Publishers Try Sending News by Text

When BuzzFeed News journalist Mat Honan began texting readers the latest Covid-19 numbers and news in March, readers quickly proved that texting is a two-way street. Their replies have included photos from the travels of a long-haul trucker and a message from someone confronting an eating disorder while sheltering in place.

“I’ve viewed this from the get-go like a form of service journalism, and an interesting way to both give and receive information,” said Mr. Honan, executive editor of tech and society at BuzzFeed News.

BuzzFeed and other publishers covering the coronavirus pandemic are testing texting to provide a more immediate, engaging and interactive experience. Their projects follow others that tried to gauge the reader appeal and business value of texting news over the years.

But it remains unclear whether there is a benefit to the bottom line that is worth the effort—a key question as the pandemic’s economic impact undermines publishers’ advertising revenue.

Eighty-eight percent of publishers said ad buyers had asked to cancel campaigns due to the pandemic, according to an April survey by the Interactive Advertising Bureau, a trade group.

Excluding political-ad outlays, U.S. ad spending will fall 13% this year, according to a June 16 forecast from

WPP

PLC’s GroupM, the world’s largest ad buyer.

The Arizona Republic started its free texting initiative on March 17, sending one to four texts on the pandemic each day. P. Kim Bui, director of audience innovation at The Republic and author of the texts, varies the approach, swinging from updates on news conferences by Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey to asking about hobbies readers picked up in quarantine. About 2,500 people have signed up, she said.

Screenshot of an introductory text message from The Arizona Republic



Photo:

The Arizona Republic

Like Mr. Honan, Ms. Bui found texting a source of story ideas and tips. Readers also used the service to tell Ms. Bui what mattered most to them, such as Covid-19 recovery rates in Arizona. Ms. Bui in turn found herself giving advice to people who texted for help with difficulties such as accessing unemployment benefits.

Texting the news has previously delivered mixed results.

The New York Times Co.

began experimenting with texting in 2016, when a reporter texted readers updates on that year’s Summer Olympics. The Times also tried texting recipes and cooking hacks around Thanksgiving in 2016, and offered texts again to promote its podcast “The Daily” in 2017.

But its most recent project sending SMS messages to readers’ apps was in 2017, documenting President Trump’s first overseas trip as commander-in-chief.

The company stopped using SMS and brought the experience into the Times app for the 2018 Winter Olympics to add more interactivity. That also subjected the messages to The Times’s pay meter, with each experience counting as one against nonsubscribers’ monthly allowance of free clicks.

About 23,000 people joined the 2016 Summer Olympics experiment, with 40% replying once and 19% texting back twice or more, The Times said. More than 2,000 readers signed up for texts about Mr. Trump’s trip, with 16% replying at least once.

Readers engaged heavily with some of these endeavors, but responding to them required more resources than expected, said Ben Koski, director of interactive news at The Times. The experiments suggested that texting works best for narrowly tailored subjects or particular moments, he said.

Reader engagement and newsroom resources also fluctuate with the news. Mr. Honan recently paused the BuzzFeed News texts, which had about 970 recipients, partly due to organizational changes within the company and the requirements of covering the protests over the police killing of George Floyd.

Niche coverage may help attract readers interested enough to pay for the texts, though perhaps in relatively small numbers.

Joe Eskenazi, managing editor and a columnist at Mission Local, began his text service as a way to cover the 2018 San Francisco mayoral election. The service evolved into an ongoing dive into San Francisco politics that costs $4 a month. Mr. Eskenazi said he tries to send at least one text every day to his roughly 325 subscribers, and responds when they text him.

Mr. Eskenazi, BuzzFeed News and The Arizona Republic send their messages using Subtext, a platform offered by Alpha Group, a tech and media incubator within Advance Local Media LLC. People receiving messages via Subtext grew 800% between March 15 and April 30, to 240,000, the company said.

The Walll Street Journal has not experimented with texting readers the news, a Dow Jones spokeswoman said.

For larger publications, texting has yet to prove its worth.

The Arizona Republic’s Ms. Bui said she couldn’t provide a direct return on investment, but hopes the texts will indirectly boost paid subscriptions to the newspaper in the long run.

“The more that we can do to show people that we are not a faceless newspaper that lands in their driveway every day, but are here, we live in the same community, we face the same issues, we have the same worries, and we want to answer their questions, and we’re here to listen to them, I think the more people will subscribe,” Ms. Bui said.

Write to Ann-Marie Alcántara at [email protected]

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