Text alerts speed news to readers

Feb 1, 2012

By Sky Chadde
COLUMBIA, MO—TEXT MESSAGE: Breaking news from your community newspaper. Sponsored by your local bank.
The above is typical for a text alert, sent directly to a cell phone. National news organizations and smaller community newspapers have been using this technology for a couple years now to provide quick and immediate information to their readers.
“You want to push the news through as many avenues as you can,” said Jeff McNiell, the assistant editor at the Houston (MO) Herald, which has been using text alerts since 2009. As with anything in the business of news, their purpose is to get necessary information out to the public as quickly and efficiently as possible.
The avenue of text alerts has become increasingly more common in recent years because the passage of information to the public can be performed with ease. Text alerts are sent from a computer, usually straight from the newsroom. McNiell describes the process as similar to sending out an e-mail.
A reporter or editor types up an alert—it usually contains about 80 to 100 characters—and then selects the group to whom the information is pertinent. The news that a thunderstorm is about to break will be sent to those who signed up for weather updates, and a hoops fan will receive the final score of the local high school basketball game as soon as it ends.
The system is made to be customizable, McNiell said. Readers can choose which specific category, like breaking news, sports scores, weather reports, traffic updates, death notices, school closings and reminders of community events, that they want to receive directly to their cell phones.
Because most people rely on cell phones these days, text alerts give newspapers an ability to keep their readers up to speed with the latest news—as it happens.
It has turned our weekly publication into a daily presence, McNiell said. Bobby Greer, the associate publisher at The Daily Statesman in Dexter, MO, started using text alerts in 2008. He said the readers who have signed up for text alerts get their news before the local TV station.
In order to provide this service, both the Houston Herald and The Daily Statesman use an SMS (short message service) provider called TextCaster (textcaster.com) to send out their texts. Many other companies exist for the same purpose. Both papers pay a monthly fee, but the advertising that is built into each text message offsets that cost.
At the Houston Herald, local businesses, most notably the city’s funeral home, pay to sponsor the text messages. The sponsoring company’s name, and sometimes a link to its website, appears after each news update. The First National Bank in Dexter sponsors every text for the Statesman. McNiell and Greer reported that the use of text alerts has produced revenue for their respective newspapers.
In addition to producing more revenue, text alerts have increased traffic to their websites. Many messages have links that direct the reader to a full-length, online version of the story. Traffic has increased so much on the Houston Herald’s mobile website (Internet sites accessed from mobile devices like smart phones) that the paper is now selling ads on it, a practice it had not previously done.
McNiell and Greer said use of text alerts has been a positive experience for the newspapers and for the communities they cover. They noted that the alerts provide a community service to the readers.
As evidence that text alerts have given his town’s paper the ability to perform this duty, Greer noted that during a 2009 snowstorm that knocked out electricity across the city of Dexter, the Statesman sent out alerts via text message, telling citizens where they could find much-needed heat. The paper would not have been able to get that information out otherwise.
“It is a wonderful tool,” Greer said.
© sky@nna.org