US media group Advance Local is bringing reporters and readers closer together through text messaging.
Subtext allows audiences to follow specific beats, engage in conversations and go behind the scenes of the reporting by connecting with their chosen local journalists, known as 'hosts'.
Since launching six months ago, around 70 different hosts have signed up, including reporters from Gannett-owned USA Today, who have beat reporters on the platform covering topics from country music to the latest tech news.
Michael Donoghue, founder and leader, Advance Alpha Group, (the technology side of Advance Local), said that social media platforms like Twitter have grown to such a scale that real engagement has been lost.
"When you follow someone on Twitter, it doesn't feel like an instant connection anymore, so we wanted to be able to facilitate that level of engagement," he said.
Once subscribed, users receive messages from the host in real time with the ability to message them back with questions or other information that might be relevant to the topic.
Donoghue argued this provides more personal and intimate experience than premium newsletters and subscriptions for publications.
This has been reflected in open rates, which are on average above 90 per cent across the platform.
Amongst those who have so far set themselves up on Subtext include hyperlocal reporters, who have been able to provide a news service to a smaller niche group. It also means audiences can access deeper coverage of local community affairs.
For example, during last year's mayoral race in San Francisco, Joe Eskenazi, managing editor and columnist at Mission Local, used a pilot service to regularly update followers on the latest developments in the race.
He also received tips from subscribers with story leads and information about what was going on in their neighbourhoods.
Besides deeper engagement, the project provides another source of revenue for newsrooms as an added bonus.
Hosts can charge subscribers a monthly fee for receiving texts, normally between $3.99 and $6.99 (£3.30 and £5.80), with revenue split between the host and Advance Local.
"At a time when the industry needs to improve engagement, it needs to look to new revenue models to be able to do that," Donoghue said.
By opening themselves up to such a public channel of communication, reporters might be concerned they will become subject to abuse.
However, Donoghue said that despite tens of thousands of messages being sent, there have been no cases of this yet.
A big reason for this is that, unlike other social media platforms which make it easier to remain anonymous, subscribers to Subtext have to provide their phone number and their bank details to message hosts, which would make it easier to identify potential offenders.
Host has also a full control over unsubscribing people from receiving their messages at any time.
Moving forward, Advance Local's team are looking to continually improve user experience for Subtext, as well as diversifying the types of hosts and subscribers on the platform.
"We're really excited about the overwhelmingly positive response it has received from both hosts and subscribers so the future looks very bright."
Subtext was previously known as Project Text until it rebranded in October 2019. This article was updated on 26 March 2020 to recognise this change in company name and has removed embedded Tweets which pertain to the previous company name
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