Cleveland.com wants to text its readers (and to make money)

May 9, 2019

“Never too early for this game: How many NFL Draft picks will Ohio State have next season? You can keep this and text it back in my face when I’m wrong,”  Doug Lesmerises texted. “Offense picks for sure: JK Dobbins, KJ Hill. Offense picks maybe: Austin Mack, Ben Victor, Thayer Munford, Jonah Jackson. Defense picks for sure: Chase Young, Malik Harrison, Jordan Fuller, Damon Arnette, Jeffrey Okudah. Defense picks maybe: Robert Landers, Jonathon Cooper, Shaun Wade, Baron Browning. ASSUME THAT — Dobbins, Young, Okudah leave early. Munford, Wade, Browning could with good years. (Justin Fields can’t go yet.) I’ll set the over-under at 9.5 picks. Text me in a year.”

The Cleveland.com sportswriter didn’t send that text to his editor, a colleague or a friend. It went to his readers — or his texters, people who signed up to hear directly from Lesmerises and other Cleveland.com journalists.

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The idea and the texting platform came from the in-house incubator at Cleveland.com’s corporate owner, Advance Local.  The Ohio newsroom started the experiment at the end of March, charging $3.99 a month. In May, it offered a free trial for texts from reporters covering everything from sports to courts to families to beer.

Almost 1,200 people have signed up for the free trial in addition to a few hundred paying customers, said John Hassell, Advance Local’s senior vice president and editorial director, via email.

“We’re still testing the level of consumer interest in the product,” he said. “Is this a service they value? Will they pay for it? What kind of engagement will we see? So far, we’re extremely encouraged by the results – so much so that we’ve just launched several accounts as a value-add for digital subscribers in two additional markets: Syracuse, New York, and Harrisburg, Pennsylvania.”

Screenshot, Cleveland.com

Lesmerises sends about two texts a day six days a week (but more when there’s big sports news, like on the day of Ohio State football’s first practice game.) He figures it takes him about 20 minutes a day.  Sometimes those texts are small pieces of something he’s working on that his text audience gets early. Sometimes it’s a statistic or a thought just for them.

He doesn’t text from his phone, but from an online platform that sends from a phone number to people’s phones. Lesmerises does get texts back from his mobile audience, and he responds to between 5 and 10% of them.

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He’s embraced the project and has been able to build an audience through his large Twitter presence and his popular podcast. But asking reporters who are doing more than ever in smaller newsrooms to add another task can be hard, said Chris Quinn, editor of Cleveland.com.

“On the other hand, they also know that we’re in a fight for existence and they believe very much in what we do.”

Lesmerises liked the idea because it’s different, he said. It’s also the most direct way he’s ever taken part in making money for his newsroom.

“So of course it’s part of my job,” he said. “Somebody signed up and paid money just for my texts, and they want that, and if they want that, I am happy to provide that.”

Screenshot, Cleveland.com

Skipping search and social for messaging isn’t new to local news.

Most newsrooms have, by now, adopted push notifications that alert people to breaking news. In 2016, New York Times food editor Sam Sifton texted people Thanksgiving cooking advice. GroundSource helps journalists connect with different communities. And as Lenfest’s Joseph Lichterman reported earlier this year, it’s also been tested in different ways at KPCC in Southern California, Outlier Media in Detroit, City Bureau in Chicago and the Philadelphia Inquirer.

Those projects aim to reach people that the newsrooms involved often don’t, or to help spread information about critical issues, including public health and elections.

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In Cleveland, the goals of Project Text are to break through the clutter of social media and to create a new revenue stream. The free trial, Quinn said, will give the newsroom an idea if it will work or not.

And it looks promising: The open rate so far is 95%, Hassell said.

“It’s still very early in the life cycle of this product,” he said. “We’re watching the results and listening closely to our customers to improve the service. But so far, we’re excited about what we’re seeing.”

There’s a benefit here for reporters, too, Quinn said: an audience that really wants to hear from them. Project Text isn’t just tweets sent to people’s phones. And it has to pass the same standards of truthfulness, fairness and integrity, Lesmerises said.

For him, it’s really an extension of his style of writing, and it works well in small bite sizes.

Lesmerises, who has been in the business for a while, cautioned other journalists not to see this as pandering or to think they’re too good for something like Project Text.

“It’s not instead of my job. It is my job,” he said. “I’m good at this, and I’m not too good to text people.”

Correction: An earlier version of this story mixed up Cleveland.com and The Cleveland Plain Dealer, which are sister publications. We apologize for the error, it has been corrected.