Nexstar’s NewsNation Faces Turmoil, Staff Departures Amid Conservative Bias Concerns

By Cynthia Littleton

Popular on Variety

Nexstar’s NewsNation channel is in turmoil as it faces staff defections amid concerns that the outlet is being pushed by management to lean to the right in its news coverage.

The simmering controversy for the channel previously known as WGN America gained steam on Tuesday when Nexstar confirmed that Jennifer Lyons, the WGN-TV Chicago news veteran who led the launch of the primetime “NewsNation” block last September, has resigned her post as VP of news. That follows several lower-level departures last week that appear to have been prompted by concerns that former Fox News executive Bill Shine is leading a charge to steer the channel to the right. Shine is a consultant to Nexstar and NewsNation but does not have a formal role at the company.

Nexstar chairman-CEO Perry Sook held an in-person session with NewsNation staffers at the channel’s Chicago headquarters. Sook reaffirmed Nexstar’s commitment to the transformation of the former WGN America into a news channel. He told employees during a long session that included about 40 minutes of Q&A that Nexstar aims to build out NewsNation as an all-news, talk and opinion outlet by 2023.

“Jennifer Lyons has decided to leave her position as Vice President of News at NewsNation,” Nexstar said in a statement. “We thank her for her efforts in spearheading the launch of NewsNation and we wish her success in whatever she does next. We have begun a search for her replacement and hope to have that person in place quickly.”

When the NewsNation plan for WGN America was unveiled in January 2020, Sook asserted that the newscasts would lean toward breaking news and offer a down-the-middle perspective. The plan was to focus on the days headlines and compelling stories drawn from Nexstar’s stations across the country.

“Nobody’s doing news in primetime,” Sook told Variety last year. “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.”

Sook was pressed about whether there has been a shift in philosophy for NewsNation because viewership to date has been very weak — below the 100,000 viewer threshold in many instances and as low as 2,000 viewers in adults 25-54 demo that is crucial for news. The three-hour primetime block of newscasts bowed on Sept. 1, 2020. On March 1, the 10 p.m. hour shifted to a “Larry King Live”-esque interview show hosted by Ashleigh Banfield. Nexstar has added more hours of news to its lineup this year and is planning to stake its claim to the morning news hours soon.

Sook told staffers that the goal from the start was to produce a telecast that reflects centrist views. As such, NewsNation would naturally lean more to the right than other mainstream news outlets because, in Sook’s view, the political perspectives of journalists in most newsrooms lean to the left. Sook’s affirmation of Nexstar’s commitment to news is notable given the low viewership.

But even with barely-there ratings, for Nexstar producing newscasts that can draw on existing resources is an extremely cost-effective way to program a channel that previously shelled out license fees for syndicated programming. Nexstar sees a lucrative end game with programming that it owns and controls outright if it has the patience to allow the news audience to build.

Lyons’ departure comes on the heels of the New York Times’ March 7 report of tumult behind the scenes of NewsNation. Lyons had been with WGN-TV Chicago for 25 years. Prior to her resignation, another WGN-TV veteran, news director Sandy Puday, left in early February while managing editor Richard Maginn left earlier this month.

Sook was pressed during the staff meeting about the turnover and its cause. The CEO reiterated that Shine was not an employee and had not ever set foot in the “NewsNation” studio. He stressed that “we’re looking to hire the best athletes,” according to a source with first-hand knowledge of the meeting, and he stressed that NewsNation had assembled its staff with news veterans from a range of backgrounds, from MSNBC, CNN and Fox News to CBS News, ABC News and NBC News.

As for examples of bias on NewsNation telecasts, the Times cited dismay among some in the newsroom about anchor Joe Donlon’s handling of his sit-down interview with then-President Donald Trump in September and Shine’s involvement as a consultant.

Sean Compton, president of Nexstar’s networks group and the architect of NewsNation, had business ties to Trump more than a decade ago when the two worked together on the 2004 radio series “Trumped!” that was syndicated by Clear Channel.

Another source at NewsNation blasted the criticism, arguing that there was no movement from the pledge to offer down-the-middle news headlines outside of shows specifically designed for more opinion and commentary. A Nexstar source noted that with the rise of far-right outlets such as Newsmax and One America Network, there’s heightened competition for the conservative demo beyond Fox News.

However, Lyons’ departure made it impossible for Nexstar to ignore the situation even if top brass believe the criticism itself is an example of left-leaning media bias.

“Watch the product and judge for yourself,” the “NewsNation” source said.