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A cable alternative to CNN? WGN America prepares for national newscast in a crowded market

Marni Hughes will be co-anchor of WGN America's "News Nation."
(Nexstar Media Group)

Many viewers across the country won’t be familiar with Joe Donlon, Marni Hughes and Rob Nelson, the lead anchor team of cable network WGN America’s new national newscast “News Nation” set to debut Sept. 1.

But WGN America Executive Vice President Sean Compton says that the trio’s lack of a national profile is part of the strategy for the three-hour program that aims to be a down-the-middle alternative to the opinion-driven shows airing on cable news.

“They have no preconceived impressions,” Compton said by phone Monday. “We just hired local journalists who have not been at opinionated networks because let’s face it, the big three news channels are all opinionated — two on the left (MSNBC and CNN), one on the right (Fox News). We want them to come from local stations which tend to report facts and let you come to your own opinion.”

“News Nation” is a gamble by WGN America and its parent company Dallas-based Nexstar Media Group that there is an appetite for politically neutral news on cable. The program that will air from 8 to 11 p.m. Eastern counters the prevailing view of what drives audiences to cable news channels in the evening.

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Fox News, CNN and MSNBC have seen their audiences surge in recent years as viewers have been drawn to the strident supporters and virulent opponents of President Trump’s bare-knuckle style of politics in the White House.

Compton said his company has done extensive research that shows a large audience segment is seeking a news service without a political bent.

But Andrew Heyward, a former TV news executive and senior research professor at the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism at Arizona State University, said “News Nation” will face a difficult test against the viewing habits that have become entrenched in recent years. Those now include on-demand video streaming of entertainment shows and well-established cable news personalities that are a major part of the country’s public discourse.

“They are venturing into uncharted territory,” he said. “I always welcome new news programming, but I’m not sure being non-partisan is going to be a sufficient driver of audience with all the other options out there.”

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While “News Nation” will be scheduled for three hours a night, including weekends, the program will have extended coverage beyond those hours when warranted.

“Conceivably we could have gone wall-to-wall with coverage of the riots over the weekend,” Compton said, citing the uprisings that occurred across the country in response to George Floyd, who died while being arrested by Minneapolis police last seek. Some of the video for the coverage seen on cable news came from Nexstar’s stations in Los Angeles and Chicago.

“News Nation” will provide live news on its website around the clock outside of its TV airing.

“News Nation” will broadcast out of Chicago in the same location used by Nexstar’s local TV station WGN. The program will draw on the 5,400 journalists working in Nexstar’s local TV stations across the country, including KTLA in Los Angeles.

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Nextar took over ownership of WGN America — a cable network available in 75 million households — when it completed its acquisition of Tribune Media in 2019. The channel will continue to provide entertainment program through the rest of the day.

While the “News Nation” anchors come from local stations, they do have national and international reporting experience. Donlon, co-anchor of Chicago station WGN’s evening newscast, has reported from the Middle East and covered national political conventions.

"News Nation" co-anchor Joe Donlon.
(Craig Mitchelldyer)

Hughes joins “News Nation” from Fox-owned KCPQ in Seattle while Nelson, who will specialize in breaking news, last worked at WABC in New York. The program’s meteorologist Albert Ramon joins from KVUE in Austin, TX.

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The program’s weekend anchors are Rudabeh Shahbazi, who joins from the CBS-owned Miami station WFOR, Aaron Nolan, an anchor at Nexstar’s Little Rock station and Nichole Berlie from Hearst Television’s WCVB in Boston. Gerard Jebaily, formerly of KSHB in Kansas City, will be the weekend meteorologist.


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