The Seattle Post-Intelligencer is running twice-weekly profiles of homes for sale in the Seattle area alongside news stories. But the listings carry no disclosures that they are essentially advertisements, not journalism. Nor does the paper reveal that in at least one case, real estate agents wrote the copy appearing under a Seattle PI byline.
Jayme Johnson, a managing broker with Prudential Northwest Realty Associates, who had a listing featured May 29 on the Seattle PI website, told iMediaEthics that: "We wrote the blurbs accompanying the photos [for the May 29, 2012 real estate profile]....the marketing remarks about our listing were taken directly from the Multiple Listing Service."
But, the byline of the profile in question lists Seattlepi.com staffer Aubrey Cohen as the sole author of the feature.
The listings, which have run since April 2010, are often promoted on the news flash section of the website’s homepage, further giving them the appearance of actual news. On June 2 and June 12, listings from Windermere Real Estate were featured at the top of the page.
See above, a screenshot of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer homepage from June 2. Real estate listings are promoted on the top of the news site. (Credit: Seattle PI, screenshot)
Listings include the home’s price and location, photos with accompanying publicity blurbs, the name of the real estate agent and company representing the property, and a flattering description -- basically information you'd find in a standard real estate ad -- credited to one of Seattle PI’s staff writers. See below a sample listing.
See above an example of the Seattle PI's real estate listings, which are promoted on the news site's homepage. Listings read like advertisements, boasting descriptions, addresses, square footage and price of homes. (Credit: Seattle PI, screenshot)
According to Shelley Rossi, Vice President of Communications at Windermere Real Estate, whose listings are heavily promoted on the site, the Seattle PI picks the listings in question. Rossi said: "The real estate reporter at the Seattle PI selects what homes are featured... When one of our company’s listings is selected, the reporter emails me and asks for my help getting approval to feature the listing.”
Besides providing publicity for local realtors, the profiles take details from the real estate company's original listing —and on at least one occasion entirely copied the text with no quotation marks added.
Rossi said that the Seattle PI’s “real estate reporter wrote the editorial that accompanied the photos,” but noted that "The reporter pulls the listing details and photos directly from our website Windermere.com."
Realtors say they don’t pay for coverage
According Johnson, both Prudential and individual agents advertise with the website, but she did not know the details of Prudential’s arrangement with the website. She also stated that May 29 was the first time a Prudential listing was featured on the website, and said that Prudential did not pay for this coverage.
Windermere does not advertise with seattlepi.org, nor does it pay for coverage, according to Rossi. (iMediaEthics’ view: With the way they are featured by the newspaper, who needs to buy advertising?)
"These real estate spotlights are a very easy way to generate additional PR for Windermere and our agents. It gives those listings that are featured an additional marketing avenue in which there is the potential for literally thousands of readers to see the home,” she wrote. “Agents who have had their listings featured report great traffic and interest from those who see the feature. And it’s all free – doesn’t cost us a penny."
She also wrote, "Windermere has 40% market share in Seattle, so rarely does a week go by that one of our listings isn’t selected. In other words, we are frequently featured."
Windermere has actually been featured in ten out of twelve listings since May 25, meaning they are, in fact, disproportionately represented in the Seattle PI’s real estate profiles, especially in comparison to Prudential Northwest.
Seattlepi.com’s staff writer Aubrey Cohen and producer Shannon Fears did not respond to three email requests each for comment regarding how these features differ from advertising, and why they are not marked as such. We will update this story with any responses.