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To bring more direct coverage of the coronavirus pandemic to their local audiences, many US reporters have been turning to a platform that allows them to have conversations with their readers.

Subtext, previously known as Project Text which launched last year by Advance Alpha Group - Advance Local's in-house tech and media incubator, allows subscribers to receive texts directly from individual reporters (known as ‘hosts’) with specific beats and ask them questions. Hosts can choose to offer this service for free or for a small monthly fee.

Michael Donoghue, founder and leader of Advance Alpha Group, explained that the service has seen a spike in the number of new channels and subscribers.

Earlier this month, in only five days, the number of subscribers on the platform went from 35,000 to more than 110,000. Donoghue credits this surge to new coronavirus-focused campaigns from Gannett, Advanced Local’s own publications and even BuzzFeed.

"This is an unprecedented event in modern history and people are scared and have a lot of questions.

"To not only be there for them to give them updates about what’s going on but also to be able to make a more intimate connection with those readers has proven incredibly valuable."

The demand for such a service is clear - ‘hosts’ on Subtext have seen an average open rate of over 90 per cent (of which 85 per cent takes place within an hour of receiving the text) and average paid churn of less than three per cent.

With public trust often much greater in local reporters and outlets, Donoghue said the platform provides journalists with a means to respond directly to the worries and questions of their local communities.

"Covid-19 is very much a local story; people want to know what’s going on with their schools, their municipalities and if there are cases cropping up where they live.

"Local media companies can step in to fill that void of information and also be able to address questions from subscribers that might have gone unanswered on social media."

Getting regular trustworthy information in a format that is accessible to almost everyone can also help tackle the spread of misinformation.

"That’s something that you can’t do as effectively on social media - the directness of the communication certainly goes to further build trust in those media organisations."

Donoghue added that Subtext has become a platform for soliciting user-generated content from subscribers, with BuzzFeed asking for photos and videos from their area that it has then used in creating compelling stories.

More news organisations are now eager to join the 175 hosts on the platform, including more outlets from outside the United States.

Note: A previous version of this article stated that Subtext was launched by Advance Local. This has since been corrected.

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