Broadcast Exchange: Building NewsNation and Nexstar’s continued investment in local

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This spring, Nexstar Media Group went all-in on NewsNation, its national newscast first launched in September 2020, through a rebranding of cable network WGN America and retooling of its schedule.

In this week’s Broadcast Exchange, we speak with Blake Russell, EVP, Station Operations and Content Development, about the network, its broadcast technology stack and the metrics he’s watching for success. We dive into building a newsroom and Nexstar’s custom content sharing tool along with modernizing the now-former Tribune outlets. 

Plus, we look at Nexstar’s continued investment in local journalism and how its 200 plus stations support and integrate with NewsNation. 

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Transcript

The below transcript appears in an unedited format.

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Dak
Welcome to the Broadcast Exchange from NewscastStudio. I’m your host, Dak Dillon. On the exchange we talk with those leading the future of broadcast technology design and content. This week, I’m joined by Blake Russell, executive vice president of station operations and content development in Nexstar Media Group. Last fall working to the pandemic, Nexstar launched a new national newscast and is now further committing to news programming with its rebranding of WGN America into NewsNation. In our conversation, we look back at the creation of NewsNation, the technology powering it and connecting it with Nexstar’s local stations and the road ahead.

Dak
We also discussed Nextar’s continued investment in its portfolio and the current local news landscape. It’s an exciting time for Nexstar Media Group between launching a new news program, and then now turning a whole network into a news network. It’s not every day a new news network is born. And it’s something that there’s been a lot of ink spilled by some other publications and media observers the past few weeks, only what? 14 or 15 days into the network, which is a bit crazy. So talk a little bit about where things stand right now for NewsNation and how you’re monitoring it as it’s progressing.

Blake Russell
You can’t think that you’re going to build something like this and that it’s going to be a success in five minutes. You have to get into this to understand that this is going to be a road that we all have to travel and we’re going to learn a lot along the way. We’ve learned a lot. We continue to learn more and more every day. I can tell you that as I sit here in Chicago right now, there are a lot of really special people up on the second floor that make up our NewsNation team. We built this product and for the most part smack dab in the middle of a pandemic. I think that we’ve had a lot of things that are sort of… We’ve had a lot of things working with us, and I think we’ve had a lot of things working against us.

Blake Russell
And I think in the working against us category, I think that a lot of people can say that this is a crowded field. I think that a lot of people really… There’s a lot of argument out there these days, are you left or are you right? Because it’s really, really hard to stay right down the middle. And our goal is, is that our team is really going to let you think for yourself. We may have guests on that think hard right or hard left or right down the middle. And we’ll try to balance that out between an opinion on the left or an opinion on the right. Sometimes you can’t necessarily have the opposing, I’ll use the term opposing opinion on all the time. But the one thing that you’re not going to see from us is, is that our talent is going to stay down the middle, and a lot of talent that’s out there, you pretty much…

Blake Russell
You know where they stand. And that’s not necessarily the way that it used to be, and so we believe that from our perspective with NewsNation that our talent needs to be able to stay right in the middle, and we’re going to let you decide. This is a newscast that we started off with three hours. We just launched an additional two hours. We’re on now from what would be 500 PM to 1000 PM. We added the [inaudible 000404] report, we added Banfield. And boy, I can tell you from the standpoint of how we put those shows together, it’s interesting from a technology perspective how we ended up doing that, even going back many months to, I think it was January the 8th of 2020 when we met here in Chicago, and I brought in about 45 different people who were going to be principals from the vendor community, and they were going to help us build this thing. And we launched on September the 1st. And when you think about that, when you think about launching something like that, prime time newscast, and you put all of that together that quickly, it’s quite a feat.

Blake Russell
And I like to say that a lot of other news outlets like CNN, CNN was built from the inside out, they had to build their core infrastructure and then expand from that. Whereas NewsNation was kind of built from the outside in. You had a lot of resources, a lot of infrastructure with many, many newsrooms across the United States. And you had whether it’s 10 or 12 helicopters and 100 satellite trucks, and 350 microwave trucks, and Gosh knows how many TVU Dejero and LiveU packs from a bonded cellular perspective already at your disposal.

