The Irving, Texas-based broadcast group expects the “News Nation” newscast based out of WGN’s ample studios in Chicago to debut by mid-summer. Nexstar executives say the 8 p.m. to 11 p.m. ET newscast will be focused on breaking news and in-depth features from around the country.
There will be less of an emphasis on politics and the machinations of Washington, D.C. than is served up by the Big Three cable news giants — Fox News, CNN and MSNBC. Nexstar executives also vow that there will be no opinion or commentary segments, only down-the-middle news reporting, features and human interest stories as well as extensive weather reporting.
“News Nation” is the most ambitious effort to come from Nexstar since the company completed its $4.1 billion acquisition of Tribune Media in September. That deal brought 42 stations, most in major markets, plus the WGN America cabler into the Nexstar fold. “News Nation” is an effort to harness the national reach of Nexstar, which controls some 197 TV stations that employ more than 5,400 journalists to produce hundreds of hours of local news each day. The newscast leverages Nexstar’s national footprint that reaches up to 64% of U.S. TV households, and its ubiquitous presence in markets large and small around the country.
Moreover, Nexstar chairman-CEO Perry Sook and Sean Compton, the veteran Tribune programming executive veteran who is now executive VP of WGN America, surveyed the landscape and saw an opportunity for a just-the-facts breaking news block in primetime when the all-news cablers are largely into opinion programming.
“Nobody’s doing news in primetime,” Sook told Variety. “We’ve got more journalists working for us than any other news organization in the country. We said, ‘This is an opportunity.’ I think of it as a newscast from the heartland, for the heartland.” Or as Compton describes it: “It’s a newscast for people west of the Hudson River and east of Riverside [California].”
Investors applauded Nexstar’s decision, sending the stock up 3.7% on Wednesday after “News Nation” was unveiled.
Sook worked as a TV news anchor for the CBS affiliate in Clarksburg, W.V., early in his career before turning to the business side of broadcasting. As a business proposition, “News Nation” is a no-brainer for WGN America because Nexstar will own and control the content and advertising time in those three hours of news, unlike the programming it has previously carried in primetime.
“This is original programming — intellectual property that we own,” Sook said. “It will also bring a whole new category of news advertisers that don’t do business with the network now.”
WGN America has made multiple efforts during the past dozen years to beef up its primetime lineup, first with high-profile comedy series acquisitions, then with a costly push into original series (“Manhattan,” “Underground”) under a previous regime at Tribune. More recently, the channel has been relying on syndicated entertainment programs and low-cost drama imports from Canada and the U.K. Sook said Nexstar would plow the savings on acquired programs into the budget for “News Nation.”
“Nobody can compete in this lane with us on the scale that we can,” Compton said. “We had to look at our strengths and weaknesses and when you look at our resources, we were well aware that we have the resources to produce news on a grander scale.”
The “News Nation” launch will be spearheaded by WGN Chicago veteran Jennifer Lyons, who has been upped from WGN-TV Chicago news director to VP of news for WGN America. Lyons said the plan is to divide the country into zones, with dedicated zone producers that will be responsible for feeding news and human interest stories from their region to the national telecast.
Nexstar plans to hire about 120 to 140 journalists in Chicago to produce “News Nation.” The program will have a complementary digital app, News Nation Now, that will serve up breaking news on a 24/7 basis. At the outset, the “News Nation” telecast will air as a repeat in primetime for West Coast time zones, albeit with breaking news updates as needed.
“A lot of nights we’re not going to give you the same story that leads the traditional [news] networks because we have such a level of localism,” Lyons told Variety. “We have such an opportunity to tell stories that bubble up from local markets that are not just interesting, but impactful. We have three hours so we can let them breathe a bit.”
Lyons has spent years producing many hours a day of live breaking news for WGN Chicago, including a five-hour morning show that runs from 4 a.m. – 10 a.m. Nexstar’s immense reach will give “News Nation” an advantage of being quick on the scene for breaking news in far-flung areas. Sook noted that reporters for Nexstar stations were first to broadcast live after following the tragic mass shooting incidents that unfolded on the same day last August in El Paso, Texas and Dayton, Ohio.
With dozens of meteorologists employed by Nexstar to deliver local weather updates, “News Nation” plans to make climate change and its impact on everyday people a big focus of coverage.
“I think this is a great opportunity to tap into the 5,400 journalists that we have and really work these big stories,” Lyons said. “There’s lots of times when we can get information that nobody else is covering because nobody else is there like we are.”
The specific look and feel of the newscast is still coming together, including the number of anchors and pairings. Lyons said she expects to have “news you need to know” at the top of each hour, followed by more in-depth stories. The studio will feature video walls that will allow the anchor team to move quickly between stories and to plug upcoming segments.
As the ideas now in “granular” form come together over the next few months — Sook said the target launch date is mid-July — Lyons said there the guiding principle is to emphasize opinion-free live breaking news. They’re just starting the process of hiring anchors and other key players.
“No one is doing that in these [primetime] hours anymore,” she said. “It’s a great opportunity for us.”