Tribune Company just bought ForSaleByOwner.com. That’s a bigger deal than it may appear in the rearview mirror.
When I worked in newspaper companies, I quickly learned that FSBO was a dirty word that made publishers sweat. On the one hand, they wanted all those by-owner ads; they needed to be seen as the marketplace for homes. But on the other hand, the Realtors who paid the big bills hated by-owner ads; their lost customers were their competition. So publishers always danced a delicate two-step, trying hard not to promote the FSBO ads even as they counted the bucks from them. The terrible irony is that the real customers — home sellers — were treated like caged animals by both Realtors and newspapers.
But, of course, the cages are gone and the first to escape were the Realtors themselves. When the web came along, real estate agents realized they could deal directly with customers and no longer needed newspapers to create the marketplace. In fact, newspapers realized that they needed the Realtors’ listings for their own online sites — ads became content — and so the Realtors still ended up holding publishers by their delicates. FSBO was still a dirty word.
I saw this coming a decade ago and argued that newspaper companies should go into the real estate business themselves, becoming brokers to get listings into the closed multiple listing services and putting buyer and seller together directly because the Realtors would inevitably abandon papers. I thought I was going to be fired for speaking such heresy.
But now Tribune is going into the FSBO business.
Isn’t it fascinating how desperate companies are now willing to piss off the channels of sales, distribution, and revenue they so coddled and feared for so many year: ABC tells its affiliates to lump it as it distributes directly to consumers; Warner Brothers tells its network to lump it as it distributes around networks; and Tribune tells its Realtor-advertisers to lump it as it enables sellers to avoid Realtors. The question is whether they spent too long coddling the middlemen and forgetting who the real customer was all along.