How it’s Made: Google Hangouts

There is a basic how-to guide to starting a Google Hangout at the bottom of the post.

The New York Times recently held Google Hangouts with voters, two during each political convention. Times columnists Frank Bruni, Gail Collins and Charles Blow moderated four conversations about the economy, bipartisanship, whether there is a Republican war on women, in addition to voters who had switched from supporting Obama in 2008 to supporting Romney in 2012. Voters talked about their lives and needs. About their struggles, financial and otherwise, and about what they want to happen during the next presidential term.

I worked with the Times on this project to pre-interview potential participants for all four hangouts. In this post, I’ll run through how to set up a basic Google Hangout and talk about how the Times ran theirs.

Over the last year, the Times has produced a number of Google Hangouts, including one with Carmelo Anthony and Chris Paul before the Olympics, and another about the Kentucky Derby in the wake of the Times’ investigative feature on banned drugs and racehorses.

This summer, the Huffington Post also launched a Google Hangout-based project called Huffington Post Live. The collaborative video technology makes it easier for news organizations to include the points of view of average citizens in video-based projects.


The Times sourced potential participants for the convention Google Hangouts in three different ways: the Times Google+ page, the Times blogs and through traditional reporting and source sharing from the political desk. I worked with another associate producer pre-interviewing sources, asking about their political affiliation and their voting past. Our main goal was to ensure that each participant spoke clearly on the phone and had a personal story to share.

To make sure each potential participant was technically well-equipped in order to avoid hangups or technical difficulties on the day of the hangout, I asked these questions:

1. What type of computer do you have? (eg. laptop, desktop; new, old)
2. Do you have Internet at home, or wherever you’ll be interviewing? And how fast is it?
3. If you’re on wifi, can you plug the computer directly into the modem?
4. Do you have a web camera? And have you used it before?

After doing a preliminary pick of the panels, a company called Pixel Corps contacted each participants. Pixel Corps works with Google and major Google Plus users, like the New York Times, to ensure that highly public Google Hangouts are technically smooth. The company conducted “tech tests” with each participant to make sure there’d be no technical difficulties. If a participant couldn’t get the video to work properly, we would reconsider swapping in an alternate. We aimed to have five voters in each hangout.

Technical Checklist

The Times columnists moderated the conversations from the Google studios at the Republican and Democratic National conventions. Two hours before the chat was set to start participants were asked to log on to clear up any potential technical issues and to warm up. The chats themselves lasted at most half an hour.

Participants used headphones to reduce audio feedback, and a producer made sure the person currently speaking was on the screen. (At the bottom of the Google Hangout, a row of people appears. Click on the screen of the person you’d like everyone to see big.)

Here’s your Google Hangout tech checklist:
1. Each participant must have a Google Plus account.
2. Wear headphones to avoid audio feedback.
3. Fast internet to avoid lag, which, in a six person conversation can be a drag. For a more reliable connection, connect your computer to your modem with an ethernet cable.
4. Frame your face and make sure you’re not backlit. An easy fix to being backlit: place a lamp to the left or right side of your face.
5. Plug in your computer.


“Can you hear me now?” is a common refrain in video chatting and broadcasting even in highly produced Google Hangouts with the likes of Huffington Post Live and the New York Times. As faster Internet connections become ubiquitous, Google Hangouts and video chatting are going to become less and less of a technical hassle. But for the time being, lag and audio cutting out are part and parcel with video chats.

Some candidates had slow internet connections. Others didn’t own web cameras. First the Times asked that all participants conduct a speed test on his or her connection. When their connection speed proved fast enough, Pixel Corps contacted each voter and ran them through a “test tech.” If this test didn’t go well, we would consider an alternate.

The biggest challenge is making sure all participants show up. Participants can easily drop off the face of the earth, and it’s important to have a backup in case someone doesn’t sign in to chat on the day of the event. One of the principle challenges for this project was making sure every participant had cleared his or her schedule and would sign into the chat at the preassigned time. Participatory journalism requires the sources to be as involved and invested in the end product as the reporter.

Google Hangout audience

Viewers weighed in during the chats, asking questions of their own in the comment section. They took issue with a lack of racial, gender and ideological diversity. Commenters expressed concern that the participants were not informed as they should be. In the comments section of the first chat, called “Switching Sides,” Catherine from Wilmette, Ill. wrote: “Very depressing, indeed. One of the people even confused Medicare and Medicaid, too….”

Though the comments were mostly content based, a few people commented on the Times’ use of Google Hangouts to do journalism. Some favorably; others, less so. One commenter questioned whether Google Hangouts were just the Times shiny new reporting tool, and he wondered if other viewers liked the format only because it was visual. “Alas, Charles, it really wasn’t an interesting discussion. Is it the broadcast aspect that has the three of you bending over backwards to be hospitable?” Glen from Dayton wrote. “This isn’t journalism, folks. Not sure what it is.”

The Times moderators did not ask questions from the comment section. But a few commenters still asked, including Harrison of Portland, OR who posted: “What about the dog on the roof? Can we get a question about the dog on the roof.”

A number of comments were posted in the days after the hangout, suggesting that people watched the video after the live chat had ended. According to the Times YouTube page, the first Google Hangout has been viewed 630 times, as of Tuesday, Sept 18. Viewing statistics are not listed on YouTube for the other three hangouts.

Google Hangouts and other tools for participatory journalism create a space online for guided discussion during which the reporter is as much on the spot as the source. There’s near absolute transparency in the process with the small exception being that someone has to decide who will participate in the conversations. These hangouts are a powerful new tool though, because viewers get to see how reporters interact with sources. Hangouts remove the intermediary, the reporter.

Basic Guide on Starting a Google Hangout

1. Login to your Googe+ account
2. Create a Google+ post advertising your Google hangout
3. Click the video icon to start the Hangout and then click “Join”
4. Click “Invite” (upper left-hand corner of the hangout dialogue). You can invite individuals or whole Google circles.
5. To broadcast the chat live, click “Enable Hangouts On Air.”
6. You can embed the live chat in a webpage, and after the hangout is finished, Google will produce the video and post the finished piece using the same embed link.