Local News Close-Up: Jacksonville Is Hot, and We’re Not Talking Weather

Tom Wills arrived at WJXT in 1975, and anchors the independent station's leading newscasts.
Tom Wills arrived at WJXT in 1975, and anchors the independent station’s leading newscasts. (Image credit: WJXT)

How valuable is a network affiliation? Extremely valuable, stations across the nation would likely say. 

Jacksonville’s WJXT might say something different. The station split with CBS in 2002, but has not relinquished its leader status in the Florida market in the decades since. When primetime rolls around, WJXT has Last Man Standing at 8 p.m. and The Neighborhood at 8:30 p.m., then two episodes of The Big Bang Theory

Might the station, with a News4Jax brand, plug a newscast into prime? There are no plans to right now, but “we’re taking a look at a lot of stuff,” WJXT VP and general manager Terri Cope-Walton said. 

Also Read: Check Out Our Local News Close-Up Profiles on Dozens of U.S. Markets

Jacksonville is Nielsen’s No. 41 DMA. Duopolies are all over the place in northern Florida. Graham Media Group owns WJXT and CW affiliate WCWJ. Tegna owns NBC station WTLV and ABC outlet WJXX. Cox Media Group owns Fox affiliate WFOX and has a joint sales agreement (JSA) with Hoffman Communications to manage WJAX, the CBS affiliate. WFOX offers the local Telemundo affiliate on a digital channel. 

Norsan Media owns WUJX, an Estrella TV affiliate. Comcast is the primary pay TV operator in Jacksonville. 

WJXT is a ratings beast. News4Jax won the 6 a.m. races in households and viewers 25-54 in June, according to Nielsen, and won households and the demo at 5 and 6 p.m. too. At 11 p.m., WJXT averaged a 2.4 in the household battle, with WJAX at 1.5, WTLV at 1.3, WFOX at 0.7 and WJXX at 0.6. In viewers 25-54, WJXT scored a 0.9, WTLV a 0.5, WJAX a 0.4, WJXX a 0.3 and WFOX a 0.2. 

WJXT and WFOX are live from 10-11 p.m. 

Cope-Walton marks two years in the GM role in November. Formerly the news director at WRTV Indianapolis, she took over in Jacksonville when Bob Ellis got the GM job at Graham’s WDIV Detroit

“Our secret sauce is everyone’s ability to be really authentic,” she said. “That authenticity shows up in the storytelling, whether it’s a TV package, an OTT special, a digital article. It’s the authenticity that permeates this place that connects with viewers and audience.” 

WJXT is working through some major talent retirements. Longtime anchor Mary Baer and longtime meteorologist John Gaughan both retired May 31. Both began at WJXT way back in 1992. 

Anchor Joy Purdy has stepped in on Baer’s newscasts, and Richard Nunn was named chief meteorologist. 

Both Baer and Gaughan got what Cope-Walton called “a warm send-off” in the spring. “Collectively, we are super-happy they wrapped up their careers here,” she said. 

WTLV-WJXX’s “Buddy Check” campaign raises awareness of breast cancer.

WTLV-WJXX’s ‘Buddy Check’ campaign raises awareness of breast cancer.  (Image credit: WTLV-WJXX)

WTLV-WJXX goes with First Coast News branding. Community involvement is a cornerstone of the brand. First Coast News held its annual “Stuff the Bus” campaign July 22, which sees buses filled with school supplies for teachers and students who can use them. The initiative helped 57,000 students last year, said Tim Thomas, WTLV-WJXX president and general manager, and it looks like a higher number this year. 

Another community initiative, K9s For Warriors, finds service dogs for soldiers in need. “The community really, truly does support our veterans,” said Thomas. 

With that in mind, First Coast News produced the military special Voices of Bravery earlier this year. 

First Coast News Is on the Viewers’ Side

WTLV-WJXX First Coast News anchors

(Image credit: WTLV-WJXX)

WTLV-WJXX is “doubling down” on its On Your Side news branding, according to Tim Thomas, First Coast News president and general manager. He described the tagline as “a compassionate, helpful brand.” Stories are told in a manner that not only informs the viewer, but helps them make sense of the report and take action. 

“It gives us a different lens to look through,” Thomas said. “You can report the story, or you can tell it in a way that helps the viewer navigate the story.”