Blake Russell
So you kind of have that on the outside, and then you build this interior piece that communicates very, very well with that outside mechanism. And for the most part, it really hasn’t been done before. And so we look forward to take in the wins and we look forward to recognizing the bumps in the road, but we’re committed. And this is where we’re at, and this is something that I’m sure that when Ted Turner stood on the podium and he was launching CNN that you didn’t know what it would be a year from then, or two years or three years. And we’ll look at this thing in three years and hopefully we’ll be able to say the same thing, but we’re on the beginning of something that I really consider to be a really unique and really special.

Dak
Now in terms of metrics, you and I both know that Nielsen is one metric and that at the end of the day, it probably isn’t even the right metric anymore for a lot of this industry. What metrics are you as someone from that content side really watching to see what are those wins?

Blake Russell
Part of the challenge I think with NewsNation is that we launched it on top of WGN America. WGN America has had pretty good penetration from the MVPD or the… From a distribution standpoint, is what I’m trying to say. But since we bought these Tribune stations and WGN America was a part of that, we have actively worked to get the network into more homes than it was when we showed up on the scene. And that’s where the value is. And I think that if you get in there and you have an opportunity to reach them, that’s where a lot of it is, but make no mistake about it. A lot of people knew what WGN America was. A lot of people such as myself. We grew up, we [inaudible 000754] channel nine. It was Cubs baseball on channel nine. You would see a 20-minute forecast from Tom down the hall. Just a legacy, whether professional and some of us crazy guys who would watch Tom Skilling would think, “Man, that’s just the… That’s the tip of the iceberg. How cool is that guy?” And so a lot of people still remember WGN as WGN Channel Nine.

Blake Russell
And so the recall there, I think was pretty substantial, but there’s a lot of screens these days and people have got these things and people have got everything else that they have. And WGN America was renamed years ago, and they tried to go for original programming and spent a lot of money on that. And I think it was… People just weren’t there, and when you try to say, “Hey, NewsNation and WGN America, it becomes a… Well, if you’re going to have news on, excuse me, WGN America, then that’s sort of confusing. And it was really one of the reasons why…

Blake Russell
Look, we’re growing this thing, we’re expanding this thing. And we look forward to to doing some more hours of the day, it’ll take us a while to continue to populate this, but overall, every move that we’re making gives us greater opportunity for people to find us. And we’ll come out with a pretty substantial marketing… When I say internal and external. Internal on our stations and external on all of the other media that has reachability out there in the next couple of months to try to expand the awareness of the network and go from there. So we’re just taking it in baby steps and that’s really a way to answer your question. People have got to find us.

Dak
When you look then to build out the rest of that schedule and to add more content, are you looking more towards kind of the newsreel approach where you’re just going to have anchors doing stories, or are you looking for more branded hours, or are you looking more in the documentary style?

Blake Russell
Well, look, I think we added this a feature of the day with a [inaudible 001042] and then it was built on the premise of a Larry King live with Banfield to be able to bring a guest in and have that one-to-one discussion. And so when I say the term, there’re some talkers out there, there’re some… What we do next, I think it’ll be a combination, anything and everything that you just said. The truth of the matter is, is that, what we’re not going to do, we’re not going to sit here and run lower thirds and run packages and OTSs and full screens, and try to be just news, news, news, 24/7.

Dak
Where everything is breaking news.

Blake Russell
Yeah. Because needless to say, without the Fox news, wong, everything is breaking news at this point. But the truth is, is that it’s like any other network. You’ve got to have shows that, that people tune in for and shows that people tune out for. Some people will like some and some not the others, but if you had the same thing all the time, then you certainly don’t have anything unique. And I think that where we stand at this point is just trying to come up with that right balance of programming this thing the right way.

Dak
Part of that programming is probably going to be relying on your nearly 200 local stations in the next portfolio. Part of this move and this integration was the updates at the Tribune and kind of making that all together in sync. Can you talk a little bit about that process, how you brought those stations fully into Nexstar and then maybe where this is all going to lead to from that side of things?

Blake Russell
Over the years we had small ownership groups that we would acquire. We had the ones who’s out there, and then you get into… We acquired media general, sold off some of those properties, we acquired Tribune, we did the same thing we had to divest some of those. We’ve been very actively building these stations in these new acquisitions with technology that we know will take us a whole lot farther. It’s no big secret that all of the Tribune stations had probably 12 or 13 pieces of individual software platforms called Hankware that we had to move away from, which we did. And especially on the news side, we’re still in the process of migrating away from that on the master control side.

