NewsNation promised an ‘unbiased’ alternative to Fox, CNN. What went wrong?
In 2020, there was nothing hotter on TV than cable news.
A bruising presidential campaign and a historic pandemic brought in a record number of viewers for CNN, Fox News and MSNBC. Surveys of consumers showed that TV news was the second leading reason for keeping a pay-TV subscription, right behind live sports.
It seemed like fertile ground for the Irving, Texas-based Nexstar Media Group, the country’s largest owner of TV stations, including Los Angeles outlet KTLA. Using the resources of its local TV news operations, the company launched a prime-time newscast, “NewsNation Prime,” in September on its cable outlet WGN America — a nationally distributed network available in 75 million homes — with plans to expand it to a full-time news service. In March, WGN America changed its name to NewsNation, and currently has five hours of news programming a night, which is repeated for West Coast viewers.
NewsNation, with its main studios in Chicago, was touted as an “unbiased” alternative to Fox News, MSNBC and CNN, which fill their prime-time hours with opinion and commentary. Nexstar executives cited consumer research showing viewers were looking for nonpartisan news coverage.
But after eight months on the air, NewsNation has been plagued by minuscule ratings and internal strife over allegations of meddling in news coverage.
Nielsen data show the network averaged 27,000 viewers in prime time during the month of April, compared with 2.2 million viewers for Fox News, 1.6 million for MSNBC and 1 million for CNN. The number of nightly viewers in the 25-to-54 age group preferred by advertisers for news programming has been in the range of 9,000 viewers — nowhere near the 100,000 viewers in the demographic that Nexstar has targeted.
What’s more, over the last three months, several of NewsNation’s top editorial executives — including the newsroom’s leader, Jennifer Lyons, a veteran news director from Nexstar’s Chicago station, WGN — have exited.
Although executive shakeouts are common at startup operations, media industry veterans in Chicago believed the exodus at NewsNation was prompted by editorial interference from upper management and concerns that the channel would lean more to the political right and away from its stated mandate to be unbiased.
Lyons’ departure in March after overseeing a launch that required building a staff of more than 150 people was a blow to morale at the operation, according to one former Nexstar employee who spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of retaliation. Lyons was a long-admired figure in local Chicago media, and her stature helped attract on-air talent and other news professionals in the market to join NewsNation.
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“It was a huge undertaking for her,” said another former WGN colleague of Lyons who was not authorized to speak publicly. “For her to walk away is a big deal.”
Lyons did not respond to a request for comment.
Nexstar executives declined a request to discuss recent internal moves at NewsNation and issued a statement defending the station’s position.
“NewsNation’s mission is to provide news based on facts, not opinions,” the company said. “Consistent with our commitment to deliver unbiased news to our viewers, NewsNation has hired a number of employees and consultants with diverse news production and reporting backgrounds from a variety of news organizations such as CNN, MSNBC, Fox News, Fox Business, CBS, NBC and ABC. The staff also reflects a diversity of viewpoints, which they are encouraged to express.”
From the start, there were suspicions in the TV news industry that NewsNation might have a conservative slant. Sean Compton, the Nexstar executive overseeing the operation, is longtime friends with former President Trump and his leading TV cheerleader, Fox News host Sean Hannity. A former radio executive, Compton produced a syndicated Trump commentary program that aired during the height of Trump’s reality-TV fame on “The Apprentice.”
A flashpoint occurred on Sept. 22 when NewsNation anchor Joe Donlon had an exclusive sit-down interview with Trump at the White House, a rarity for TV journalists not from his favored outlet, Fox News. Compton helped secure the sit-down, which was disclosed to viewers.
There was outrage in the newsroom when the version of the interview that aired appeared to give a free pass to Trump, with softball questions and minimal pushback. Two Nexstar insiders not authorized to discuss the matter publicly said Donlon was not involved in the editing of the interview and was unhappy with the final product.
One question that ended up on the editing room floor was what Trump planned to do if he lost the election, a legitimate query as he was behind in the polls and ultimately defeated by President Biden in November. Many believed that Trump’s spreading of disinformation about the election helped fuel the violent insurrection at the U.S. Capitol.
Members of the NewsNation staff were also upset upon learning that Bill Shine, a former longtime top executive at conservative-leaning Fox News, was employed by Nexstar.
Shine was ousted from Fox News in May 2017, a month after the firing of the network’s most popular host, Bill O’Reilly. O’Reilly was forced out over sexual harassment allegations, as was Shine’s boss Roger Ailes in 2016. Shine was never accused of sexual harassment but was named in some of the lawsuits filed by former employees against the network, alleging that he failed to act on complaints against Ailes.
Shine was replaced by current Fox News Media Chief Executive Suzanne Scott. He went on to a brief stint as communications director for the Trump White House.
Shine has never been to NewsNation headquarters and is one of several consultants Nexstar uses for the channel. But his employment, which began in June and was not revealed to staff for six months, was disturbing, especially to some of the female staffers. One prominent TV news agent said his clients passed on pursuing jobs at NewsNation after Shine’s involvement became widely known.
Shine did not respond to a request for comment.
