KOMU-TV tries, tries again with groundbreaking interactive newscast

KOMU-TV in Columbia, Mo., is scaling back its social media-driven interactive newscast for the second time in its eight-month lifespan.

The experiment launched in its most ambitious format in September, replacing the "Oprah" show with an hour-long 4 p.m. newscast where guests and audience joined in via Google+ Hangouts, while tweets and Facebook comments flashed on the screen.

In January it shifted to a half-hour program airing at 11 a.m. with a similar social engagement focus. Now the station is retrenching as a noontime program that will sprinkle a lighter dose of social media feedback throughout a more-traditional newscast.

The central problem, Interactive Director Jen Lee Reeves told me, is that as KOMU thinks big and tries to invent a new way of building new audiences, the station’s business model still relies on traditional local advertisers who want to reach a traditional local TV audience.

“Our ideas are competing with car dealerships,” she said.

KOMU's Sarah Hill anchors the U_News interactive newscast, using a Google+ Hangout in the background.

Anchor Sarah Hill has accumulated over 900,000 connections on Google+, and the group video chats and social media feedback channels have helped the newscast reach new people. But many of them are watching online from elsewhere in the country or internationally.

Nielsen ratings don’t measure that kind of online streaming or social reach, and advertising reps don’t know how to sell it, she said. Meanwhile, the traditional broadcast TV audience has stayed away.

“Our older viewers at a certain point are like, ‘I don’t care,’” Reeves said. “What we’ve learned is that our older, traditional viewer is not quite ready for what we brought to the table. So we’re going to take it down a notch, share it in a more palatable way, until our viewing audience is more open to going as far as we went.”

A similar problem occurred at WSLS-TV in Roanoke, Va., last year. That station replaced a 2-year-old social-media-heavy newscast with a more traditional program.

Reeves says she is not giving up on progressive models, just trying to keep a balanced approach. The pace of TV news evolution may be slowing, but there’s no way it’s going back to the simple old days, she said. The old audience will disappear, and news organizations have to create and win over new audiences by serving them in new ways:

“I am on a quest to not watch good journalism go away because the audience went away. I want to find the audience, I want to make sure they know about what’s happening in the market. I want to reach them where they are, because they’re not going to find me -- I want them to stumble into me.

… If we continue to just blindly say that ‘I’m a newsroom that does X,’ you’re missing the future. I just think we’re all going to hurt ourselves just terribly if we all say, ‘I just give information in one way.’ That’s gone. If we don’t experiment, if we don’t learn from failure, if we don’t learn from success, then journalism is going to disappear.”

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    Jeff Sonderman

    Jeff Sonderman is the deputy director of the American Press Institute, helping to lead its use of research, tools, events, and strategic insights to advance and sustain journalism.


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