Notices about the lease and sale of property have been central to Australian newspapers from the start. Until the advent of the internet, newspapers were the primary form of communication about individual sales of house blocks and rural properties. Ever since the British Crown claimed the entire Australian land mass, both colonial and then state governments have not only been major sellers of land in their own right, bit have mandated successive systems of leasehold and freehold title.
In the 19th century, Australian property reporting was straightforward, and rarely went beyond advertisements and minimal commentary on what did and didn’t sell. The number of notices depended on the size of the market and the economic mood of the time. In the 1880s, ‘Marvellous Melbourne’ experienced a phenomenal land boom, recorded by the press. The collapse in the 1890s was also embraced as newsworthy.
By the early 20th century, real estate agents were taking large advertisements in broadsheet newspapers. Jack Lang’s agency, trading as Lang and Dawes, took out quarter-page advertisements in the Cumberland Argus and Fruitgrowers’ Advocate (1888–1950).
The suburban subdivision boom of the 1920s saw some real estate agents producing journals in their own right, including Rickard’s Realty Review (1909–c.1927) in Sydney. Real estate agents’ hyperbole was rarely questioned in the newspapers, and advertisements for rent and sale became a mainstay of the classifieds in the Saturday dailies. Some trade union papers and the Labor Daily in New South Wales criticised property interests, and generally viewed the property market—including the expulsion of tenants during the Depression—as an evil expression of capitalism.
With the coming of by-lines, especially from the 1970s, property journalists finally gained more status and influence, serving as gatekeepers for hard-to-obtain market information. Most still liked the easy jobs, profiling major property entrepreneurs from L.J. Hooker to Harry Triguboff. Like tourism journalists, property journalists were often fêted by agents and developers seeking favourable coverage. Unlike travel reporters, they didn’t feel obliged to cite any contra deals or hospitality that they had enjoyed.
From the 1970s, the heritage and environmental impacts of property development— urban, rural and coastal—attracted growing public debate. This liberated some journalists, who preferred to write about the larger questions, including Joe Glascott on the Sydney Morning Herald (SMH) and Christopher Jay in the Australian Financial Review. Some journalists researched property market scandals, including Ben Hills in the Age, who revealed corruption about land releases in Melbourne. Juanita Nielsen, an urban conservationist, led the battle against the redevelopment of Victoria Street, Kings Cross through the local paper Now (1968–75), which she published from her home. She was almost certainly murdered in 1975 for her advocacy, but her body has never been found.
By the 1990s, more real estate advertisements were in colour, and Saturday papers began to produce lavish real estate supplements. Real estate proved readily transportable to the internet, so John Fairfax Holdings founded the Domain site and a publicly listed real estate group established realestate.com.au. At first, sales data for sites and suburbs still had to be purchased, but is now readily available on a number of websites. Prospective home purchasers and tenants can now get everything they need free of charge on the web.
Apart from analysing overall demand and supply and consumer preferences, property journalists now have little to tell us that we can’t find out for ourselves. Even well-known property columnists, including Jonathan Chancellor, who wrote the ‘Title Deeds’ column for the SMH from 1987 until 2011, now writes for Property Observer, a website published by Private Media Partners. The Australian Financial Review still surveys the commercial and industrial property market, but much of its journalism is about the profile of developers and the scarcity of good development sites, and less about understanding the property market itself.
Both broadsheet and tabloid newspapers still love to run tables of the most expensive and cheapest suburbs in which to buy, and the locations experiencing rapid capital growth. Commercial television programs offer advice about how to prepare an apartment or house for sale. Backyard Blitz (Nine, 2000–07) and The Block (2003–04, 2010– ) on the Nine Network have been ratings blockbusters, and home improvement shows are heard on commercial radio stations, including Sydney’s 2GB.
Both print and electronic media worry about the impact of ‘foreign buyers’ on the price of real estate. All media regularly bemoan the high cost of new blocks of land and the difficulties facing new home buyers in one of the world’s most expensive housing markets.
Because property law remains in state hands, major legislative changes—particularly to the Strata Titles Acts, town planning issues, land tax and stamp duty—continue to elicit journalistic comment. But today any adept web user can be their own property journalist. The property journalist, other than when they reveal a scandal, is all but extinct.
REFs: M. Cannon, The Landboomers (1966); P. Spearritt, Sydney’s Century (2000).