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Building a HABITAT: How Carol J. Ott Created NYC’s Go-To Resource for Co-Op Governance and Management

Published on May 13, 2024 | Webster Bank

Since its founding in 1982, HABITAT magazine has been the trusted source of information and reporting for co-op, condo and homeowner association board members in the New York City greater metropolitan area. For founder, publisher and editor-in-chief Carol J. Ott, her commitment to serving a unique audience with journalistic integrity is unwavering.

Ott is no stranger to journalistic integrity—it’s been ingrained in her from her start in journalism. She pursued her master’s degree in journalism from American University and diligently sought an internship when none were available. With her start at Congressional Quarterly in Washington, D.C., Ott found an opportunity to get the facts right and put journalism skills into action.

After moving to New York City, Ott, with her background in political reporting, lived in a loft and was curious about the challenges and opportunities of these living situations. Her interest in the interplay between housing and government eventually grew into an idea and article. Reporting on the topic didn’t exist, she said, and as she went to sell her article, she was met with resistance. Publishers said there wasn’t a market for a resource about this growing urban movement.

However, Ott’s drive and kernel of truth in educating people about the complexities of cooperative housing and real estate in the city remained strong—and still does today. Ott’s initial research grew into a self-published book, “Paradise Loft: A Forthright Guide to Loft Living in New York City,” and she later developed the Loft Letter newsletter with a small group of freelancers while serving as one of the founding members of her co-op’s board.

Uncovering an Audience and Building a Business

As housing cooperative conversions took off in the city, Ott expanded her reach. She connected with magazine publisher Arnold Abramson, notably of Ski and Family Handyman magazines. He consulted with Ott to get HABITAT off the ground.

“I knew the editorial and journalistic parts, and I felt confident I knew the subject matter, but I was clueless on the business side,” Ott says. “Working with Abramson taught me about the business side of publishing.”

Over time, Ott and her tight-knit staff refined the structure and tone of the editorial content to focus on the specifics of a coop structure and building management. That editorial drive remains the same today: to deliver news, features and topics that champion awareness, education and empowerment among board directors.

Today, HABITAT reaches a crucial audience of decision-makers at the 9,000-plus residential co-ops, condos and homeowners associations in the New York City greater metropolitan area. While the readers and advertisers remain loyal, the initial push for the publication required Ott to have challenging conversations.

Just as HABITAT serves a niche audience specific to the region and its real estate complexities, Ott had to convince advertisers her select audience needed to hear these messages and learn about these advertisers.

There was no shortage of editorial content—Ott and her dedicated editorial team continue to uncover relevant stories for these emerging real estate groups—but fundraising and selling advertising in such a publication took guts. Ott convinced real estate management companies they needed to reach the audience of HABITAT magazine.

“I was in the right place at the right time,” Ott says. “Journalistically, I’m proud of the editorial part of our magazine. We reached an emerging market of newcomers running a building—not just a building but a corporation.”

It’s vital for co-op board members to manage the health of the corporation that owns the building and understand and comply with New York’s building regulations. Co-op boards have to make decisions about how funds are spent and how the building is managed, and board members may or may not have experience taking on that type of responsibility. HABITAT’s editorial content covers almost any topic a co-op board or homeowner association might encounter, from board operations and building operations to the ins and outs of legal and financial issues.

“I’m very proud of the company. I really believe in our topic. I believe in the power of community. It’s a good fit, and I couldn’t have done it in another place than New York,” —CAROL J. OTT

Serving a Passionate Community

HABITAT magazine today has grown from its early days—the print magazine has 11 issues, up from its start of six issues, distributed annually to subscribers. The magazine’s digital footprint delivers additional content through the website, with videos, a podcast, digital editions for subscribers, and six regular newsletters.

Ott manages a small staff with editors, a salesperson, art director, and supporting freelancers for design, writing and content creation. Ott also bought another company, now The HABITAT Group, that publishes newsletters and books in the real estate industry, supported by subscriptions to real estate professionals.

Ott’s longstanding drive for reaching and educating the HABITAT audience is vital to the magazine’s success. “We’re relatively small in the publishing world, but there’s a lot of strength in having a passionate community,” Ott says. “Co-op and condo board directors, by and large, are passionate. There’s a lot to learn as a board member, and the board has to be smart about decisions. While I’m not a [co-op] board member anymore, I loved knowing what was going on and being able to influence it. These are like mini governments that think they can make the world a better place—and it’s the same idea when you’re governing your building.”

