WGN America’s ‘News Nation’ gets ready to make primetime history

“News Nation” (from left): meteorologist Albert Ramon, news anchors Joe Donlon and Marni Hughes, and breaking news anchor Rob Nelson

One week from tonight, television history will be made in Chicago.

Straight up at 7 p.m. Tuesday, September 1, viewers across the country will get their first look at “News Nation,” the three-hour primetime national newscast to air seven nights a week on the WGN America cable network.

Culminating months of construction and weeks of rehearsals at WGN headquarters on West Bradley Place, the $20 million startup by parent company Nexstar Media Group will come to fruition in the midst of a global pandemic and at the height of a presidential campaign.

It’s being backed by a $100 million advertising and promotional effort.

At a time when other news organizations are undergoing massive layoffs and cutbacks, “News Nation” created and filled more than 150 jobs. And at a time when national news is overwhelmed by political bias and opinionated talking heads, “News Nation” is being founded on a model of objectivity.

Sean Compton

The company’s initial working title for the undertaking was “Project Neutral,” according to Sean Compton, Chicago-based executive vice president of WGN America.

“The reason we called it ‘Project Neutral’ was because we’re so sick and tired of the polarization of news. News should not be polarizing,” Compton said in a behind-the-scenes video preview on the creation of the newscast.

“They’ve kind of abandoned news a long time ago, when you look at the other cable news channels. There’s a lot that happens in the middle of the country, and we’re going to be able to fill that void. It hasn’t been done in a long time. And it has not been done to this scale.”

Key to the effort is leveraging the newsgathering resources of Nexstar’s 5,400 journalists working in 110 local stations from coast to coast.

Originating from a state-of-the-art studio and newsroom built from scratch, “News Nation” will be fronted by news anchors Joe Donlon and Marni Hughes, breaking news anchor Rob Nelson and meteorologist Albert Ramon. Donlon spent the last two years as 5, 6, 9 and 10 p.m. news anchor at Nexstar’s WGN-Channel 9.

“We fit into an interesting space in primetime because most of that bandwidth is consumed by opinion and talk,” Dolon said in the video.

“I think we will get the benefit of a lot of hard work at the local level. All of these Nexstar stations . . . are working hard every day to create this interesting content. And what we’re doing is sort of observing from 30,000 feet all of this content across the country. . . . I want to look at this as sort of a local newscast for the nation.”

Jennifer Lyons

Overseeing the startup is Jennifer Lyons, vice president of news for WGN America and former news director of “Chicago’s Very Own” WGN. She and her top lieutenant, “News Nation” news director Sandy Pudar, are responsible for everything viewers will see — and every word they will hear.

Even before she accepted the promotion in January, Lyons said she was troubled by the way cable networks had become “so hyper-focused on politics” that they were overlooking other news out there.

“It became inherently clear as I would watch the cable news networks to try to find out what was going on, I couldn’t find out what was going on,” she said. “And that’s what led me to say there needs to be a national newscast — because there’s not enough information. It’s only centered on D.C. and politics.

“It’s so funny because when we set out to do this project, so many people were like: ‘How are you going to do that?’ It’s simple. This is what we learned in school. This is what journalism is supposed to be. And this is what local newsrooms do right now. They’re not telling people how to think. It’s the cable network model that we’re not going to do.”

The onset of the pandemic in March “brought everything to a screeching halt,” Lyons recalled. But construction quickly resumed, and Lyons and Pudar resorted to virtual meetings to hire nearly the entire staff. “We did Zoom call after Zoom call after Zoom call to try and find the right people. It’s really kind of amazing, I never thought we could do it,” she said.

Joe Donlon

As showtime approaches, Donlon and his colleagues know how much is riding on their efforts.

“Look, just by virtue of the time we’re on, we are going to be competing against some of the biggest names in television [and] some of the biggest networks,” Donlon said. “They have a big head start. But that’s not going to keep us from what we’re doing. I think there is a place for what we’re doing, and I’m not going to worry about what anyone else is doing. I’m going to worry about what we’re doing.

“I’ve heard people ask: ‘Is there room for you in this center lane?’ And I would argue there’s plenty of room because we’re really the only ones in it.

“The question is: Will people watch? They say this is what they want. We’re about to find out.”

Monday’s comment of the day: Jeff Borden: The endorsement I’m looking forward to is the Chicago Tribune’s. In 2016, it bravely backed libertarian Gary Johnson, who went on to earn an impressive 3 percent of the vote nationwide. Who will get the nod this time around?