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How the Nevada Independent engaged and informed readers about the State Primary, using SMS

Using the strapline “Your state. Your news. Your voice”, The Nevada Independent is a nonpartisan, nonprofit news website founded in 2017 by respected political journalist Jon Ralston. The site has 22 full-time staff members, with 14 reporters split between Las Vegas, Reno and Carson City.

The site and its supporting channels were founded on the remit of ethical, unbiased and transparent journalism, a difficult balance to achieve at a time of deep division across the U.S. political landscape. This task has been further complicated by the Nevada state primary gaining national prominence – The Washington Post describing it as a ‘marquee governor’s race‘ as Republicans go up against the incumbent Governor, Steve Sisolak, this November. 

For The Nevada Independent’s Audience Engagement Editor, Kristyn Leonard, the challenge has been to foster trust, “Our team is experienced with covering elections, and they know what information they want to share with subscribers, but when readers know there’s an open line of communication with your newsroom, they are more willing to trust the work you do.”

The spread of misinformation and disinformation following the 2020 presidential election made it clear to our team that fostering trust with readers is vital to effectively sharing information and encouraging civic engagement. Fact-checking and integrity in reporting plays a role in that, but so does engagement with the audience.

Kristyn Leonard, Audience Engagement Editor, The Nevada Independent

Opening the lines of communication

For Leonard, an additional complication during the election cycle has been the reticence of some readers to use the public comments section, “There are audience members who are intimidated by a public comment section, or simply don’t want to engage on platforms that have become increasingly vitriolic in the past few years.”

Using the Subtext platform, Leonard turned to SMS messaging in a bid to strengthen the lines of communication between the newsroom and the site’s audience, “Giving our readers a way to directly reach our team, without the platform of having to publicly express an opinion, and communicate in a private manner is extremely valuable.”

We use texting to share weekend stories with readers every Monday. We also use it to share breaking stories and other major stories through messages written by our reporters. As we approached the primary election, we added to that strategy, launching an additional line specifically to keep people informed about Nevada election news.

Kristyn Leonard, Audience Engagement Editor, The Nevada Independent

Leonard continues, “As we neared Election Day, we were frequently using the SMS platform to answer purely informational questions related to civic engagement, i.e. Where can I vote? When can I vote? Why isn’t “None of these candidates” a ballot option in every race?

We generally share messages 2-3 times a week, but on Election Day, our messages were far more frequent. We sent out about 15 broadcasts including information on poll hours, photos from voting sites and race calls when results rolled in that evening.

Kristyn Leonard, Audience Engagement Editor, The Nevada Independent

Learnings, benefits and engagement metrics

A key advantage has been to facilitate a two-way dialogue between the newsroom and the audience with Leonard telling WNIP, “Questions and comments we get through Subtext are shared with our editorial team and this information can help us figure out what questions a large number of readers have or what topics we want to devote more time to.”

It’s been a great way to crowdsource information from around the state. During early voting and on Election Day, we asked readers to let us know what their own voting sites looked like, and they were happy to share. We don’t have the capacity to visit every voting site in Nevada, so we were able to factor the perspective of our readers into our coverage and get a better sense of the scene around the state.

Kristyn Leonard, Audience Engagement Editor, The Nevada Independent

Overall, dialogue has been constructive and civilized, “Messages coming from readers span a wide range, from questions about important dates and how to drop off a ballot, to tips and story pitches, to personal anecdotes or comments related to our stories.”

Audience engagement rates using SMS messaging have varied anywhere between 8% – 89% depending on the content, although Leonard readily admits that the high metrics are “a result of the more personal nature of the medium”.

Advice to other publishers

Finally, we asked Leonard what advice she would give other publishers using SMS to engage readers, “One of the biggest challenges with a program like this is time allowance. Sharing frequent messages and responding in a timely manner takes a significant amount of time, so ideally, you’d need a dedicated team member committed to monitoring the line.”

She adds, “It’s also important to balance content that redirects to the website with content that can exist and inform independently in a message thread. Ideally, you’ll be able to direct them to a story, webpage or document with more details, but if they’re not in a position to click, it’s important to include as much useful information as possible in the text itself.”