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How the Tampa Bay Times turned to texting to engage readers

With 70% of readers coming to the Tampa Bay Times through mobile, text messaging seemed like an ideal way to deliver election news.

Ahead of the 2020 election, editors at the Tampa Bay Times decided to shift how it interacted with its readers.

As engagement editor Joshua Gillin writes in What’s New In Publishing, the newsroom is, like the whole of the industry, adjusting as readers continue the move from print to digital while also dealing with the effects of the pandemic: “This shift became mission-critical as restrictions brought on by the coronavirus pandemic earlier this year limited our traditional print publishing to two days per week.”

Some 70 percent of readers view Tampa Bay Times content through mobile, so text messaging seemed like an ideal way to deliver election news and invite readers’ questions about voting. The newsroom turned to Subtext, an SMS messaging platform.

Selecting which subject matter to focus on was a significant decision. They chose the 2020 election because, as Gillin wrote, “In Florida, election news is always a potential flashpoint, considering how evenly split the electorate is among Democrats, Republicans and voters with no party affiliation. We had a deeply vested readership for our politics coverage, and no shortage of potential issues to discuss.” political editor Steve Contorno and the Times engagement team launched ConText 2020 on Oct. 8.

Subscribers received one election-related message per day, which was crafted using either Contorno’s voice or an “omniscient Times” voice, Gillin wrote. Readers could respond with questions or comments via text, and Contorno and the engagement team managed those responses through a browser-based CMS. By Election Day, the project had garnered more than 500 subscribers.