January 23, 2019

A house without a kitchen went on the market for $1.6 million. A community of RVers in the shadow of Facebook’s headquarters fought eviction. And when one landlord told his tenants he was moving from California to Colorado, they decided to join him.

California’s Bay Area has a housing crisis – one that hits poor and low-income people the hardest. But it’s something that everyone’s talking about, said Rebecca Salner, assistant managing editor for metro and business at the Bay Area News Group.

“Housing has really become the animating conversation of the region,” she said.

So in November of 2017, two of the Bay Area News Group’s daily newsrooms created a team to cover housing. The Mercury News and the East Bay Times are part of Digital First Media and went through another round of buyouts and layoffs a few months after the team formed. The newsrooms did not hire any new journalists for those roles, but instead made choices about what they’d stop doing, including covering green energy and startups.

The team, once just one person, now has five.

Devoting more to covering real estate was kind of an obvious choice, Salner said. And it had a big impact.

Marisa Kendall covered startups and venture capital before joining the real estate team. In the first six months of 2017, Kendall’s business stories brought in 747,000 pageviews, 598,000 visitors and 632,000 engaged minutes. After the switch, in the first six months of 2018, her housing stories brought in more than 2 million pageviews, 1.65 million visitors and 1.64 million engaged minutes, Salner reported.

“She also wrote fewer stories during that time – but they were clearly stories that resonated more deeply with our audience.”

Screen shot, The Mercury News

The real estate team now includes Kendall, Louis Hansen, state government reporter Katy Murphy, George Avalos, transportation reporter Erin Baldassari, photojournalist Dai Sugano and editor Karen Casto. They have a closed Facebook group with more than 1,300 members (Fun fact: it’s named “Full House: Inside the Bay Area housing shortage”), and held their first event in 2018.

They cover the impact of the housing crisis, policy, news and features that intersect with nearly every other beat. The idea for building the team was one initiative that came out of the Bay Area News Group’s participation in the Knight-Lenfest Newsroom Initiative, also known as Table Stakes. (Disclosure: Knight helps fund my coverage of local news and Lenfest helps fund Poynter.)

The team that participated decided on a theme that summed up life in the Bay Area – “It’s a hard place to live, but we love it.”

“That theme was driven in part by the notion of both housing and traffic here,” Salner said. “It’s very hard to get from point A to point B. It’s always been expensive to live here, but the shortage of affordable or even mid-level income housing has become more acute.”

The region has a homelessness crisis, she said, but people making minimum wage and up also can’t afford to live there.

When Kendall was approached about switching beats, she was surprised. But the idea was a smart one, she said.

“I live here,” she said. “I also can’t afford a house.”

The Mercury News always had a big role in coverage of technology and Silicon Valley, she said, but with competition from tech blogs and national papers, their readers had a lot of options.

The real estate beat, though, was something they could own.

Tips from this story: How to change coverage to fit your audience

The team experimented with different types of content to start off with, Salner said. They were told not to worry about the actual newspaper and where their work would run in print. Their focus had to be building audience.

The beats they started off with — including trends, sales, the market and renters — have blended over time. The team members now have a mission statement and they’re working on coalescing around a theme of their own, Salner said.

Next, they’re planning another event and hope to tackle longer-term projects. And they’ve found stories they weren’t telling before, including the landlord and his ready-to-move tenants.

“When you devote a lot of really great reporting to a topic,” Salner said, “you find amazing stories.”

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Kristen Hare teaches local journalists the critical skills they need to serve and cover their communities as Poynter's local news faculty member. Before joining faculty…
Kristen Hare

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