MediaOne Misstep 

Did MediaOne cross the line by donating to a realtors PAC?

Breaking up is hard to do, but sometimes it seems inevitable—like the love affair between real estate advertisers and publisher MediaOne, which prints the Salt Lake Tribune and the Deseret News.

The relationship has been on the rocks ever since MediaOne started its own limited-service real-estate brokerage firm that would compete directly against local realtors, who had for years advertised with MediaOne.

Now, some realtors feel MediaOne is seeking an awkward reconciliation with realtors by donating to the Salt Lake Board of Realtors Political Action Committee.

“I think that’s their attempt to get in the good graces of the powers that be,” says Michael Shehan, marketing director of Prudential Real Estate, a Utah brokerage firm who, as of last week, is no longer MediaOne’s largest real estate advertiser.

Ryan Kirkham, director of the 2009 Salt Lake Board of Realtors, confirmed with City Weekly that, in September, MediaOne’s president Brent Low and principal broker Steven Perry delivered a contribution to the realtors’ PAC. While Kirkham says the board’s policy is not to divulge the amount of contributions before they are filed publicly with the Utah Elections Office, he says it was a “nice contribution.” The next PAC reports are not due until January of 2010.

“MediaOne is a member of our association, and we have to treat every member fairly,” Kirkham says. “And we also ask every member to make contributions.” Kirkham says the board only accepts contributions from its members and depends on that money to lobby politicians on issues important to their industry, such as private property rights.

Prudential’s Shehan sees the move as some gesture of reconciliation for a poorly thought out MediaOne venture. “I’m glad they [donated]. It’s a worthwhile fund to protect our industry,” Shehan says. “But at the same time it doesn’t take away their misstep.”

Shehan, like other realtors, objected to MediaOne Real Estate´s ad campaign that disparaged real-estate agents with slogans like “It’s Not Rocket Science” or “It’s About You, Not The Agent.”

“The way they did it was quite distasteful, by biting the hand that fed them for years,” Shehan says.

Low and Perry did not respond to multiple requests for comment from City Weekly. However, it’s no secret that newspaper revenues are falling, with a recent study estimating a 24 percent loss in advertising revenues nationally in the first half of 2009. New income streams are needed, so MediaOne launched its own discount brokerage service that lists homes for a flat $2,000 fee and advertises them in various MediaOne publications (which include newspapers and some niche magazines).

While MediaOne has offered to share leads with realtors who continue to advertise, Prudential has pulled its weekly two-page color ads from the Tribune and Deseret News’ weekend real-estate sections.

Dave Anderton, a spokesperson for the Salt Lake Board of Realtors, said that while some firms are pulling their ads because of MediaOne Real Estate, realtors are, in general, not advertising in daily newspapers anymore.

The PAC donation is an uncommon step for MediaOne, since it's owned by newspapers that will cover the political candidates who receive PAC money. Anderton, a former business reporter for the News, sees the editorial conflict as a nonissue. “There is a wall there,” Anderton says, adding MediaOne has little to no input on stories in the newspapers.

Ted Pease, a Utah State University journalism professor, agrees that MediaOne’s internal controls with the newspapers should prevent any business and editorial conflicts from arising. “As long as there’s a firewall there,” Pease says. “It’s always been separate—the business side and the news side. This is just a different scale.”

While Pease and others agree the move might not cross any ethical lines, there’s still some doubt as to whether the move will help MediaOne’s revenues.

Anderton is skeptical because, he says, the newspaper business model is encumbered by old ways of thinking, noting that the Internet seems to be the primary method for real-estate searches. The tools offered on real-estate Web sites provide a lot more depth to the consumer than the newspaper classifieds.

“I don’t go to a newspaper or a magazine [for real-estate listings],” Anderton says. “I think most people are like that, but I wish them luck in their business model.”

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