Kent CollinsA Missouri TV station recently launched a news segment called “Town Square” that taps local residents for input on important community issues via surveys and social media.

Bullying was the topic of the first “Town Square” on KOMU-TV, the NBC affiliate in Columbia owned by the University of Missouri.

“'Town Square’ creates a social media buzz on the topic weeks before we air the special report,” said Kent Collins, head of the project and faculty chair of radio and television journalism at the Missouri School of Journalism. “That buzz seeks new opinions, new sources, new humanized examples.”

Social media outreach also allows a bigger and more diverse discussion than would be possible with only a journalist’s Rolodex, he said.

The segment aired on Oct. 9 and included viewer responses and interviews with experts and parents.

In September, the station invited viewers to complete an online survey on bullying. Nearly 250 people took the anonymous survey, which included an option to add contact information. Reporters reached out to survey respondents and Facebook posters to request interviews.

KOMU’s “Town Square” is based on an award-winning program called “Stay Tuned,” which airs on KETC-TV, the PBS station in St. Louis. Collins created the program during his 2012-2013 fellowship at the Donald W. Reynolds Journalism Institute. He’s now partnering with the KOMU newsroom, RJI and Missouri journalism faculty to produce “Town Square.

Production costs became a barrier to replicating the successful “Stay Tuned” at other TV stations, noted Collins. “Since ‘Stay Tuned’ is a standalone program, the cost of equipment, set and staff fell squarely on the shoulders of the program,” he said.

KOMU solved that dilemma by airing “Town Square” as a segment during a regular news broadcast, which reduced production costs. The bullying segment filled 20 minutes of the 30-minute noon newscast.

Collins hopes “Town Square” can serve as a template that other newsrooms can adopt to help advance conversations on key topics in their communities. If “Town Square” is as successful as its predecessor, he said, the segment will generate goodwill in the community and social media buzz to boot.

KOMU’s next “Town Square” segment, scheduled to air December 11, will focus on poverty in Mid-Missouri. The station recently posted poverty guidelines on its website and invited local residents to share their personal stories“to help broaden our viewers’ understanding of what it’s like to struggle … financially.” Two more “Town Square” segments are planned for 2015.

The “Town Square” project is a 2014-2015 winner of the Online News Association’s Challenge Fund for Innovation in Journalism Education

Sarah Strasburg  
Guest blogger


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