After weeks of rehearsals, Nexstar Media’s new national newscast on WGN America is just about ready to go.
The crew is making last-minute adjustments to some of the graphics and fine-tuning the way they’ll communicate with more than 100 Nexstar stations--to be referred to during the newscast as “News Nation Stations”--as they prepare for the Sept. 1 debut.
“Technically, everything’s working,” said Sean Compton, executive VP, at WGN America, which was acquired last year when Nexstar bought Tribune Broadcasting.
That’s a pretty big achievement considering the three-hour nightly newscast is starting from scratch and assembled talent and built its studios during a pandemic.
“It’s like they’re producing a newscast and a Broadway show because there’s so many graphics and so much going on,” added executive producer Jennifer Lyons. During one rehearsal, they covered the California wildfires. “We’ve got a Sacramento live shot and we’ve got a KTLA [Los Angeles] live shot. We’re making sure that we can orchestrate with the stations and put them into our newscast.”
A lot of planning went into the new facility, newsroom and sets. “There’s so much detail that even some of the smallest things could end up being a big deal if you forgot about it,” said Compton. Those details ranged from how many toilets they’ll need to a last-minute realization that a room in the blueprints was needed for makeup.
Because of COVID, the News Nation newsroom, built in the same building as WGN-TV, Chicago, looks a bit empty, with desks unoccupied in order for people to safely social distance. Eventually, in better times, those middle desks will be filled.
The pandemic might have made it difficult to put News Nation together, but on the other hand it will launch at a promising time. The virus has made producing original content difficult and it’s made viewers hungry for news they can trust, especially with an election coming. And at a time when general entertainment networks dependent on re-runs like WGN America are being hurt by cord cutting, adding live programming is something of a lifeline.
Given the way the TV business is moving, a primetime newscast was logical given Nexstar’s assets, Compton said.
“People tell me it was so genius to come up with this. It’s just common sense. You’ve got all these newsrooms, you’ve got satellite trucks, 5,400 reporters and journalists across the country. Choppers everywhere. News operations everywhere. It’s just a no brainer,” he said.
Distributors have reacted well to adding the newscast to the channel, Compton said. The newscast is also new sponsors to WGN America, particularly in the financial services and pharmaceutical categories.
“We have some very good key advertisers teed up for the launch who are excited by it. They want to make sure we’re not going to be polarizing because there are a lot of advertisers that try to avoid controversy. I think once they see us, they will be even more excited,” said Compton.
On Nexstar’s second-quarter earnings call on Aug. 5, CEO Perry Sook said News Nation has attracted blue-chip advertisers and they are paying rates on a cost-per-thousand viewers basis that are 50% greater than what standard programming on WGN America generates.
Sook added that the launch of News Nation will be promoted by Nexstar’s 196 television stations on a day and date basis. He put the value of that promotion at about $100 million. On top of that, Nexstar will have annualized spending of $20 million on advertising on other cable networks and syndicated radio. Social media will be employed to bring in younger viewers.
A big part of the mission for News Nation is to present both sides of the story. It’s basic journalism but something not seen much in primetime on the cable news channels.
“What Fox CNN and MSNBC do is brilliant. They’re doing a great job but they’re not doing news. They’re doing talk shows," Compton said.
“So much of the cable space is consumed by opinion and talk. But what we're doing isn't that unusual. It's journalism, without opinion,” said anchor Joe Donlon, who moved across the building from WGN’s local news to go national with WGN America.
While other cable news operations are in the right lane or the left lane, WGN America sees opportunities in the middle lane. “We're almost the only ones in it,” said Donlon “People say they want this. The question is will they watch and we're about to find out.”
Really being fair and balanced takes a lot of work.
During rehearsals, stories are being reviewed by rhetoricians to ensure scripts are not one sided. The stories are also being checked by consultants to make sure pictures and graphics are also in the center lane and not shading to the left or right.
Finding those people was tricky and Lyons would end up finding people in journalism departments.
“A lot of it is about diversity and making sure we’re letting everyone’s voices be heard, which is good. And then we have the political left and right,” Lyons said. “Every word counts.”
The News Nation producers also have to make sure that the content that comes in from stations also goes through the new filter, she added. “We've talked about the mission and so everyone is aware. It’s a heavy lift and so we've spent months with this team here working on it.”
Building a new team has advantages over trying to give a new mission to an established group.
Sometimes when people are set in their ways, “that can make news operations stale and stagnant,” said anchor and reporter Rudabeh Shahbazi, who’d been with WFOR-TV, Miami, and recently bought a coat to cope with Chicago winters.
Instead of fitting into a newsroom culture, all of the News Nation staffers are creating that culture as a group.
“I think to have new blood from all over the country and all different backgrounds and all different markets makes it really exciting,” Shahbazi said. “And we can all bring our strengths to contribute to this machinery. It’s going to be a well-oiled machine eventually but I think coming together, which is great,”
Most of the people pulled together for News Nation have worked in multiple markets all over the country.
“Our histories collectively is what will help the show go because Marnie's been in Minneapolis. Salt Lake City and Seattle and I've been in Portland and Tucson and Saint Saint Louis Corpus Christi, Texas and [breaking new anchor Rob Nelson] has been in New Orleans and New Jersey and Philly and New York.” Donlon said.
Those backgrounds help the team spot regionalisms that another national newscasts might not be aware of. Donlon recalls a story about a town in Texas called Westlaco that people were’t sure how to pronounce.
“I've done my time in Corpus Christi. So I knew that,” Donlon said. “Somebody else had a question and Rob knew that one because he was from New Jersey and Marni [Hughes, the co-anchor] knew another one because of where she’s been. I think that's going to help us connect with the audience as well.”
Anchor Marni Hughes said she grew up in Southern Michigan and her husband was from Fort Wayne, Ind. They’d returned to the Midwest when she heard about News Nation.
“I wanted to tell local stories and] represent local communities that are underrepresented on the national scale, Hughes said. “I've worked with just countless talented people and so now our job is to find those stories and to work with our Affiliates and to and to reduce those things for a national audience that has that appeal.”
In some ways three hour every night seems like a long newscast.
“I thought ‘how in the world. Are we going to fill this,’” said Donlon. “After being in these editorial meetings in the morning and you see how much really interesting good content is out there at these Nexstar stations when you cast that net nationwide and pull it back in you suddenly say, how are we going to fit all this in?”
With a premiere nearly at hand, thoughts are turning to how to start the first show.
Compton said there’s been some thought to introducing News Nation, explaining its mission and resources. There are some enterprise stories banked and even talk of a special guest for the first show.
“Nope. It's the news of the day,” said Lyons. “ We're going to put on a newscast, right? So that's what we're about. Of course we have special stories, enterprise stories, but it's the news of the day. It’s not about us.”
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