News media companies deliver critical COVID-19 updates via text

By Mike Donoghue


New York, New York, USA


COVID-19 has fundamentally changed the way the world lives, works, socialises, and learns. Almost no business has been immune to the impact of the virus and the impending financial and mental health epidemics that will follow in its wake.

In a time when news changes from minute to minute, and readers want to stay informed in real time, digital platforms allow print media to keep readers engaged between published products. Some high-profile news media companies in the United States have taken the step beyond Web sites and social media, turning to texts as a way to stay connected to readers and keep them informed as the story develops. 

Advance Local, BuzzFeed News, and Gannett are among the media companies that recognised the advantage of reaching out to readers via text and turned to the Subtext platform as the COVID-19 pandemic unfolded. The premise is simple: Subscribers sign up to follow a reporter from a publication. The reporter sends out texts to all his or her followers, and the texts are received via phone just like a regular text message. Subscribers can text the reporter back personally and the reporter can respond if desired. 

Texts sent to subscribers feel personal and help keep readers engaged and informed.
Texts sent to subscribers feel personal and help keep readers engaged and informed.

During the pandemic, this form of interaction allowed a deeper, meaningful level of communication between journalists and their communities. Such communication can renew trust between media companies and the audiences they serve, and be a valuable source of information and first-person accounts of how major stories are impacting the lives of readers.

Beyond the newsroom, the platform has also become a trusted resource for readers — like parents, essential workers, and the elderly — to seek the most up-to-date guidance on COVID-19 in their communities. While media companies once sacrificed their relationship with readers for the sake of scale on social media platforms, they are beginning to see that they can control their own destinies by focusing on differentiated ways of engaging diverse pools of readers while creating financially sustainable ways to ensure this work can continue.

Communicating via text can help reporters and news media companies cut through the clutter of social media and newsletters. It connects subscribers with personalities and subjects in the same way they connect with friends or family. Social media once promised this, but algorithm shifts and vitriol have made it more difficult than ever to create a connection on those platforms.

Readers of Arizona Republic in Phoenix, Arizona, United States, can sign up to get texts on the latest information on the coronavirus.
Readers of Arizona Republic in Phoenix, Arizona, United States, can sign up to get texts on the latest information on the coronavirus.

Such personal coverage began in 2018 with Joe Eskenazi, a reporter from Mission Local covering politics in San Francisco. He became the first host to use a prototype of the Subtext platform and provided insight into how this approach could be valuable to subscribers. And, when the new mayor was elected, Joes subscribers were the first to learn about it — and they learned about it via text. 

Since then, dozens of hosts from Advance Local and Gannett, covering a wide variety of topics from politics to tech to country music and college sports, have signed on as well. Today, we have brought on new partners like Hearst Broadcasting, BuzzFeed News, Amy Webb from the Future Today Institute, and Tribune Publishing. We are still changing and adapting according to what we learn from our hosts.

But one thing has remained constant: We are facilitating healthier, more intimate conversations between our hosts and their subscribers — and we’ve seen how special and valuable this is.  

The media organisations that succeed in the years to come will focus on personalised and other differentiated ways to engage audiences while creating business models that support that level of access. Paywalls and premium subscriptions play a role in that, but we feel there is so much more that can be done if we take the time to open up a dialogue with the people who want to hear from us and often have something to tell us.

Banner image courtesy Burst from StockSnap.

About Mike Donoghue

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