When WGN America launches its prime time national cable newscast on Sept. 1, Chicago viewers may recognize a few familiar faces.
Most notably, Joe Donlon, co-anchor of the local WGN-Ch. 9 evening newscasts since 2018, will move to a bigger stage co-anchoring the fledgling “News Nation” broadcasts, the Chicago-based cable network announced Tuesday.
“I’m giving up one of the best local news gigs in the country, but not many people get this kind of an opportunity and there was no way I was going to turn it down,” Donlon said.
Donlon will be paired with Marni Hughes, a veteran Seattle-based TV news anchor, with a lot of Chicago talent behind the scenes.
Other Chicago veterans with prominent on-air roles include former WGN-TV reporters Tom Negovan, who will serve as a New York-based correspondent, and Nancy Loo, who will report from Los Angeles.
Competing with established cable news networks such as CNN and Fox, “News Nation” is seeking to carve out a niche with a mission of delivering “unbiased” straight news. The newscasts will broadcast nightly from 7 to 10 p.m. from studios being built at WGN’s facilities in Chicago’s North Center neighborhood.
“We’re going to tell you what happens, we’re not going to tell you what to think about it,” said Jennifer Lyons, 52, the longtime news director at WGN-TV in Chicago who is now overseeing the new national cable news broadcast.
Cable news has been must-see TV in recent weeks as efforts to emerge from the COVID-19 pandemic and fallout from the videotaped death of an African American man, George Floyd, at the hands of Minneapolis police have gripped viewers nationwide. Lyons said the need for information “brings to light” the importance of cable news.
However, Lyons said “News Nation” intends to shift the focus away from an increasingly partisan Washington D.C., and spend more time covering stories from the center of the country — both geographically and politically.
“There’s a lot of good things to tell about the country and there’s a lot of breaking news out there that goes uncovered, because the cable news stations are talking about what’s happening at the White House,” Lyons said.
Dallas-based Nexstar Media Group completed its $4.1 billion purchase of Chicago-based Tribune Media in September, creating the nation’s largest local TV station group and adding WGN America to its portfolio.
WGN America, which started as a superstation in the 1970s by uploading WGN’s local broadcast schedule to satellite, dropped Cubs baseball and Chicago news several years ago, converting to a full-fledged cable channel with original and syndicated programming.
The shift to a prime-time news network puts WGN America in a crowded but potentially lucrative field.
WGN America has hired more than 130 people to launch the news offering, including the anchors, meteorologist Albert Ramon from Austin, Texas, and a handful of network correspondents. All but 13 of the hires are based in Chicago, Nexstar spokesman Gary Weitman said.
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The most prominent hire, Donlon, 57, replaced retiring news anchor Mark Suppelsa at WGN-Ch. 9, and has been co-hosting the local evening newscasts with Micah Materre since April 2018. A native of Ferguson, Missouri, Donlon came to WGN after 21 years as the main anchor at KGW-TV in Portland, Oregon.
The cable newscast will also use the 5,400 journalists at Nexstar TV stations across the country to supply local reports.
“People trust local news,” Lyons said. “We’re using the local journalists to help us tell our national stories.”
Lyons said a number of the new hires began training Monday, with linguists and rhetoricians helping guide a fact-based, unbiased narrative that she said will be different than the opinion-based programming that dominates other cable news networks during prime time.
“Every word we choose, every image we choose, it all reflects the overall mission of what we’re doing,” Lyons said.