KOMU’s how-to manual will help stations build their own ‘Town Square'

KOMU-TV 8A Missouri TV station’s use of social media to produce a public affairs segment uncovered new story ideas, angles and sources.

“We’ve learned to really embrace the use of social media, not just as a place where you put your story when it’s done but the place where your story can start,” says Annie Hammock, interactive director at KOMU-TV in Columbia.

Called Town Square, the NBC affiliate created the segment to incorporate more in-depth public affairs reporting into local TV news and “provide more air time to difficult subjects,” says Kent Collins, faculty chair of Radio-Television Journalism at the University of Missouri School of Journalism. Collins, who coached the KOMU-TV team, helped create a similar public affairs program at the Nine Network in St. Louis during his 2012-2013 fellowship at the Donald W. Reynolds Journalism Institute.

Kellie Stanfield, a Ph.D. candidate at the journalism school, wrote a how-to manual to help other TV stations produce a similar program in their markets.

The Town Square segments aired four times on KOMU News at Noon during the 2014-2015 school year and covered issues like bullying and vaccinations. Running Town Square during the noon newscast allowed the station to produce a 20-minute special with 10 minutes for weather and news segments without interrupting the morning and evening news, says Collins. A weekend newscast would work for stations that don’t have a noon show, says Collins.

Three weeks to a month before each Town Square, KOMU-TV viewers were asked to visit the station’s website and social media platforms to complete a survey about the upcoming topic. Survey participants were asked to include contact information if they would be willing to be interviewed on camera.

Story evolves and engages viewers on social media

KOMU-TV occasionally does a series called “Poverty in Plain Sight.”  Last year staff decided to devote one of its Town Square segments to poverty and let the audience help decide the direction of the segment through surveys, says Jeimmie Nevalga, supervising producer.

“The story changed as we got responses,” says Nevalga. “As we began sifting through comments, we said, ‘Oh, we haven’t talked about this angle before.’” 

One of the story subjects interviewed on camera continued to engage with viewers on social media even after the interview was done.

“Not only was he able to share his story but he was also able to respond to questions and dive deeper into this personal experience,” added Hammock.

Survey and social media responses

The 20-minute segment on vaccinations and subsequent social media conversation proved to be the most controversial topic and initially drew 268 survey responses. Three people agreed to be interviewed on camera about vaccinations including a talk show host who shared the survey with her listeners. This drew in an additional 1,645 written survey responses.

The number of people willing to be interviewed on camera varied for each topic but each newscast brought in new sources the station wouldn’t have thought to reach out to, says Hammock.

“I think one of the things the Town Square program has shown is the richness of experience that you find from people on social media,” she says.

Hammock said they were pleased with the social media response despite the noon newscast having a smaller audience. 

“Very robust conversation on social media … for all four episodes,” she says. 

Of the four broadcasts, bullying resonated the most with people, says Hammock. The online video of the segment received 23,953 views. Posts about the episode were shared 112 times. The posts garnered 108 comments. The story received 3,253 hits on the website.

Viewers had plenty to say about the segment on how to pay for repairs to Missouri roads: 327 commented on Facebook, 721 liked the posts and 284 shared the Facebook posts.

KOMU-TV received a second-place award for documentary/public affairs programming for Town Square from the Missouri Broadcasters Association. The TV station also received two second-place public service project awards from the Kansas City Press Club.

Jennifer Nelson  
Senior Information Specialist


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