WGN America's NewsNation: Rediscovering Local Journalism on TV

By Nexstar InSites Archives
Cover image for  article: WGN America's NewsNation: Rediscovering Local Journalism on TV

Planning to launch this summer, WGN America's NewsNation will broadcast seven nights per week from Chicago. NewsNation plans to cultivate a tone of "to the point" reporting, delivered from the Heartland. In an era where the line between news and commentary has been all but erased entirely, NewsNation, as WGN's Vice President, News Jennifer Lyons (pictured at top) indicated to me, aims to serve those eager for a return to the proverbial "just the facts" in on-air reporting. Lyons, who spent decades in local news in the Midwest, will be guiding much of NewsNation's content approach. In addition to bringing some of the best features of local news reporting to a national primetime audience, Lyons also emphasized the need to appeal to the large segment of Americans, who are politically moderate, particularly at a time when cable news tends to indulge the political extremes. As Lyons put it, "We're news from the center, so we're not going to tell the story from any certain perspective. That's going to be what we make sure we do."

With a concept reminiscent of the Chicago Tribune's mission of being " committed to Midwestern values and concerns, and bring[ing] that sensibility to the public debate," NewsNation looks to distinguish itself from primetime news shows that primarily broadcast from coastal cities such as New York and Washington. In a post-2016 discourse that has increasingly worried about the effect of so many journalists operating from a handful of coastal cities, various commentators have emphasized the need to provide perspectives representative of the rest of the country. Chicago fits the bill in that respect. And, at the same time, broadcasting from Chicago — like broadcasting from New York — still enables producers to draw from a wide array of university professors, medical doctors, and scientists living in the area to share their thoughts and expert takes in-studio.

In addition to bringing the Midwest into focus, NewsNation plans to draw extensively from coverage provided by Nexstar Media Group's (WGN's parent company) 5,500 journalists dispersed throughout the country, across 110 newsrooms. As such, NewsNation's approach aims to bring something of a local news feel to a national audience. For Lyons, there is also the thought that local journalists are the most trusted journalists. As she told me, "All of our reporters live in the community where they work. So they're not dropping in and reporting on the story that they only know a little bit about or read about on the plane as they fly there." At a time when accounts of local newspapers shuttering throughout the country are far too frequent, perhaps some of this lost local journalism can be re-discovered on television.

This comes at an opportune time. Our political discourse today has departed drastically from former House Speaker Tip O'Neill's dictum that "All politics is local" — to the point now that nearly the precise opposite has come to pass. Today, many political questions have been nationalized and, thus, have become merged with partisan politics. News coverage, which is often linked inextricably with politics, has followed a similar trajectory. So, NewsNation aims to take the sleuthing of thousands of local journalists throughout the country and make that the backbone of a primetime news show. Seeking to reverse the trend of downplaying the particular and local in favor of the general and the national, NewsNation hopes to re-emphasize close-to-home reporting and ideally, in turn, leave some of the partisanship and grandstanding behind.

NewsNation's concept, in practice, will look to feature the best stories from newsrooms across the country and bring them to primetime. There will be a mix of feel-good stories, stories that — though happening in just one city — might serve as a microcosm for America at-large, as well as those bits of news that are universal in their resonance and appeal. And, like is true in much of the local news world, NewsNation will give significant airtime to weather-related stories. All the while, NewsNation — unlike many of its primetime competitors — will feature a near-identical format on weekends as weekdays.

Given the ongoing Coronavirus crisis, I asked Lyons how she anticipates NewsNation would approach crises such as that of this pandemic. Indeed, many news networks experienced ratings bumps during the month of March from CNN's 193% to Fox News' 66%. Local news broadcasts are also seeing ratings move higher; across Nexstar's local station group, household ratings for afternoon news were up 25% and late-evening news ratings were up 27% from the beginning of March to the end of the month. At WTNH-TV, Nexstar's New Haven television station, late evening news ratings were up an incredible 60% during March.

Still, recent polling data from Kekst CNC indicated that the network news industry has seen a large decline in public esteem during (and presumably as a result of) the pandemic. (According to Kekst CNC, public confidence in the media has fallen 21% in the United Kingdom and 14% in the United States.) Lyons indicated that NewsNation's approach to covering crises such as that of the Coronavirus would be to "be the local journalist bringing you the national story...and that — in and of itself — will add the credibility that others might not be able to hold onto. At the local level, we're not telling people how to think." For Lyons, much of the news media space is now a world away from the basics of reporting taught in journalism schools throughout the country: Provide the facts of the story, not your opinion.

With political polarization and partisanship continuing to overwhelm our national discourse, this has also seeped into news reporting, with fewer than half of Americans indicating their belief that the news media is succeeding at reporting "political issues fairly." Although to seek to isolate a single variable in explaining public frustration with news reporting, it would not be unreasonable to expect that partisanship in reporting — combined with sensationalism — shoulders much of the blame. It is for this reason, surely, that a number of emerging news projects are branding themselves as an alternative to the politicized and the overdramatized—and why NewsNation has chosen the course that it has.

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