers over traditional media for information about real estate. Content marketing came as preferred over space selling.
In no time, new media overtook the traditional media concerning the content that would typically get covered under service journalism. Barring a few exceptions, such as magicbricks.com, most digital platforms belonged to non-media companies. Instead of embracing the opportunity that came with digital technology, most traditional media companies in the country tried to save their business by turning more to paid content. Such a switch might have brought some temporary relief for the business of traditional media, but it came at a cost to journalism around real estate.
By 2016, at least one million unsold units had piled up in the eight metropolitan cities – a problem that got further aggravated by demonetization. NPAs on account of stalled projects had begun to bleed the balance sheets of banks and financial institutions. EMIs were flowing to millions of middle-class consumers across the country.
Weak regulations, lack of transparency, and, above all else, an unquestioning appetite for financial speculation were responsible for the crisis that only kept going from bad to worse. Builders wanted to earn supernormal profits, and many buyers had shown irrational excitement about returns investments on property. Both had embraced the neo-liberal market’s idea, only to get their fingers burned – first the buyer, then the builder – before returning to seek state-sponsored bailouts and protection.
In all of this, the media failed to tell the story the way it ought to have. When the nation needed to debate the state of real estate more than before, newspapers and television channels shied away from taking up the interest of both the consumer and the industry.
Cut to now; the fault lines have become even more glaring. The uncertainties shrouding the real estate sector of the country in the wake of Covid_19 are unprecedented. There is no easy way out, but failing to find a way out would mean a fatal body blow to the idea of the Indian middle class that pretty much shaped the Indian growth story following the economic liberalization of the 1990s.
As I once wrote earlier, “the middle-class quest for a new home should also be understood as being an important demand trigger in the economy, sparking the need for new furniture, air conditioners, refrigerators and a range of other household goods. A vibrant real estate sector in the neo-liberal economy is thus as much a critical demand booster as a catalyst for creating new jobs and services.” And it would be best if you had both for a sustainable and faster recovery in post-COVID India.
That said, the media’s role must also reimagine a new context for a new world of real estate. Just as the landscape for real estate stands to alter in the aftermath of the pandemic, journalism would have changed as we knew it. Print and television will no longer be the first choice of news consumers. Most decisions will get influenced by content that is available through digital channels. New rules of an interface between buyers and builders will come into play, and so will it be for the audience’s engagement with news on real estate.
Whether it is about tracking trends and policies or unearthing acts of commissions and omissions, whether it is service journalism or solution journalism, every aspect of the media’s interface with the sector will have to be redefined. Because the journey ahead for the country’s real estate will be very different from the road travelled thus far. Journalists must get prepared to tell that story, and the industry must come to reckon that it is in its own interest that the story is told well, told in conformity with the basic tenets of journalism.