THE PRICE POINT

The Price Point | NewsNation Finds Itself At Early Crossroads

Nexstar’s nascent NewsNation cable network has been roiled with high-level departures and “plummeting morale amid dismal ratings,” as summarized by one media writer. It is certainly at a pivotal juncture, and whether it can deliver on the unique, apolitical content it promised will be key to its survival.

Hank Price

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.

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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.


Comments (6)

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Dennis Wharton says:

March 15, 2021 at 9:13 am

Always enjoy your commentary and insight into broadcasting, Hank Price. You’ve served our business well.

Marketing Coach says:

March 15, 2021 at 11:22 am

Hank, thanks for that product/content lesson which, as a marketer, is a great reminder that nothing kills an ill focused product faster than good marketing.

Your counsel to Nexstar is very valuable and it’s the only outside advice they need right now. They must learn to resist playing the ratings game. They need to define a “target customer” and dig deeply into what those folks need/want, and then deliver.

If you cannot keep great content people “in” the deal, it doesn’t matter why. It matters that Nexstar had the life blood they need to begin to build a following, and they let them go. That seperation instead of (I’m guessing) listening to their tenured counsel.

I hope they listen to Hank and invest the two or three years they need to make some sort of mark. It can take 10 years to move an established television station from #3 to #1 in news. That’s with truly enlightened, excellent management.

JamesV says:

March 15, 2021 at 12:10 pm

Thanks for the article Hank. However, I must question one of your points, at least to a certain extent. You say “cover both sides of every story until it hurts” and to do so repeatedly. First, often there is more than two sides to a story, so instead of “both,” “all” might be a more appropriate reference (or as many as practically feasible).

More fundamentally, however, not all sides of a story necessarily have equal merit. To not use a current partisan issue as an example, let’s take the “story” that the world is not flat. There remain some “flat earthers” somewhere. Should they receive comparable coverage? If there is, for example, scientific consensus about something, but there remain a relative handful of outliers who disagree about that consensus, how much coverage should the outliers receive vs. the consensus? If equal coverage of both/all sides is provided, that could easily mean that a less meritorious position is over-represented, given it more credence than it might deserve. Is that not a form of bias?

Some stories are more rooted in facts than others. There can be a multitude of opinions about what the facts might mean or what to do in light of those facts, but should coverage of “alternate facts” that aren’t actually true receive equal (or any) coverage?. It is undeniable that we have poverty in our society, but how much and what to do about it is a multifaceted issue for which there is a multitude of ideas. Some ideas are based on experience while others might be more speculative or experimental. Do all of them receive equal coverage?

Then there is the practical issue of time constraints for televised news. Few issues or stories lend themselves to comprehensive coverage in the typical short time periods allowed to any one story. Editorial decisions necessarily have to be made, which is where partisan or non-partisan bias (in political terms) can have a large impact. Ultimately, it is far easier to express a desire for non-partisan, straight down the middle coverage of a story, than it is to actually provide it, or to even define what it is.

Kathy Haley says:

March 15, 2021 at 4:26 pm

Thanks to Hank for adding The Voice of Reason to an over heated debate. TVNewsCheck readers know in their souls how long it takes to establish a new newscast and move the needle on ratings. Let’s also consider that Nexstar has made a bold move here, replacing entertainment programming with news programming on a well established cable network. Let’s also remember that Nexstar is attempting to program straight-ahead news – not opinion infotainment – as well as an interview – in primetime. All of this is hard. Let’s hope Nexstar holds to its mission and isn’t swayed by outsiders who may want to add biased commentary, biased story selection or other sorts of bias, to the programming.

weneedhelpnow says:

March 16, 2021 at 7:37 am

Do not criticize little Perry Sook..You’ll get your post removed!!!!

Bruce Wolf says:

March 16, 2021 at 9:26 am

I saw that Rob Feder on Twitter took exception to what he called the “faint praise” from Mr. Price. Actually, Mr. Price was much too generous. Rob Feder is the master of the half-truth. Ex: Darlene Hill, a black female newscaster, was let go by Ch. 32 and she hired a civil rights attorney. Rob reported that. A week or so later he reported that a civil rights group had demanded a meeting with Ch. 32 management. But then a couple of weeks later, he reported who the new news anchor at Ch. 32 would be and had merely boilerplate quotes from Ms. Hill and station management wishing each other well. But there was no mention at all of the civil rights claim. What happened to it? It disappeared. The Soviet News agency Tass or Pravda couldn’t have erased history any better. I could give you more examples, but I’m boring you already.
As for Carol Marin, what Mr. Price doesn’t mention is that she was a colossal failure at CBS in Chicago. I could tell that from day one when she stood herself outside Tribune Tower, where the WGN Radio studios were, to do a live shot about the airplane death of popular radio morning host Bob Collins. Carol must’ve thought “I’m here live! The other news anchors are sitting in their comfortable anchor chairs.” That’s all cosmetics, Carol. And you thought you were a woman of substance. The show also failed because Carol is imperious, and also because it’s just plain difficult to make viewers change habits. It was a nice try, Mr. Price.
FULL DISCLOSURE: I am an angry ex-sportscaster and talk show host in Chicago. True, I have an axe to grind. But then my whole tv and radio act was axe-grinding!!!!


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