When the Tampa Bay Times made the decision to reduce its print frequency to two times a week last year due to the coronavirus, the newsroom knew it was even more critical to get their news out, even if it was on a different platform. Those changes were put to the test when the publication launched a campaign about the 2020 election via Subtext, a text-based platform developed by Advance’s Alpha Group.
Subtext allows the audience to receive text messages about a subject and directly ask the host questions in a text message interface. The host then can engage with the audience via a browser-based CMS. The Times’ campaign—known as ConText2020—kicked off in October 2020. It invited readers to share a mobile number either through an online form or by texting “context” to a provided phone number to receive text messages about polling places, voter deadlines for early voting, mail-in ballot requests or any crucial Election Day information.
“These are people who are reading the print product and are already a member of the Times family,” said Joshua Gillin, senior editor of engagement. “The goal here was to get them to take that next step and get used to looking at us on devices.”
The Times delivered information through two different styles of messages: an omniscient Times voice (recorded mostly by engagement producer Bernadette Berdychowski) that provided links, deadlines and other relevant information; the second was messages narrated by the voice of political editor Steven Contorno, who asked for questions or shared thoughts on his chosen subject for the day. Contorno shared that he would field anywhere from 10 to 25 responses in return after sending his texts
Gillin said that the newsroom had conceived of a text messaging program before, but the idea was put on the back burner. But when the paper received a grant in October from the American Press Institute’s Trusted Elections Network, the idea quickly became a reality (the turnaround was about two weeks).
The initial goal was to get 500 subscribers or about 5 percent of the audience for Contorno’s email newsletter, The Buzz, by Election Day. The Times ended up exceeding this goal, and by mid-November—after Joe Biden was announced president-elect—they saw an unsubscribe rate of only about 10 to 12 percent, according to Gillin.
Originally, the campaign was only supposed to run through November, however, the Times decided to continue the campaign to cover the vote certification and perhaps continue into January to cover the presidential inauguration.
“We’ve come a long a way from being a newspaper and a website that reflected what was in the newspaper,” Contorno said. “We are constantly having to find ways to reach our readers where they are. Texting is shown to be a really effective way to reach people…and as long as they’re willing to let us in, then I think it’s going to be to our benefit.”