The spectrum of SMS

By Katie Jansen, Special to the News Media Alliance

It’s no secret that we use our phones for everything — from communication to catching up on news. But how often do we have to close out of the article we’re reading to respond to a text from a colleague wanting to grab lunch? Many news outlets are experimenting with SMS reporting — gathering news via text message or even texting their readers directly so that news will live in the inbox alongside lunch invitations.

Last summer, The New York Times texted readers updates from the Summer Olympics in Rio.

Deputy sports editor Sam Manchester was responsible for texting over 25,000 readers who signed up for the service.

“When I sent texts from Rio, I tried as much as possible to write them as if I was texting with a friend or family member back home (including the occasional emoji),” Manchester said. “A text, in that familiar gray, green or blue bubble, is so much more personal than the somewhat serious alerts you might get from The Times. And there’s no pressure or need to swipe — a reader can glance down at their phone, read my update and get on with their life.”

Texting also enables readers to engage in conversation with news outlets. Manchester said he didn’t know so many people would interact with the service and tweaked his approach after sending the first few texts, making his messages more open-ended or even including questions.

To help Manchester with the thousands of responses he received, a team in New York sorted responses so he could write a tailored message to each group. Ultimately, he said, SMS reporting is “a full-time job to do it right.”

The only downfall was that Manchester faced some logistical problems in traveling around Rio and that it was difficult to be in multiple places at a time to be as comprehensive as possible.

The Times has already branched out with SMS reporting — sending cooking texts during Thanksgiving week — and has plans for similar events in the future.

“I think The Times is invested in moving forward with SMS,” Manchester said. “It’s a quick, personal way to connect with readers. The people we heard from loved being included in our coverage.”

Connecting with readers via SMS may be relatively new, but some organizations have been using SMS reporting in newsgathering for years.

Paul Myles, editorial manager at On Our Radar, joined the London-based organization in 2013.

“I was excited by the prospect of using technology to reach harder-to-reach communities, whether they were geographically disconnected or marginalized for other reasons,” he said.

SMS reporting is a major component of On Our Radar’s work, Myles said, because even when people have limited access to electricity or internet, many have basic mobile phones.

Citizen journalists send messages to On Our Radar’s SMS hub, and a team of journalists can then view the firsthand accounts on a dashboard before using them for breaking news updates or to piece together different perspectives for a longer narrative.

During the Ebola crisis in Sierra Leone, many areas were quarantined, meaning traditional journalists couldn’t get to the story. On Our Radar relied on its citizen journalists’ messages for information.

The pieces On Our Radar produces are then picked up by international outlets, and sometimes by local media, as well.

Myles does see drawbacks to SMS reporting, such as relying on only text instead of other mediums. However, On Our Radar tries to remedy that when possible by allowing citizen journalists to call a number and send in recorded reports, or by using WhatsApp to enable smartphone users to transmit photos and video.

Although On Our Radar partners with international outlets instead of texting readers directly, Myles said, “SMS could easily be used for broadcasting and disseminating information.”

Myles sees SMS as an important part of On Our Radar’s future because the majority of developing communities still don’t have access to smartphones or the internet.

But the organization doesn’t plan to limit itself to using SMS, Myles said.
“We want to work with unheard communities and find whatever solution is best to tell their stories and include them in the storytelling process,” he said.


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