The Price Point | NewsNation Finds Itself At Early Crossroads
As an alumnus of Chicago television, I can say with some certainty there is nothing the town likes better than inside baseball. In most cities, no one cares who runs the local stations, where news directors last worked or the minute details of anchor contracts, but not Chicago. Chicago is the king of media towns.
During my Chicago days, there were a half-dozen columnists writing about television. I had to check each one every morning to find out what I had done the day before. And I wasn’t alone. Every other GM was in the same boat. When news director Pat Costello and I decided to create a different kind of newscast with legendary anchor Carol Marin back in 2000, it was literally front page news.
All of this is to say the current angst at NewsNation is a story made for Chicago. It has everything the town loves: a media mogul trying to create something new, resignations by high-level employees, outside consultants (always distrusted, if not hated) and, of course, the ratings angle. Even The New York Times has weighed in with a hit piece throwing gasoline on the fire.
If there is one thing I’ve learned from past controversies, it is that no one knows the full story except those involved. Even then, different people have different perspectives. Rather than speculating, let’s talk about what we actually do know.
Upon acquiring WGN, Nexstar’s Perry Sook saw an opportunity to create a new national news voice that would eventually compete with the cable news networks. He has consistently said he wants that voice to be non-biased, right down the middle. Sook is known for frankness and straight talk, so we must take him at his word.
We also know that Jennifer Lyons, a respected news executive, resigned her VP/news position last week. This came after News Director Sandy Pudar resigned several days earlier. To their credit, neither Lyons nor Pudar have publicly commented, but executives do not leave their jobs without a good reason. That reason may be related to the hiring of former Trump executive Bill Shine as a consultant.
According to columnist/blogger Rob Feder, who usually gets his facts right, NewsNation has “plummeting morale amid dismal ratings.” Sounds logical to me.
So, what to make of all this? Let’s start with the ratings. Launching a new news product on a platform not known for news is a long-term proposition at best. No one should expect significant ratings anytime soon. Remember this Saturday Night Live running bit: “This just in: No one watches MSNBC.” Will NewsNation succeed? We will have some idea in a couple of years.
The bigger question, of course, is about NewsNation’s content. The polarization of American media has created an opening for a national news organization that is truly unbiased. If NewsNation is to become that organization, then there is work to be done.
First, remove anything and anyone who appears to be influencing content. Employing on-air talent and consultants representing both sides will not work. Viewers are sick of arguing. Put those people in news stories, not on the desk. Viewers want clarity and straightforwardness, not artificial drama.
Next, cover both sides of every story until it hurts, then do the same thing over and over and over again.
Third, do this with determination and single mindedness over a long period of time.
Brands are not built on marketing, sets, graphics or even talent. Those things matter, but they are not the keys to success. The key is unique content. In this case, the unique content would be a willingness to tell both sides of the story in depth with as little bias as possible. Any deviation from that promise courts disaster because if the promise is not real, the product will fail.
NewsNation is at a crossroads. What the press thinks or what I think does not matter. What viewers see over time will determine success or failure. Let’s hope NewsNation does what it takes to succeed.
Hank Price is a media consultant and leadership coach. He is the author of Leading Local Television, a guide to leadership for television general managers, as well as those who aspire to top leadership. Price spent 30 years managing TV stations for Hearst, CBS and Gannett, including WBBM Chicago and KARE Minneapolis, as well as three other stations. Earlier, he was a consultant for Frank N. Magid Associates. Price also served as senior director of Northwestern University’s Media Management Center and is currently director of leadership development for the School of Journalism and New Media at Ole Miss. He is the author of two other books.