KOMU Puts Local News on a Global Platform Using Google+ Hangouts

By Merrill Knox 

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As local stations nationwide struggled with how to replace “The Oprah Winfrey Show” in their programming lineup, a new idea emerged at KOMU, the NBC-affiliate in Columbia, MO: a social-media driven newscast that would connect viewers from all over the world through “hangouts,” 10-person video chats on Google+.

“There is something magical about bringing people in from around the world in a singular space to discuss the day’s news,” KOMU’s Sarah Hill, who has anchored the 4 p.m. newscast since its debut on September 12, told TVSpy. “Globally, we are reducing the space between us.”

Hill pointed to a recent segment about Kenza Drider, who is running for president of France and targeting the country’s ban on Islamic face veils, as an example of the benefits from the hangout-style newscasts (watch video of the hangout segment inside).

“We can show mid-Missouri viewers video of a controversial French presidential candidate and leave it at that,” she said. “Or we can use G+ hangouts to talk with a French citizen about his feelings on the Islamic face veil ban in his country.”

“The personal and live connection between individuals now gives the possibility to get firsthand local experience,” said Robert Redl, who is a frequent contributor to the KOMU newscasts from Vienna, Austria. “In this way every person is some kind of ‘local expert.'”

Hill said the landscape of producing effective newscasts has changed with the addition of social media. “No longer do we have to just butt together soundbites,” Hill said. “We have people in the same space to discuss issues as a group. Viewers don’t just want a news anchor sitting behind a desk shouting headlines. Viewers want to be a part of the conversation.”

KOMU news director Stacey Woelfel said the station enjoys the high level of transparency that social media facilitates on the newscasts. “We have always operated with the understanding that we don’t do anything ‘secret’ here,” he said. “We are open about our news decisions and the processes behind them. Now that technology literally lets people peek behind the scenes to see what happens when the TV cameras are elsewhere, I can’t think of a better way to expand that transparency.”

Hill, an active social media proponent who also incorporates comments from Twitter and Facebook into her newscasts, agreed. “This in a sense peels back that curtain behind the mystery we call journalism and lets viewers see the process from a different perspective,” she said.