Blake Russell
But what we ended up doing was we said, “Listen, everybody’s heard of the whole EMPS, centralized server, buddy communicates. I mean, it’s good technology, but it’s not new technology. And so being able to have stations communicate with one another is not anything new, but what is new is we sat down and we said okay, “We’re tired of suggesting to vendors that they need to build this bridge. This glue that we felt like was a part of the newsroom computer system, it needed to be part of the newsroom computer system.” And at the end of the day, it didn’t necessarily… It wasn’t necessarily the bolt onto the newsroom computer system. It was through a series of integrations and APIs and all this other kind of thing.

Blake Russell
We were able to to build in bonded cell providers and RCS providers because we do have Inews and we do have EMPS. We do have Avid and we do have BidCentral. And so we met with these groups and we said, “Okay, we’re going to create this centralized platform to where it’s sort of a communication tool that anybody can log on and figure out what’s going on. Or if they want to create a custom tab to be able to to track specific things Superbowl reports or things that we might be… Special projects and things like that, that we might be working on. So I sort of refer to it as the backbone of news nation. News nation was built on sort of a communication platform of Microsoft Teams. There’s not a telephone at any of the desks upstairs. You jump on teams, you get on your headset and you do what you want to do. They have a 40 inch curved monitors upstairs that… And that was by design so that I didn’t put two monitors side-by-side and you have this big black line going between them.

Blake Russell
And all of our in-house cable distribution is all IP at this point. So if you want to… If somebody needed to watch something on any channel that we have, that we internally distributed, you can literally just pull that up in front of you on your monitor and you can put your headsets on and you can listen. And at the same time, any one of the desks upstairs, you can full craft at it from. So I think that the backbone is as it is, Is a product that we call Daybook. And Daybook, it’s very, very tightly integrated with a lot of those platforms that I mentioned to you, as well as a product that we’ve used for years. As a matter of fact, I think we may have been one of the very first to use the company when they launched many, many years ago. They’re out of Austin, Texas, which is the product called [inaudible 001639]. And [inaudible 001640] is a big, big internal resource for us and how we distribute content, not only from station to station, but also from field into station or from field into the greater good.

Blake Russell
And the other thing that Daybook also does is that if for any reason somebody comes in and if there’s a newsroom out there that for whatever reason somebody is… They’ve left or nobody’s in the newsroom or whatever else Daybook allows you to go under the hood and you don’t have to rely on anybody to be there. You can go into the NRCS, you can go into BidCentral, you can go where you want to go and get what you need to get. That’s from scripts to video, and then just slightly push that out via a lot of coups hub platform, which has also tightly integrated into what we’re doing. So listen, it’s a very unique platform, and not only did we build a huge studio, huge newsroom with a second floor studio upstairs. All of the gear, and control room and that Daybook platform and train and rehearse and integrate.

Blake Russell
We did all of that during the pandemic. As a matter of fact, the Ross platform Tessera, which helps… It’s one of these larger multi-screen display platforms studio three here in Chicago that we use for NewsNation is the largest installation of Ross Tessera to date. And again, they put a lot of these things in stadiums and everything else. But today we have the largest installation of it and we built it to be something unique, and I think that how our walls move and the presentation, it is unique and we’ll continue to… I would tell you that that’s kind of where we are. We want to continue to be unique in the product that we put out there. And I think every single day we’re trying to distinguish ourselves from everybody else.

Dak
Other synergies that you’re looking for between the local stations and NewsNation, such as on the packages and things like that?

Blake Russell
Oh yeah, sure. There’s a lot of communication that happens on a day-to-day basis. For instance, rather than sending maybe a NewsNation correspondent from the West Coast into New Mexico to talk about the governor reopening New Mexico, we’ll use an anchor or reporter from our station in Albuquerque, and they’ll dispatch somebody out there and you’ll see a lot of the local talent on NewsNation.

Dak
And I assume having the national platform now has helped as well at the local station on recruitment, being able to have those opportunities for upward mobility.

