Abysmal ratings, bias accusations sink NewsNation

NewsNation in the fight of its short life after Lyons, key staffers depart  

Back when NewsNation was announced in January 2020, Nexstar – who just acquired Tribune Media and cable network WGN America, hoped to provide an alternative to what the cable “news” networks were offering – hard news without opinion. NewsNation launched here in Chicago on September 1, hiring anchors across the country to WGN-TV’s studios and bringing over well-respected WGN news exec Jennifer Lyons and WGN anchor Joe Donlon to work for this new venture. 

Six months later, NewsNation has turned into a debacle. If fact, it’s been a debacle more or less throughout its short run. 

The revamp of its daily schedule hasn’t increased viewership as ratings continue to decline. Moreover, an unflattering article in the New York Times Sunday reveals their destination for “unbiased news” isn’t all as it’s made out to be. 

And as Robert Feder first reported on Tuesday, Lyons announced her departure from NewsNation after just six months. 

According to Nielsen, the new prime-time lineup – consisting of two hours of the recently renamed NewsNation Prime and Ashleigh Banfield’s new talk show drew only 37,000 viewers March 1, down from the already low numbers generated from the previous week. 

Breaking out the numbers, Banfield – which airs at 9 p.m. Central – got off to an extremely slow start, drawing just 17,000 viewers – with only around 8,000 in the key adults 25-54 demo. In essence, Banfield’s key demo audience is roughly the size of far south suburban Crete. By Friday according to FTV Live, those 25-54 numbers fell to 2,000. That’s smaller than the entire population of south suburban Hometown. 

Even worse for NewsNation, the network has been hammered in the public relations department. For one, it was revealed by FTV Live last month the hiring of controversial former Fox News exec Bill Shine as a paid consultant – something they kept secret for months. Shine previously worked for President Trump and beforehand, was accused at Fox for sexual harassment and was fired in 2017. Several staffers have resigned, including news director Sandy Pudar who reportedly claimed interference in news making decisions from Shine and managing editor Richard Maginn. 

“NewsNation’s mission is to provide news based on facts, not opinions. Consistent with our commitment to deliver unbiased news to our viewers, we’ve hired a number of employees and consultants with diverse news production and reporting backgrounds from CNN, MSNBC, Fox News, Fox Business, CBS, NBC and ABC, amongst others”, a statement from NewsNation said after news of Shine’s hiring was made public. 

Viewers and critics alike panned Joe Donlon’s interview with President Trump last September.

While Nexstar was pushing this narrative of “unbiased news”, cracks started showing in the facade before it even launched. The day NewsNation launched, President Trump – known for deriding outlets as “fake news”, sent a tweet congratulating Nexstar networks division president Sean Compton on the new venture. It turned out he was friends with Trump and produced syndicated radio features for him while he was at Clear Channel (now iHeartMedia). Then came the critically panned Donlon interview with Trump on September 22, derided as a softball piece arranged by Compton. It failed to boost NewsNation, as only 25,000 viewers in the 25-54 demo tuned in.

Which brings us to The Donlon Report, a new show NewsNation launched as part of the revamped lineup in the prime access (6-7 p.m. Central) hour and up against CNBC’s The News With Shepard Smith, a straight hard news show launched 29 days after Newsnation did. The premiere episode was a complete snoozefest, with boring interviews containing hardly any substance. 

But that’s not all. According to the Times the next night, NewsNation booked Trump lawyer Jenna Ellis, who appears regularly in conservative media. She told lies about how “rigged” the recent Presidential election was with Donlon hardly pushing back on her claims. And the Times also reported on a February 3 appearance by another right-wing pundit blaming a rise in crime in big cities – a popular talking point in conservative media – on “the political liberal Democratic values that are being forced upon us.”

“Unbiased” and “non-neutral”, indeed. 

The analysis here is NewsNation has made one asinine move after another, and in the process, damaged its own brand due to managerial ineptness. It’s clear NewsNation has abandoned its position as a source for “unbiased reporting” – if it ever had that position at all.

Then there’s these head-scratching decisions. I’m trying to wrap my head on how Donlon – a middling anchor at best, got his own show – it’s like they picked his name out of a hat. Compton of course, is a holdover from the disastrous Sam Zell and Randy Michaels era at Tribune Co. as Compton had connections with Michaels from their days at Clear Channel. Failing up is a normality in media – look where former Fox exec Dana Walden is now –  chairman of entertainment at Disney – after she and fellow former Fox exec Gary Newman made dumb decision after dumb decision at the network. 

Jennifer Lyons resigned as VP of News at Newsnation Tuesday, bailing out of a sinking ship.

Meanwhile, Banfield is one name most news junkies plain forgot about. Does anyone even remember her? It’s like giving Brett Butler from Grace Under Fire another sitcom out of the blue after being off the air after 20 or so years. 

And there’s the name change to NewsNation from WGN America, throwing away a 42-year old brand (whose name varied over the years.) Why are they rebranding the network when it’s crystal clear they’re not ready yet? You tune in to NewsNation expecting news and here’s reruns of Tim Allen’s awful sitcom, paint-by-numbers procedural dramas, and religious Camp Meeting infomercials. Changing the name to NewsNation when news makes up only a third of the schedule is absolutely the dumbest decision I’ve ever seen.

Finally, there’s the matter of “bias”. When I typed NewsNation into Google, the first phrase to come up was “NewsNation bias”. As a news network positioning to be neutral, this is not good news. Viewers who see this and are looking to escape the partisan nonsense of other cable news networks won’t tune in. And those very few who did left. 

To sum this up, Nexstar has absolutely no idea what they’re doing. NewsNation wants to be a destination for non-partisan news, but at the same time wants to be what some describe as “Fox News-lite”. Nexstar chairman Perry Sook praised NewsNation in a talk with investors last month according to the Times, saying his pet project is doing what it is intended to do – providing “unbiased coverage”. The real question is with these low ratings, you’re wondering if investors are buying the BS Sook and Compton are selling. If I were a Nexstar investor, I would demand some answers. 

Plus, Nexstar isn’t exactly a reputable company. They showed their true colors last year, lying to viewers about Dish yanking their channels in a carriage dispute (only the owners of the channels can do so) – not to mention forcing providers (such as Hulu + Live TV) to carry NewsNation in any future carriage deal with Nexstar’s TV stations. If the viewer is lied to on why their Nexstar-owned local station disappeared from their cable system, why should he or she trust them with NewsNation? 

Can NewsNation be fixed? That’s debatable as in business, you don’t get a second chance to make a first impression. Compton and Sook have their work cut out for them as the vessel is sinking fast. And Lyons is the latest to bail out in a venture that seems to be going nowhere. 

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