• Ben Szalinski
    JAN 26, 2024


    Lawmakers considering plans to boost local journalism, reduce news deserts 

    Sen. Steve Stadelman (D-Caledonia) speaks at a news conference earlier this month. The graphic on the right shows which counties in Illinois are most deprived of local news, according to the task force report. [Ben Szalinski/The Daily Line] 

    More than 200 newspapers and 86 percent of journalism jobs in Illinois have disappeared since 2005. Some counties don’t have any sources of news. The decline of journalism is leaving residents across Illinois more uninformed about what is happening in their local governments and that’s a problem the General Assembly should consider fixing, according to a report from a state task force. 


    “In too many towns, no one is covering local city council meetings, no one is covering local school board meetings,” Sen. Steve Stadelman (D-Caledonia) said at a news conference earlier this month. “So how can residents know what’s going on? How do residents and voters make informed decisions if they don’t know what’s going on in these communities?”  

    Stadelman, a former anchor for WTVO-TV, Rockford’s ABC affiliate, passed legislation in 2021 establishing the Local Journalism Task Force to explore ways state government can help reduce the decline of local news and incentivize people to subscribe to news and incentivize news sources to keep their doors open and journalists employed.   

    The 23-member task force included lawmakers, members of academic institutions and journalism associations.   

    The problem  

    Five Illinois counties have no source of local news, according to the task force report: Pulaski, Alexander, Perry, Hamilton and Edwards counties. Another 33 only have one source of news.   

    But even the outlets that survive have seen major cuts to the number of journalists, according to research by Northwestern’s Medill journalism school, which was a member of the task force.   

    “Illinois has lost more newspaper journalists than any state in the nation,” said Medill professor Tim Franklin at a news conference earlier this month. “In raw numbers, about 2,300 newspaper journalists have been lost, many of them as a result of industry consolidation and chain ownership of local news outlets that’s prevalent throughout Illinois.”  

    The task force attributed the cause of the decline to several reasons, including the rise of digital platforms, many of which don’t provide local news but are a major source of news for consumers. Additionally, major advertising revenue declines combined with low increases to subscriptions have made it hard for newspapers and other for-profit publications to financially keep up.   

    The task force also examined cuts at Illinois newsrooms in recent years. Carbondale newspaper The Southern axed their entire staff at the end of 2023 after Lee Enterprises sold the paper. The Chicago Tribune has seen newsroom staff decrease by 82 percent since 2006, especially since it was sold to hedge fund Alden Global Capital.   

    “News outlets are closing or shrinking at an alarming rate because of technological and financial disruption,” Stadelman said.  

    The task force noted the main problem has been experienced in rural areas of the state, which have been hit especially hard by cuts by corporate media owners Lee Enterprises and Gannett, the parent company of USA Today. Gannett’s largest Illinois papers are in Rockford, Peoria and Springfield while Lee’s largest papers in Illinois are in Moline, Bloomington-Normal and Decatur. Lee also owns the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.   

    “We’ve seen small towns go … away because they’ve lost the local bank, if they were fortunate enough to have a local hospital, and other institutions and the newspaper is one of those institutions,” former Illinois Press Association president Sam Fisher said.   

    The task force also worried broadcast journalism via TV and radio could face more declines in the future, as signaled by already-tight rosters of reporters, photographers and producers in those newsrooms.   

    “The local news crisis isn’t just a business problem, it’s a democracy problem as well,” Stadelman said.   

    But the task force found some bright spots where Illinois’ journalism industry has shown resiliency, including a merger between WBEZ radio and the Chicago Sun-Times alongside the rise of many non-profit outlets in Chicago that provide local coverage and have been funded by philanthropic efforts.  

    Other outlets providing coverage of specific communities, such as the TRiiBE’s coverage of Chicago’s Black communities, has also created new sources. However, Spanish news in print is hard to find after the Tribune shut down Hoy in 2019.   

    Public media has taken a hit from the state itself. State funding through an Illinois Arts Council grant for public media outlets has dropped from $4 million in Fiscal Year 2009 to $1.6 million in Fiscal Year 2024. When adjusted for inflation, the grant peaked at $9 million in 2002.   

    Proposed solutions  

    The task force published several possible solutions, and some will be filed as legislation, Stadelman said.   

    A subscription tax credit could provide a financial incentive to residents who subscribe to media outlets. Lawmakers in Massachusetts have proposed a $250 credit for subscribers to community newspapers while Oregon has proposed a $100 credit. The benefit of this, according to the task force, is that it preserves choices for consumers.   

    A tax credit to small businesses that advertise in local news outlets could help both businesses and newspapers. Legislation has been proposed in Colorado, Wisconsin, and Maryland, where the proposal calls for up to $3,000 of credits for businesses that participate.   

    To help keep journalists employed, the task force suggested a payroll tax credit to incentivize hiring and retention. The credit could go to news companies for each full-time journalist that is retained and paid more than $50,000. Legislation has been proposed at the federal level called the Local Journalism Sustainability Act, which is projected to cost $1.7 billion. The task force notes a downside to the credit is news outlets can receive the credit for retention, but it doesn’t mean they will use it to hire more journalists.   

    Other proposals include tax exemptions for outlets from the state business and occupation tax, a requirement that a certain portion of government ads are published in local news outlets, state-funded grant programs, paid fellowships for college students, revenue sharing requirements for big tech companies such as Google, incentives for locally owned newspapers to keep ownership local rather than being sold off to corporations, student loan forgiveness to early career journalists and more state-funded journalism scholarships and college classes.   

    A key question will be how the legislature defines which news organizations qualify for benefits and what is defined as “journalism.” Sen. Don DeWitte (R-St. Charles), a task force member whose mother was editor of the Kane County Chronicle, worried that’s a murky space for lawmakers to get into.   

    “As a governing body like this legislature, I believe we need to proceed very cautiously on this issue,” DeWitte said at the news conference. “Involving ourselves with Illinois’ system of journalism and the kinds of news people read is not an issue that should be taken lightly. We need to be very careful about the kind of process that we may be all stepping into.”  

    There’s constitutional questions lawmakers need to watch for and questions of bias in journalism that could arise for news organizations getting a helping hand from state lawmakers.  

    “When state funding is involved, I fear there’s a real chance that those who receive those subsidies may feel indebted to their grantor, regardless of which political party may be in control of the political agenda in this state,” DeWitte said.   

    Asked to respond to DeWitte’s concerns, Stadelman countered that the focus of the task force is to provide more coverage of local meetings and that it’s not new for the government to financially support media, such as PBS and NPR.   

    “The government has been subsidizing news going back almost to the beginning of our republic through subsidizing the mailing of newspapers out to people,” Franklin said. “So this is not a new issue by any means. Also in most states, public broadcasting receives some subsidy, often small or too small, from state governments as well.”  

    Stadelman did not file any bills related to the task force’s work before the Jan. 19 deadline to submit bills for drafting.  

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