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Postcards and laundromat visits: The Texas Tribune audience team experiments with IRL distribution
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Feb. 19, 2021, 1:59 p.m.
Mobile & Apps
LINK:  ➚   |   Posted by: Hanaa' Tameez   |   February 19, 2021

Texas is in crisis mode after unprecedented winter storms left millions of people without electricity and clean drinking water in freezing temperatures.

From the Texas Tribune‘s executive editor Ross Ramsey:

Texas got close to the brink this week, as bad weather, inadequate preparation and weak leadership left millions without electricity and water, endangered in a prosperous state that ought to know better.

The toll has been awful. At one point, more than 4 million households were without power, and as many as 13 million people were in places on Thursday afternoon where tap water, if it was even available, wasn’t safe until it was boiled for two minutes. Unlike a summer peak in energy demand, electrical generators were competing for natural gas with regular folks, many of whom use gas to heat their homes. And the public health effect — the number of people hurt, sickened or killed by the storm, hasn’t been measured.

Many Texas journalists are facing the same challenges as the audiences they cover. In an effort to get people information, on Thursday the Texas Tribune and the Austin American-Statesman both launched texting services that allow readers to receive SMS updates on power outages, water conservation, and more. Subscribers can also text back and ask the journalists questions.

The texting campaigns are powered by Subtext, a subscription messaging platform that allows organizations to text with their audiences. Subtext CEO and cofounder Mike Donoghue said that after the Tribune and the Statesman reached out about launching campaigns, they were able to get set up and texting within 24 hours.

SMS updates in this situation are smart for a few reasons. Refreshing websites, incessant application push notifications, checking social media platforms, and even iMessage require a certain internet signal strength and use up data. Power has been going in and out in Texas for days, and not everyone has an unlimited data plan. All of those things can also drain phone batteries. SMS, on the other hand, only requires access to the cell phone’s network (though some providers were struggling with outages in Texas earlier this week).

Here’s what texts from The Texas Tribune look like (I signed up for alerts but am not texting in questions, so as to not overload them):

The Austin American-Statesman, which also offers SMS updates in Spanish:

The Dallas Morning News had been using Subtext before the winter storm began and is making use of its existing campaigns to share information with subscribers.

Austonia, a new local news startup covering Austin, prompts users to sign up for Subtext on its homepage. The Dallas Free Press, which covers the neighborhoods of South and West Dallas, offers a Subtext campaign for South Dallas, an English-language campaign for West Dallas, and a Spanish-language campaign for West Dallas.

Texas Public Radio reporter María Méndez is threading the publications offering SMS updates here:

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