How BuzzFeed News Powers a Column via Subtext

Listening to your audience and hearing their questions will inspire story ideas or can power a column.

3 min readJun 1, 2020

The “engaged journalism movement” has been built up over the last decade and with text it’s easier than ever to understand what content and information your audience wants. When the audience sets expectations, it’s easier to rise to the occasion.

BuzzFeed’s How to Plague — Case Study

Much like our other coronavirus campaigns, BuzzFeed News’ started their campaign with regular summarized reports on the latest coronavirus facts and figures. They do a good job of including a unique voice but also get right to the point with the must know info of the day followed by a link back to their coverage.

But what really makes their use of Subtext stand out is the “How to Plague” advice column which is powered by questions that come in from their Subtext audience.

Mat and Katie, the hosts, have a full grasp on what their audience wants and continuously deliver upon those requests because they’re regularly asking for feedback.

Now, as life begins to evolve once again at cities and states loosen restrictions, Mat and Katie are taking steps to see what their audience would like to see more, or less of, as news orgs transition to a less restrictive Covid-19 era.

Even without prodding, BuzzFeed News gets a lot of questions via text. Coupled with the occasional nudge — getting questions has been relatively easy and ranged from “when is it OK to not wear a mask?” to “is it unethical to get pregnant right now?

This regular column produces great content. BuzzFeed knows that if folks are texting these questions a large percentage of their audience are probably wondering the same thing and will be excited to read this content.

The proof is in the pudding. Here we see a coronavirus advice column is Katie’s most popular post for the month of May.

And because the questions come in via text the audience is comfortable asking questions they might otherwise be too embarrassed to ask on social media.

These columns also have a positive feedback loop for BuzzFeed News’ Subtext audience. Not only is it a chance to embed the signup form to get a larger texting audience, it also shows the current audience that BuzzFeed News is listening and responding to their questions. They aren’t shouting into the void or getting bot-responses — they’re providing direct editorial feedback to a news organization they value.

How to plague advice column:
How to plague advice column:

Of course — active listening doesn’t have to power a “Dear Abby” style column. It can also inspire videos, podcasts and more.

In the first week of their Covid-19 Subtext campaign, wrote 7 articles inspired by what readers were texting them — including an important piece dispelling misinformation about what a lockdown means in Ohio. The president of has told us that this trend continues week after week. Subtext gives newsrooms insights into what the audience wants to know — and that can power direct “ask and answer” columns but it can also inspire the kind of reporting and writing that so many beat reporters are doing regardless.

Ready to join us or at least learn more about Subtext? Reach out to us at




This is the Medium account for Subtext A service that lets you text with your audience.