Blake Russell
I think recruitment has been kind of interesting over the last year. The people who are looking for jobs and the people who will move and the people who won’t, and all of that kind of thing. But I think as we sort of… Hopefully, we’re going to be coming out of this thing to where we socially… The term socially distancing will be able to be something that we can look at it in the rear view mirror, but we do think that it’s a positive because anybody who is out there who would be able to be seen on a national scale, I think is a… I think that’s interesting. I think it’s a great recruitment tool and a lot of people have have told us that they see that and they value that, and there is a lot of value in that, because again, as NewsNation continues to grow and mature and to kind of find its way and to find its audience, having the brightest and the best as far as our our talent goes, it’s very, very important.

Dak
What’s the one piece of technology besides Daybook, I would assume, that you couldn’t live without for NewsNation?

Blake Russell
Oh, wow.

Dak
And don’t say the helicopters, that’s the easy thing to say.

Blake Russell
Helicopters are great but we have drones as well. You can’t fly necessarily a drone where you can fly a helicopter, but look I don’t know. The right answer is the people because it is impossible for me to tell you, to express to you the, the gratitude that I have for the people who have built this. You just have to have special people that are involved and who absolutely love this business. And so, no, I think that technology, you somehow figure out a way. If something blew up in the next five minutes, we figured out how to recover, but people would be my primary answer.

Dak
So then shifting gears back to the local station portfolio. As you look at 2021, we are now full steam ahead. The economy seems to be starting to start chugging along a little bit. People are starting to think about investments. Where do you stand on capital expenditures this year and stationed improvement?

Blake Russell
We didn’t slow down last year, we’re not slowing down this year. We are in the process, we’ve got a couple of major builds going on and those will… There’ll be some press about those in the coming months. And anytime you even have a one major build going on, it’s a major deal. We actually have two major builds going on in addition to a lot of stuff that we’re doing here in Chicago with NewsNation. incidental into that we’ve got probably… Man, I think I lost track. Maybe 14 or 15 new sets going in, new lights going in, as well. We’re probably doing another set every three to three and a half weeks. We’re switching out studio cameras and we’re making those capital improvements where where they need to be made.

Blake Russell
Look, we believe that it’s not necessarily about having the coolest toy anymore. It’s really about what you do with it. And trying to kind of cut through all of the cool widgets out there to figure out is this something that we can support longterm? As opposed to, I made the comment the other day, it’s like a toy that you get at Christmas, 61 days later, including the day of Christmas, you put it aside because it’s not cool anymore. So I think that any investment that we make is… We try to look at it as making the right investment. I think that moving away from fluorescent lights and studios, it is a multi-year project, and it’s one of those that I really don’t think that there’s ever going to be an intuit, because I think those lights just keep multiplying themselves out there. It’s those types of things anywhere from…

Blake Russell
We’re doing a new transmitter project here in Chicago. A couple million bucks for that. But it’s not something that we just say, “Hey, send in your stuff and you’ll get X thousand dollars. And however far down on the page that we get, and when we total X thousand dollars, that’s what you get.” We really scrutinize every single line item that’s sent in and try to figure out is there… Have we got equipment that is in the life? If it dies, do we have a problem? Are we buying something that is kind of that cool toy, if you will? We bought some augmented reality stuff from the weather company for WREG in Memphis Powerhouse Television Station. We have done so much there.

Blake Russell
And as a matter of fact, I should have said two and a half building projects because we started that one last year. It continues. We built a brand new studio for those guys, brand new control room, brand new newsroom, hopefully should be turned over to the local folks at the end of April to start integrating, but just a wonderful CBS television station in Memphis. And they needed it, and so we went in and we’re trying to make the right investments where the investments are needed. And where we create an excellent opportunity for, you mentioned recruitment earlier, where we invest in that local property. And when people come in for job interviews, they can say, “Hey, this is a place that I really want to work.”

Dak
What do you think it says about the industry and your company specifically that Nexstar is investing so much in local news when other large ownership groups are trying to cost optimize and synergize as much as possible, and basically lowest common denominator?

Blake Russell
Local is what brought us. I put so much credit over to our leadership team on the corporate side. And obviously to the gentleman who started the company, my direct boss Perry Sook, who was just a visionary and to where we are today. And I think that if we ever try to discount the value of local, there’s then probably the wrong person is counting the beans, if you will, because people are going to see right through that. And you always have to have value, and you have to have recall to anybody that’s living local, if you will. So I think that the continued investment not only just from a capital perspective, but from what we’re doing. When you think about in the state of Tennessee, we’ve got four markets out of a… Well, Memphis Jackson, Knoxville, Nashville, and Tri-Cities, that’s really five.

