Should Local News Open Its Heart to Emojis?

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Six billion emojis are shared every day, but few of them appear on local news sites. Sometimes they’ll be stuck on a weather report here or there, but, by and large, local news remains pretty buttoned up online about emotional values.

Dana Loberg, founder and CEO of MojiLaLa, thinks emojis could help local news sites not only make better connections with their present users but also attract new audiences — especially younger mobile users and minority groups — and score valuable new contributors on important community issues.

“Local news sites can reach totally new demographics and age groups with emojis,” says Loberg. “It’s a new way to attract new readers and subscribers. Emojis are a great way to get an issue conversation started and continuing the conversation between family and friends.”

San Francisco-based MojiLaLa offers packages of a wide array of emojis created by artists around the world, all designed to start conversations — the level of user engagement that many local news sites want but don’t have. Sites have their Facebook pages, but engagement there often doesn’t rise above the level of “likes.”

Examples of emoji packages offered by MojiLaLa, at prices that range from free to $1.99, can be found here, here and here. The company, whose goal is to become “the Netflix for stickers,” offers an unlimited amount of 12,000+ emojis, including animated, for $1.99 here.

Loberg said that if a local news publisher wants a special design created for a specific local issue, “we’d discuss a price point with the designer and the publisher.”

A MojiLaLa package would also include distribution on Apple’s new iMessage instant-messaging service and various social platforms. “We can provide broad distribution through us and our partners,” Loberg says. “For example, we can have the emojis featured in our own app, MojiLaLa Unlimited, as a standalone app on Apple iMessage, or through any of our various partners to reach millions users in mobile.”

Editors and other journalists — locally or anywhere else — are smart to be cautious about emojis. Embracing these digital pictograms too enthusiastically could send a journalist down a digital rabbit hole, as Wall Street Journal reporter Joanna Stern discovered. But when a local site is confronted with an issue freighted with implications for people in the community, emojis, judiciously used, can potentially trigger and sustain a digital conversation that just might lead to positive results.

Very soon, the many local sites in communities with large Hispanic-Latino populations will have to confront the implications of the new Trump White House rolling out tough policies that could include the deportation of millions of undocumented immigrants who have been identified as or are suspected of being criminals.

For many of these sites which don’t have particularly close relationships with their Hispanic community, using emojis could help close gaps in their audience and increase and even initiate engagement by using immigrant-related emojis not only with articles but also in email letters to subscribers, push notifications on their app and across the spectrum of social media – all the things that Loberg says her MojiLaLa can do. Loberg says she can provide various types of minority-driven emoji packs. She does not have one related to undocumented immigrants, but could commission an artist to create one for a fee.

MojiLaLa’s prices for an emoji package for a small local news operation would range from $1,000 to $5,000. The prices for larger operations that would need more work would be $10,000 to $15,000. Smaller sites that have to be extra-careful about adding new expenses could sell MojiLaLa-commissioned emojis for $.99 or $1.99 in order to bring in some offsetting revenue.

News sites that attract new audiences with emojis will be able to strengthen their pitch to advertisers, who themselves are using branded emojis to find customers in the digital space, especially among millennials and Generation Z. Domino’s Pizza, Taco Bell and McDonald’s are among businesses that have gone big into emojis in campaigns.

A news site doesn’t have to cross the line into advocacy when it attaches an emoji to an article, video or photograph covering a highly charged issue. On immigration, for example, a site might want to use emojis that express concern or fear – or any other identifiable emotion coming from the immigrant community in the face of tough action from the Trump White House. But the site should be clear in its presentation that its emojis are not editorial statements but signify what’s originating from the community. If the site does decide to take an editorial position on the immigration issue, that’s where it could use an advocacy emoji.

A built-in problem that emoji artists have to overcome is the Unicode technical constraints on how many digital characters can be used to create an image. These constraints can result in cartoonish pictographs that may present immigrants in stereotypical images. Loberg said she’s working with artists to surmount this limitation.


Local news is stuck in a digital rut that is costing it the engaged audiences it used to take for granted. Local sites need these audiences to achieve their editorial mission and to attract advertisers who want also want to reach committed readers and will pay a premium to do so. In the middle of this predicament, an array of hot-button issues are beginning to reverberate in the backyards of local sites. Immigration, trade and jobs, health care, the future of public schools — all the issues boiling up in Washington, D.C., affect millions of people, white and minority, young, middle-aged and old, who live in thousands of communities across the U.S.

For many people, these issues are not just a matter of public opinion; they affect their well-being. Will they or members of their family be deported, detained or go to jail? Will “America First” trade decisions eliminate their jobs? Will the repeal of Obamacare cancel or greatly reduce their health insurance? Will education “choice” undercut their children’s public schools?

It’s up to local news sites to tell the stories of the people who are being caught up in the swirl of these and related questions. It will take good journalism to do that – and in today’s digital world, that includes emojis.

Tom GrubisichTom Grubisich (@TomGrubisich) writes “The New News” column for Street Fight. He is editorial director of hyperlocal news network Local America, and is also working on a book about the history, present, and future of Charleston, S.C.