Nexstar executives declined a request to discuss Shine’s role or the recent internal moves at NewsNation.
The company has cited data from Ad Fontes Media, a Colorado-based nonpartisan organization that rates the political leanings of media outlets. The firm’s last “media bias chart,” issued in January, placed NewsNation squarely in the center of the political spectrum, while rating CNN as “skewing left,” Fox News as “hyper-partisan right” and MSNBC as “hyper-partisan left.”
But the ratings show that there is not a lot of demand for straight-ahead news in the evening. NewsNation isn’t alone in its struggles. Last year, CNBC hired former Fox News anchor Shepard Smith for a nightly just-the-facts presentation at 7 p.m. Eastern. The program pulled only 236,000 viewers in April, despite having a highly recognizable anchor.
Faced with the challenge of low viewership for its prime-time newscast, NewsNation has added talk shows to its lineup, a route taken by other cable news channels to get viewers to tune in when there is a lull in breaking stories.
Donlon, a well-liked local Chicago anchor at WGN before joining NewsNation, was assigned to “The Donlon Report,” an hourlong show that features talking heads debating hot button issues. The network also hired Ashleigh Banfield, a veteran of CNN and MSNBC, to host a nightly newsmaker interview program at 10 p.m. Eastern. Shine, who oversaw the highly successful prime-time opinion shows at Fox News, is involved in both programs.
Donlon does not have an ideological bent on air and presents conservative and liberal guests. But the program’s topics — such as NBA star LeBron James’ tweet about the Columbus, Ohio, police shooting of a Black teenage girl who was allegedly wielding a knife — often hit on conservative-media talking points. It has Nexstar insiders fearing that NewsNation will chase after Fox News, which has more than 40% of the cable news audience on most nights, as the company feels more pressure to attract viewers.
“There is no space for news headlines in prime time,” said one Nexstar news veteran. “The only thing there is space for is opinion-echo-chamber content, and there is more room for that on the right than there is on the left.”
Banfield’s program is less politically oriented and has featured many liberal guests, such as commentator Keith Olbermann and screenwriter-director Aaron Sorkin.
Nexstar Chairman Perry Sook told staff during a newsroom visit in March that talk programming was always part of the plan for NewsNation. He said NewsNation would launch a five-hour morning program later this year and remained committed to having a full lineup of news and talk programming by mid-2023. Employees say there is no sign of a retreat.
Despite the slow start, Sook has told Wall Street analysts that the company is not concerned about the financial performance of NewsNation and is in it for the long term.
Nexstar had a strong year financially, reporting free cash flow of $1.3 billion in 2020, a 100% increase over 2018; TV stations typically see a boon from political advertising in election years. Its stock price, which closed Tuesday at $153.97, down 2%, has more than doubled in the last 12 months.
Company executives have described NewsNation as “self-funding,” as the conversion to news is taking the cost of entertainment programming off its books. Advertisers are also willing to pay more to run commercials on live original programs than sitcoms and drama repeats, the company has said.
Nexstar executives believed they had to drastically change WGN America after it was acquired as part of its $4.1-billion deal for Tribune Broadcasting’s TV stations.
WGN America’s future as an outlet for old broadcast network hits such as “JAG” and “In the Heat of the Night” was considered bleak due to the growing number of viewers turning to streaming services for scripted entertainment programs. Under Tribune’s management, the channel attempted an expensive foray into original series programming several years ago, which was a financial disaster for the company.
Live programming is seen as the best route to making the channel more valuable to cable and satellite operators, and the company has said offering news and talk has helped it negotiate higher carriage fees and advertising rates. In recent months, Nexstar has added 8.5 million subscribers for NewsNation on over-the-top TV services such as Hulu, and 200,000 subscribers on traditional cable and satellite providers, offsetting losses due to cord-cutting.
But the company has been surprised by NewsNation’s inability to attract a sizable number of viewers. After using airtime on Nexstar’s TV stations across the country to promote the news service — a plan that simply hasn’t worked — the company has tapped Chicago ad agency Leo Burnett to develop a multimillion-dollar national campaign to promote the channel.
“Obviously, increasing awareness is Job One for us,” Sook told analysts in February.
The network is also hampered by WGN America’s long legacy as a general entertainment programmer. Its channel position on cable and satellite systems is typically in the triple digits and not adjacent to other news networks, making it hard for viewers to find. NewsNation still runs entertainment programming during the day, likely adding to consumer confusion.
After drawing on local station news operations to staff NewsNation for its launch, Sook has said Nexstar is looking to hire executives and talent with national network experience. Producers and writers with experience at Fox News, CNN and MSNBC came on board earlier this year to work on Donlon’s new program.
On April 19, the company announced the signing of Adrienne Bankert, a former national correspondent for ABC News. She is expected to be one of the anchors for a NewsNation morning program.
NewsNation has also added dedicated correspondents in Washington and Atlanta and hired Rich McHugh, the former NBC News producer who worked alongside Ronan Farrow. The duo reported on the sexual assault allegations against movie mogul Harvey Weinstein before Farrow took the story to the New Yorker. McHugh has done several lengthy investigations on sexual assault cases for NewsNation.
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