Anchor Anthony Austin gets calls and emails from viewers, who “Ask Anthony,” as the segments are known, for help in solving day-to-day dilemmas. One story saw First Coast News build a ramp for a disabled woman who had difficulty getting in and out of her house. Ask Anthony launched late in 2022 and the segments run Tuesdays and Thursdays in the 6 p.m. news. 

Thomas said the On Your Side approach helps First Coast News stand out in Jacksonville’s news battle. “As we tell stories,” he said, “we explain how we can help you, the viewer, or you, the user.”  — MM

The Tegna stations also battle breast cancer with Buddy Check, a partnership with a local hospital that provides mammography screenings from an equipped bus. 

“The station is very connected to the community,” said Thomas. 

WJAX-WFOX, which goes with Action News Jax branding, introduced the local Telemundo station last year. “There’s all kinds of great things going on there,” said Bob Longo, WJAX-WFOX VP and general manager. “The Hispanic market is growing, and we think it’s a smart move.”

The Telemundo station has Spanish-language news cut-ins, and Longo said management is considering a newscast launch for next year. 

For Action News Jax, a news revamp saw faster-paced newscasts debut in recent years. “Contemporary, fast-paced news and investigations are a big driver for us,” said Longo, who was news director at the stations before his promotion to GM late in 2017. 

WUJX has the 5 p.m. regional newscast Ola News Edicion Especial, which reruns at 11 p.m. It is an extension of parent Norsan’s weekly Spanish-language newspaper Ola News. “It airs in Jacksonville, Charlotte and Charleston,” said Denise Coleman, Norsan chief of staff and community affairs. “We have a couple of freelancers in Jacksonville.”

Action Jacksonville 

Jacksonville is a growing market. Construction cranes are all over town. Stations are hustling to pull in the new arrivals. 

WJAX-WFOX has signed on for three more years as the official station of the Jacksonville Jaguars. “They’ve got a great coach and a great quarterback, and we’re feeling good about that,” said Longo. 

Doug Pederson is the Jags coach and Trevor Lawrence the QB. 

First Coast News has relaunched its lifestyle show, First Coast Living, and added an anchor, with David Benfield joining Jordan Wilkerson on the program. “It’s got some energy,” said Thomas. 

Speaking of lifestyle shows, WJXT has River City Live on at 9:30 a.m. weekdays, and adds a half hour in the fall. The first 30 minutes will remain on WJXT, and the second 30 minutes will be on OTT platform News4JAX+. The extended run time allows River City Live to “be more authentic,” said Cope-Walton. 

Jana Angel and Rance Adams host. 

The Jacksonville market is located near the Georgia border, with the Atlantic Ocean nearby. 

A half-dozen Georgia counties are part of the DMA, which has the St. Johns River coursing through it. “It’s a beautiful area, with lots of outdoor activity,” Thomas said. “It’s a very welcoming community.”

Longo described Jacksonville as a year-round outdoor community. He spoke of breakfast on the beach, then heading downtown to TIAA Bank Field for a Jaguars game in the fall. “We got it all, in terms of living and working here,” he said. 

Being in Florida, Jacksonville is hot. Temperatures clocked in at 97 at deadline. 

Mayo and Military 

Major employers include insurance outfit Florida Blue, transportation company CSX and medical organization the Mayo Clinic, the latter with a “huge campus” in Jacksonville’s Beach Haven neighborhood, according to Longo. 

As Thomas suggested, the military has a strong presence in Jacksonville. Bases include Naval Air Station Jacksonville and Naval Station Mayport. 

Cope-Walton noted how having a little Georgia in the market gives Jacksonville a unique southern vibe one might not feel elsewhere in Florida. She also likes the “neighborhoods with their own texture and feel.”

With more people working remotely, those neighborhoods are even livelier. “People do a lot of living there,” said Cope-Walton. “They have a full life in those communities.” 

Michael Malone

Michael Malone, senior content producer at B+C/Multichannel News, covers network programming, including entertainment, news and sports on broadcast, cable and streaming; and local broadcast television. He hosts the podcasts Busted Pilot, about what’s new in television, and Series Business, a chat with the creator of a new program, and writes the column “The Watchman.” He joined B+C in 2005. His journalism has also appeared in The New York Times, The Philadelphia Inquirer, Playboy and New York magazine.