Small Screen, Big Picture: Jasmine News and SMS News Delivery in Sri Lanka

In 2006, Jasmine News began sending SMS news headlines to subscribers in Sri Lanka, the first to do so in the country. Today, the service sends 60 to 90 messages a month to 170,000 subscribers, who pay Rs.30 per month ($0.30) for the service.

Jasmine News provides brief news headlines sent via SMS on general topics including politics, law, current events, business, sports, and entertainment.  They also have a website (in English, Sinhala, and Tamil), though posted content is mostly of SMS length. The SMS news updates are also available in multiple languages, including Java-based Sinhala and Tamil (on operator Etisalat) as well as Singlish (Sinhala in transliterated English).

To become a subscriber, a mobile user types a code such as “reg JNW” and sends it to an established shortcode (2233) to subscribe for the push service. A local number is required.

Since Jasmine News launched the service, other existing news outlets have added SMS delivery services, including TV channel Derana and newspaper Daily Mirror.

A clear need and a good working relationship with mobile providers

Chamath Ariyadasa, a founder of the service, has worked as a TV journalist, a correspondent for Reuters, and as a bureau chief for Dow Jones Newswires in Colombo. Ariyadasa explains that Jasmine News was a natural progression for him, especially because “a majority of people in a country like Sri Lanka are out of the loop in terms of key news and information.”

For Ariyadasa, Jasmine News fills two important needs: inclusion and empowerment through information. And it does so at a price that many people can afford: Rs.30 per month. Hence, anyone with a mobile phone in Sri Lanka can be plugged into key news, Ariyadasa said.

For their 170,000 subscribers, Jasmine News can most clearly be labeled a success. But how did it get here? First, the environment was ideal. With 15 million mobile phone subscribers in Sri Lanka, there was a clear need for an affordable and convenient method to receive news via phone, Ariyadasa said.

Another success for Jasmine News comes from a good working relationship with many mobile operators in Sri Lanka. This ensures that news can be delivered to subscribers on any network in the country. Mobile operators also help advertise the service through messages to their audiences, Ariyadasa said, which has helped grow the subscriber base.

To send bulk SMS messages, Jasmine News relies on platforms that mobile operators use themselves as well as from outside software providers. The service is not involved in platform development.

Couldn’t a subscriber just forward the content?

SMS news delivery, in general, is not without challenges. A rather obvious problem for paid subscription-based models is that text messages are easy to forward. Does this cause a problem? It would seem so, especially since Jasmine News lists this issue first in the terms and conditions section of the website:

1)Jasmine Newswires (Pvt) Ltd text news cannot be forwarded to third parties and is grounds for termination of your service without liability to Jasmine Newswires.

The clause was included when the service launched in 2006 to discourage forwarding – at a time when the service was priced at $7 per month. Ariyadasa said that this issue is no longer a concern (and one that would be difficult to enforce, for that matter): while people do forward content, it costs them more to forward at $0.05 per SMS than to subscribe themselves at $0.30 per month for 60 to 90 messages.

The close relationship with mobile providers, while an asset for subscriber accessibility, does raise issues of content control. “The question of who ultimately takes responsibility for the news is something that we seem to be exploring, even though we are contractually taking full liability and freeing the telecos of all responsibility,” Ariyadasa said.

“As we offer the same content on multiple operators, I would say we are 90% independent of the telecos,” Ariyadasa added. Jasmine News currently works with six mobile providers.

Another challenge lies in creating two-way communication between the public and news providers via SMS. Ariyadasa said this is something they haven’t yet achieved with Jasmine News, and that it would require a concerted push and an investment in a content management system linked to the subscriber database.

“I would like to see those replies and comments landing on a website so that its easily accessible by others. Mobile operators are unlikely to immediately invest in this without seeing a clear benefit,” Ariyadasa said. “I feel a phased approach is also better, which is why we haven’t pushed for it immediately.”

What’s Next for Jasmine News?

Currently, any visitor to Jasmine News can post comments on the website and it has received 1,373 such comments to date. Ariyadasa said that a push to include MMS photos and video wasn’t successful: bulk MMS was a “significant load on the system” and isn’t a popular service. Derana, a news site in Pakistan, sends SMS messages with a link to a video clip, but Ariyadasa said this too is not popular and Jasmine News will explore other MMS options in the future.

Another future route will be more personalized news delivery via SMS. Currently, Jasmine News subscribers can select from topics of general, business, or sports news. Further selection and delivery by topic and region “will clearly be a major plus” but implementing it will evolve slowly, Ariyadasa said, not least because the mobile providers must first see a business case for it. And to separate their subscribers into regional areas to allow targeted SMS news delivery will require providers to invest in back-end processes.

A big-picture takeaway is the role of SMS news headlines within media: the technology may help get “back to the basics of good journalism,” Ariyadasa said. Due to liability concerns for the mobile providers, there is a renewed emphasis on named sources in all messages. Every SMS headline sent includes the source of the report.

“This, in my opinion, was frequently absent in local media before,” Ariyadasa said. “The emphasis on sourcing is awakening a consciousness that all news is in fact sourced or needs to be clearly labeled as opinion.”

This Youtube video originally broadcast on Young Asian Television explains more about Jasmine News and the larger implications of SMS news delivery.

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