Texting Journalism Debuts at the Olympics

Man reading text messages in cafeAmong all the other records and firsts at the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio, the New York Times debuted texting journalism. Deputy sports editor Sam Manchester sent text messages from the Games, featuring a conversational style, emojis and animated GIFs.

“People have asked, ‘Couldn’t you just do this on Twitter?'” Andrew Phelps, the New York Times’ director of personalization, told CNN. “We could, except this is a much more personal relationship. We can show up in the same place as your friend, your mom and your work colleague.”

The texting experiment went a bold step further than generic news updates:

  • Manchester wrote in a casual, conversational tone that you’d expect in text messages.
  • Messages had a behind-the-scenes feel, often answering specific questions (why are swimmers wearing winter coats?) and giving an inside look, but rather than feeling like an elite journalist’s report, it felt more like a friend sending you updates.
  • The New York Times encouraged replies and while Manchester wasn’t able to personally respond to each one, they used those replies to customize the experience and send specific responses to subsets of their subscribers. They tried to find a balance between an impossible-to-scale, one-on-one conversation and generic updates.

“Obviously this is foreign territory for me and for us, so we’re feeling it out as we go along,” Manchester said. “But it feels like a cool way to interact with our people, and to make the Times feel a little more user-friendly.”

The New York Times wasn’t the only media outlet experimenting at the Olympics. The Guardian explored a complicated array of push notifications, including quizzes, to let people know when their chosen country won a medal.

Texting Journalism Lessons

It’s not likely your company is planning to cover the Olympic Games anytime soon, especially with texting journalism, so what does this mean for you? For many media outlets, the Olympics were a test session for some of these new approaches to technology. Time will tell how successful they were and what broader application they may have.

But the efforts do offer a few of lessons for everybody else:

  • The Power of Experimentation – The New York Times may be the most prestigious newspaper in the world, but they can’t rest on their laurels. They have to constantly innovate and experiment to stay relevant. You may not have as much leeway, but you still need to try something new. Technology requires experimentation. Keep that in mind as you try new approaches, and remember that you might not get it quite right the first time.
  • Not Too Frequent – Manchester kept his text updates few and far between. He would send three to four per day (some reports said only two), so as not to overwhelm his audience. It can be tempting to overdo it, sending multiple updates per hour as news unfolds. But restraint is important.
  • Texting Is Personal – We’ve talked before about how texting is intimate. The New York Times embraced this idea and moved away from mass-appeal journalism. As you approach texting, think about how you can make it more personal.
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Kevin D. Hendricks

Kevin D. Hendricks is an avid reader, a former yo-yo man and a freelance writer living in St. Paul, Minn.

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