On Tuesday evening comes a new entrant in the cable news wars: WGN America’s News Nation, a three-hour primetime newscast that promises a just-the-facts approach to viewers’ daily diet.
No outraged hosts, no endless panels of talking-head commentary, no irreverent chyrons. The bet is that in an era of polarization, what consumers crave is a program without a point of view.
“We want to present a newscast every night that you can sit and watch with your other family member that doesn’t agree with you,” said Sean Compton, EVP of Nexstar Media Group, which owns WGN America and operates almost 200 stations.
News Nation has created a newsroom at WGN’s Chicago and hired 150 of its own staffers. It also will draw on the resources of Nexstar outlets.
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The newscast will feature anchors Joe Donlon and Marni Hughes, as well as breaking-news anchor Rob Nelson and meteorologist Albert Ramon. A recent hire is Dean Reynolds, who will be national political correspondent, after recently departing CBS News. The newscast will run from 8 PM ET to 11 PM ET.
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Their approach may be different for the time period, but not other parts of the day. Despite all of the attention paid to what Tucker Carlson said or to a Rachel Maddow opener, the traditional broadcast-network evening newscasts still command many more viewers, a recent average of about 21 million nightly. In fact, during the pandemic, ABC’s World News Tonight with David Muir has often been the most watched show in all of television.
Other outlets are planning to launch shows they say will take a similar neutral approach. Later next month, CNBC will launch a 7 p.m. ET newscast with Shepard Smith, The News with Shepard Smith, emphasizing that it will, in his words, deliver “a non-partisan, fact-based evening newscast.” Even Sinclair Broadcast Group, which had run into criticism for a conservative bent in local newscast commentary, is launching what it calls a fact-based morning headline news service early next year.
For News Nation, WGN America has hired two editors and retained a group of rhetoricians to watch for bias.
The news team has gotten a sense of what that means as they have been doing rehearsals for more than a month.
For instance, Nelson said that there was one script about Postmaster General Louis DeJoy’s recent testimony before Congress. Nelson added the word “embattled” to Postmaster General.
“Later in the night there was an email from the rhetorician saying, ‘Well, I don’t know about the word ’embattled’ in that case,” Nelson said. He asked the network’s VP News about it, and she told him that, after looking up the definition of the word and its context, Nelson was right.
“We’re talking about one word. We’re talking about a show that wasn’t even airing. These were still rehearsals,” Nelson said. “But already we were already examining the meaning of the word ’embattled’ to make sure that it fit the moment, that it was fair and clean.”
Another example was in how they treated one of the most divisive stories of the moment: the ongoing racial justice demonstrations in major cities. More specifically, they sought to examine the distinction between a protest and a riot.
“We put our research team on that to really dig into some of the words that people are using to describe what is happening on American streets right now, and do we really understand the words that we are using and the power behind those words,” Hughes said.
She added: “What we didn’t do was tell people what we think about that, or what you should think about that. We just laid it out. We used the definitions, we used research to get the history, and we put it up on the screen and let people digest it, and we move on to the next story.”
Eason Jordan, CEO of Oryx Strategies, who was CNN’s chief news executive and president of news gathering and international networks, said he’s viewing the launch of News Nation with “a mix of admiration and dismay” that “they intend to emulate CNN’s straight-news formula at launch in 1980.”
“Straight news in primetime worked then, in the absence of the internet, social media and other TV news networks,” he said via email. “In today’s deeply polarized, information-overload era, is there a market for straight news in primetime? If so, I believe we’d already have it. CNN transitioned to primetime from straight news to personality-driven news talk because that’s what viewers want and watch … and get from all three major TV news nets.”
Have the country’s current divides changed the equation? WGN America hired two research firms and both came to the conclusion, “that people are sick and tired of being talked to and not informed,” Compton said. “They are being told how to feel and they just want to be informed. And there was a big audience for that.”
“They say they want that. But fingers crossed that works for us and that translates to viewership levels that we are satisfied with,” Compton said.
News Nation is launching with startup costs estimated at $20 million, but that is offset by what Nexstar otherwise would be paying for the entertainment programming that used to run in its spot. Nexstar’s stations also are promoting the show across their platforms.
Compton also sees the ability to tap into Nexstar’s local newsrooms as another big advantage, not just because of their resources and reach, but for the different types of stories they might generate. They still will cover politics, the debates and Election Night, Compton said, but they also want to draw on the vantage points from across the country.
As an example, last week, on the night that President Donald Trump accepted the Republican nomination, “our top story, and probably our top three stories, would have been Hurricane Laura and the impact it had,” he said.
Compton also points to the way that national networks drew on Los Angeles station KTLA-TV for its reporting on the death of Kobe Bryant as the type of resource that local outlets can provide.
They also will have a digital presence via the constantly updated app NewsNation Now, as well as a News Nation website. For international news, they have a partnership with Reuters and AP.
In determining what makes the nightly newscast, News Nation has divided the country up into six zones, with zone producers tasked with monitoring Nexstar newsroom for what might be of interest to a national audience. As an example of what would have made a newscast, executives point to a story from Colorado Springs about the city’s first female police chief.
“We’re not just putting on local stories because we want to just fill it with content,” Compton said. “They have got to be stories that are worthy of working their way to the top.”
The most difficult challenge has been building a news organization amid the pandemic. The launch was pushed a back a bit because of the coronavirus, while they went to work hiring a staff, securing equipment and building out a studio. Compton credits Jennifer Lyons, WGN’s VP News, for overseeing the operation.
“It wasn’t like that first day at work where it is an odd thing where everyone is trying to fit in,” Compton said. “It was everyone’s first day at work. You have 145 people coming together. You have to build your own format. You have to think about your own music, your own graphics, how you are going to be different.”
Compton, who has worked in radio with Rush Limbaugh and Maddow, said that he understands why cable news networks have leaned in so heavily on talk. He just thinks that viewers are looking for less confrontation in the evening.
“I’m not taking shots at what they have done,” Compton said. “They are very, very successful. The problem is, they are not doing news anymore. And you can’t sit with your left-wing friend and your right-wing friend in the same room and have an intelligent conversation when you have Tucker Carlson barking in one direction and Anderson Cooper barking in the other direction. It creates a divide, when people really just want to be presented the facts.”
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