Maintaining Editorial Integrity

Ott says she has an enormous amount of respect for individuals who volunteer to serve on the board of directors of their buildings, and the editorial strategy behind HABITAT reflects that.

“Our mission is to provide information to that group of people so they can make informed decisions,” Ott says. “It can be tempting to find dirt as a journalist—a manager who made a terrible mistake or someone who has been crooked. We don’t cover those stories for a number of reasons, and in general, if a board member can’t learn from [our story], we’re not going to cover it.”

Ott has discovered her journalistic integrity in HABITAT has given the magazine access to a board’s transparent decision-making process. She says boards are more likely to share with HABITAT because, editorially, the magazine celebrates them for the effort and work they do. Throughout her years of publishing and running the business, Ott says she still loves being involved in editorial direction. “I don’t love running a company and the details of what has to be done. The part I love is editorial,” she says. “I have resources that run wide and deep, and I use those.”

A Magazine—and Supporting Bank—Built on Relationships

Just as Ott has built lasting relationships with her staff, audience and real estate professionals, she values the depth of a lasting relationship with her bank. With HABITAT, Ott has banked with Webster Bank for nearly 20 years. Throughout her years in business, Ott says the relationship with a bank representative has been the deciding factor in staying with a bank. When one of her good friends recommended what was then Sterling National Bank, Ott made the transition.

“I need a person, not a bank—I went to Webster for that relationship,” Ott says. “The smaller banks were built on relationships. When I considered moving to another bank, they weren’t interested in seeing the office or meeting me. That’s what relationship bankers do. You need a person who can answer questions and help you get what you need.”

Staying Relevant in a Changing Environment

At the helm of HABITAT, Ott is committed to print. The company’s production schedules revolve around print, including newsletters and podcast content. Ott uses story-driven newsletters to stay top-of mind for readers. “For a monthly magazine, the newsletters have been really important for us—it reminds our readers we exist,” Ott says.

Stories in HABITAT bring together the many professionals who influence and manage boards, including lawyers, engineers, and managing agents. The editorial focus is on co-op and condo board directors, property management agencies, and all the professionals who serve coops and condos.

“These professionals are a bit siloed, and our stories can bring these experts together,” Ott says. “We get a lot of feedback from boards who say they couldn’t do it without us. We present very informative stories or stories with balanced perspectives of how to achieve something and what the challenges are.”

In the past, Ott launched HABITAT magazine offshoots to support board members in New Jersey, Westchester, and Long Island, but she needed more advertising support. HABITAT, as a publication, grows through innovation in how and where it publishes content. “As I’m sure it is for most print magazines, we wouldn’t exist if we had just stayed in print,” Ott says.

Moving forward, Ott watches the industry as challenges arise for buildings and boards, especially as they attempt to meet the needs of diverse economic groups within their buildings. Today’s economic challenges and the expenses to meet city regulations for buildings present consistent opportunities to reach HABITAT’s audience. As Ott says, the problems that plague one residential building are happening across the city. HABITAT remains a vital resource as these boards navigate new challenges.

Reflecting on the journey, Ott says she considers herself lucky, from the timing of her publication launch in a transforming real estate market with unmet needs to interested investors and advertisers early on in the business.

“In New York, you can get lucky,” Ott says. “Be kind, and be assertive, which is something that I am and was. I’m very proud of the company and I’m thrilled to have employees and be able to pay [the staff]. I really believe in our topic. I believe in the power of community. It’s a good fit, and I couldn’t have done it in another place than New York.”

HABITAT By the Numbers

  • Founded in 1982
  • Serving decision makers at New York City’s 8,000+ residential coops, condos, and homeowner associations
  • 11 print issues annually
  • 7 newsletters
  • 4 books
  • 2 legal databases
  • 3 podcasts: Legal Talk, Problem Solved, Inside Track

Webster Bank is committed to helping small businesses—particularly Minority- and Women-owned Business Enterprises (MWBEs)—grow and thrive through personalized relationship management and comprehensive business banking services tailored to their unique needs. To learn more about how we can help, click here.


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