University of Missouri

University of Missouri

The Town Square: Social Media-Driven Public Affairs Programming

University of Missouri is one of the 2014-15 winners of the Challenge Fund for Innovation in Journalism Education. See all 12 winners and the Honorable Mentions.


  • Kent Collins, Associate Professor, Chair R/TV Faculty
  • Annie Hammock, Assistant Professor
  • Jeimmie Nevalga, Assistant Professor
  • Angie Bailey, Adjunct Faculty
  • Esther Thorson, Research Director, RJI Insight & Survey Center, Donald W. Reynolds Journalism Institute
  • Roger Gafke, Director, Program Development, Donald W. Reynolds Journalism Institute
  • KOMU-TV Newsroom

Project examples, provided in a 2015 update:

Viewers, experts help KOMU 8 News examine bullying mid-Missouri

Families say poverty not always obvious, but still crushing

Describe your project as a tweet

Citizens have their say as experts, deciders & reporters listen.

What is your live news experiment?

Our project replaces traditional television public affairs programming with social media engagement. Producers seek networks of interest among citizens, participate in the conversations within those networks, apply journalistic analysis to the conversations and present that analysis to the members of the networks and on-air and online to the larger community.

Among faculty and student participants (we hope to see) increased confidence in their abilities to use social media in the news process. Among citizen participants (we hope to see) increased engagement with the station, a perception of increased diversity of opinion in the programming and a civilizing of comments on issues.

How will this project reach enough people to make the experiment valid?

We intend to run this pilot project in the last half of 2014. The on-air programming will be done on KOMU-TV, the NBC affiliate in the mid-Missouri market, with a potential audience of 500,000.

KOMU-TV broadcasts some 4+ hours of live TV news programming daily. While the greatest time for live broadcasting of this public affairs series will be on the noon news program, the invitation to participate and the summaries of the program substance generated by that participation will be broadcast throughout the daily news programming.

That substance will also have a prominent place in the KOMU digital services.

How is this project unique and innovative?

With this project, we plan to create an easy-to-use model of community engagement for local television that will produce two changes in the way television news uses social media content:

  1. Replace the gossip and reckless comments now common in social media presented on-air, and
  2. Make the citizen participation a primary element of public affairs programs rather than the “also ran” position it plays now in much news programming.

To accomplish that goal, we intend to position the experience, views, questions, and recommendations from citizens as the organizing feature of the program. We will seek participation in the discussions of important topics ahead of the on-air program. We intend to identify and seek participation from and provide feedback to existing citizen networks and interest groups around specific public affairs topics.

How will you collaborate?

The project director and supervising faculty all have major assignments in the KOMU-TV newsroom to fulfill supervisory, editing and coaching responsibilities for the students working under their direction; therefore, collaboration is routine for this team.

On this project, they will function as a committee to plan the project and assign student and supervisory responsibilities. In the execution phase, they will function as they do for the day-to-day news operation carrying out those supervisory and editing responsibilities.

The project research director will join the planning committee to develop the assessment approaches. He will lead a research team in the conduct of the research.

The principals will jointly develop a project report and identify recommendation for next steps in the newsroom’s expansion of its social media engagement and in the incorporation of the lessons learned into the journalism curriculum.

What technology platforms will you use?

We will use the content management system, website, mobile apps and social media presence that are a part of the regular KOMU-TV news operation.

For the part of the project intended to identify and invite citizen networks of interest to participate, we will use the personal, business e-mail addresses of the supervising faculty and news anchors. For the research parts of the project, we will use the database, phone and web-based research tools of the Insight & Survey Center of the Donald W. Reynolds Journalism Institute at the Missouri School of Journalism.

How will this project provide an educational experience for students above and beyond their current learning?

This project will add two important elements to the educational experience of Missouri broadcast journalism students and perhaps to students elsewhere as their faculty implement our recommendations.

The first lesson adds a seeking out of public opinion on major policy issues and its prominent display. This step goes well beyond current practice of using social media channels to distribute a station’s own content and channeling citizen content that is submitted into its own silo.

The second lesson will add systematic assessment of the impact to a student’s understanding of what worked and what failed. For decades, TV news operations have used ratings data and now analytics data for gross assessments. In this project, the assessment will be measuring the impact of the seeking out of participation.

We want students to understand that merely broadcasting a story may not equal success – our equivalent of researching the impact of medical techniques.

If this project works, how might the media organization and academic institution change its practices?

Our project will create an important advancement in community engagement by involving citizens extensively in the discussion of issues of public importance. It will create a model for this engagement that television stations across the nation, and perhaps beyond, can use to expand their service to their communities.

Our project will help TV stations transform from information providers to facilitators of community conversation. The Missouri students will have first-hand experience in this transformation. So can students in other programs whose faculty adopt this approach.

Project update: What additional collaborations/partnerships have resulted from your project?

This ONA-funded experiment in television and online social media journalism proved that social media is a reporting tool, not just a production or presentation tool.

Our media partner – by design – is our own KOMU-TV, the NBC affiliate for the 137 DMA, owned by the University of Missouri as a teaching laboratory for journalism students. The television station management the TOWN SQUARE public affairs programs were so valuable that we expect to continue producing the segments on a quarterly basis using station – not Journalism School or university – funds.