Blake Russell
So what we’ll almost call that five out of a state that really has six. We don’t have a presence in Knoxville. I’m sorry, in Chattanooga at this point. But when you think about what can happen with a footprint like that and how you can have State Capitol News and how you can have really regional news that can be shared across those television stations, it’s really something special. And that’s where we started a long time ago, figuring out what can be done regionally to be able to offer more content and to make yourself more valuable, not only locally, but also regionally.

Blake Russell
So local news is also regional news because what might happen in Nashville at the State Capitol affects the people over in Memphis. And then you slide just slightly west of the Mississippi River and you have [inaudible 003003] that really covers a wide swath, right in the middle of Arkansas and Little rock. And they almost touch one another with the signals over there. So West Memphis, Arkansas, Memphis, Tennessee, there’s just a lot of things that people in that Memphis area are also concerned with what is going on with the State Capitol in Arkansas. So the opportunity to be able to realize that and to maximize on that, and not only to mention just the presence that we’ve established in our Nation’s Capitol in Washington DC, what that bureau is, is just second to none at this point.

Dak
It’s interesting to look at how much time on a local newscast is spent on national stories when there’s so many interesting regional stories to tell outside of the local market. And as newspapers continue to disappear and go… Disappear, it’s interesting that that void of regional news that is created and how local stations could maybe fill that. Going back a second, the one thing I did want to asked about in terms of a lot of the consolidation we’ve seen, or the cost cutting we’ve seen at local news has been driven by investment capital and some pressure from the stock market. Do you all have any concerns about that side of the business?

Blake Russell
Always. We’re a publicly traded company. The one thing that we’re very proud about is that there were staff reductions that were taken in a lot of companies last year. We didn’t, we were able to… And that’s by great management leadership. That’s it. And so we’re still very, very proud of that even to this date, we haven’t cut any staff, which is something that… And again, it’s a Testament to the leadership that we have. Yeah, we’re always concerned with that, but as long as our story is our story, and our numbers are where they need to be, I think that those individuals that you’re speaking of, I think that they’ll see us very favorably.

Dak
So to wrap up, what are the two or three trends you’re going to be watching for this year?

Blake Russell
I wonder, as I mentioned earlier about social distancing being part of our distant past, hopefully, and we all look forward to that day, will zoom be something that is as widely accepted in the living room as it is now? It sure is easy to be able to schedule a guest and they just hit a little button here and all of a sudden… Like you and I are doing right now. It really forced that technology. And by the way, it’s amazing technology. It’s fantastic. I still think it will have a place, but I also think that it has an acceptance factor now because of the fact that people understand that that’s the way that it needs to be. And I wonder, we just had a meeting in this very room about an hour and a half ago, and we were talking about how on one of our shows that we will get to the point where we’re going to have to get back into that full resolution television output and that zoom will become kind of a less and less piece.

Blake Russell
I think zoom has its place to be able to get staff fast, but if you really want to sit there for an extended period of time, I think it wants some really good color and some really good clarity and some really good audio. And so I think that… So first off, it’ll be interesting to see where that goes as we move forward, and also to really kind of see where the landscape of cable news is going to take us. I think we’re in this thing with eyes wide open, and we’re unique and I really don’t necessarily think that the other outlets out there are looking for us to succeed. As a matter of fact, they’d rather say, “This is not going to work and get out of this landscape.” Get out of our get out of our sandbox but, but it’ll be interesting to see how we continue to press ahead and make some good decisions and what the outcome of what we believe is a very strategic thought process and investment will be.

Dak
Yeah, it’s a post election year, so all of the established cable networks always are shedding viewers, and there’s always this migration we see around. So it will be interesting to see kind of once the cards are shuffled where they land. Well, thank you for joining me today on the Broadcast Exchange, Blake, and we look forward to everything that a Nexstar is up to this year.

Blake Russell
Thank you for having me.

Dak
Thank you for joining us today on the Broadcast Exchange. New episodes released every two to three weeks, and we hope you’ll like and follow us on YouTube for your favorite podcast platform. In the meantime, make sure to check out [inaudible 003546] for the latest on broadcast production, and if you have any questions you’d like to see answered here on The Exchange, please tweet @newscaststudio or email podcast@newscaststudio.com.

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