Texting the Election

This week, the Global Editors Network has invited board member David Cohn, senior director at Advance Digital’s Alpha Group, to tell us more about Project Text. The initiative is a collaboration between The Alpha Group, which is the incubator of one of the US’s largest media groups Advance, and San Francisco Public Press, a nonprofit, local news organisation. During San Francisco’s mayoral elections in June 2018, the public was able to sign up to receive text messages from a local reporter and communicate with him directly in order get the latest updates. How does this personal direct reporter-to-audience relationship work? Can it improve reporting? How does texting news differ from writing for a website? And how can you use Project Text in your newsroom?

In San Francisco around 300 people got news that London Breed would become the next Mayor of the city before the general public. That’s because they received a text message from SF politics reporter Joe Eskenazi that Mark Leno, the other mayoral candidate, was planning his concession.

Anyone could have signed up to get these text messages at ProjectText.com, which went public only a few weeks earlier. And starting now, any reporter can pitch their own text project. It’s direct reporter-to-audience content.

The Alpha Group did this experiment in partnership with the San Francisco Public Press and Joe Eskenazi to test a few things:

  1. Would this be feasible for the reporter to pull off?
  2. Would people want these text messages and stick with us for an entire month leading up to the election?
  3. Would users want to stick with us beyond the election?
  4. Would this hinder or improve Joe’s reporting?
  5. What does it take to build an audience around a product like this?

and more….

What We Found

One of the best parts of Project Text is how simple it is. The user only has to put in their number and voilà, they’ll start getting texts from Joe.

They can respond to him and vice versa, but you’ll never see/communicate with other users. It’s not super flashy, but it’s personal, direct, fast, and informative.

Not only was this an effective way to distribute information to an audience we knew wanted insider information, it also helped Joe’s reporting process.

Here you can see a user-tip that turned into a real scoop!

Joe also fielded questions from users before moderating a debate between candidates in the District 8 race. Jeff Sheehy ultimately lost this race and decided not to seek reelection in November. That was first reported via ProjectText according to the SF Examiner.

Observations

The audience is ready. There was definitely a small cadre of people watching the election who enjoyed getting Joe’s texts.

Getting these as text messages was key. Facebook messenger, email, even WhatsApp probably wouldn’t have achieved the same level of intimacy. When you grant a reporter access to your phone, the audience member is basically acknowledging they’re ready for high-level insider access to information. The content should be smart, but it doesn’t have to be formal. That’s a distinction news organisations often don’t understand, but sending text messages forces the point.

Trolls be damned

Audience members could only speak to Joe. Their comments were always made in good faith.

‘It’s been a lot more positive than what you’d have on the open internet. You don’t have single issue trolls that just yell ‘it’s the housing crisis’ in response to every single problem. There’s a bit more sophistication and discussion, so that’s been interesting.’— Reporter Joe Eskenazi.

Writing is Different

The hardest part may be just getting in the mindset to write for text messages rather than a website. Nobody wants a short novela of texts. Part of Joe’s success has been in ‘training up’ the audience. Every day he was able to drop a bit of knowledge. After a week or two of getting the daily text, even an audience member never before initiated into SF politics could follow along. That’s no small feat considering the city’s rank choice voting. That’s what you get when you aren’t writing articles, but instead telling a long narrative story over a period of time. The audience is following a story — not reading repetitive articles and hunting for new information in them.

Exposing Work Already Being Done

For Joe, writing one text a day wasn’t too high of a demand. ‘It’s like asking a basketball player to shoot free throws during practice. This is stuff I’d be doing anyways. It is a spur to do things you should be doing. It wasn’t trouble at all’, according to Joe.

We also think it allowed little tidbits of information, essentially the crux of a potential article, to get distributed to people who were already abreast on the nuance of the election because of previous texts from Joe.

What’s Next?

Joe is still doing texts on general SF politics and we’re hoping to find other reporters, storytellers to host future text projects. Since this is still experimental, we’re open to lots of ideas. Maybe it’s your personal and in-real-time story of trial/triumph, maybe you’re a personal trainer or life coach who wants to take clients on a journey, maybe you want to text meal plans, text your beat, text the local government’s effort to fix every pothole in your city. There’s an element of this that is storytelling, but another element that is service journalism and we want to explore all the space in-between.

Our goal is to keep testing, adding some features and seeing where this goes. There’s plenty of potential and suffice to say, we aren’t the only ones playing in this space. The real question is — who’s coming with us?


Advance Local is one of the largest media groups across the US.

Advance Digital is responsible for digital strategy, innovation, and development of multiplatform news and information products that enhance the consumer experience across the Advance Local portfolio of brands.

Alpha Group is Advance Digital’s in-house incubator.

San Francisco Public Press is a local nonprofit news organisation based in San Francisco.