A former television broadcaster turned legislator has filed a bill in the Illinois General Assembly that would create a task force to explore the state’s local news crisis and offer recommendations for how to address it.
The task force would “review all aspects of local journalism” in Illinois, with an eye toward identifying “communities underserved” by journalism and well as “strategies to improve local news access and public policy solutions to improve the sustainability of local press business models and private and nonprofit solutions,” according to the legislation, Senate Bill 3457.
The measure’s sponsor is state Senator Steve Stadelman, a Democrat from Rockford. Before winning office in 2012, Stadelman was a television news anchor and reporter at WTVO in Rockford for 25 years.
“Even though I’m now an elected official, I continue to believe in the importance of having local news outlets be able to educate viewers and readers and making sure that they have the ability to hold local officials accountable,” Stadelman said in an interview with the Medill Local News Initiative on March 12.
The 12-member task force would include legislators, members of news industry groups and representatives of journalism schools, including Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism, Media, Integrated Marketing Communications.
… I continue to believe in the importance of having local news outlets be able to educate viewers and readers and making sure that they have the ability to hold local officials accountable.Illinois state Senator Steve Stadelman, D-Rockford
The legislation comes at a crucial time for Illinois media, with journalists at the state’s biggest news outlet, the Chicago Tribune, sounding alarm bells about its future. Alden Global Capital, a hedge fund that has slashed staffs in newsrooms such as the Denver Post and the San Jose Mercury News, has become the largest shareholder in Tribune Publishing, which owns the Chicago Tribune as well as the New York Daily News, Baltimore Sun, Orlando Sentinel and several other news outlets.
The crisis in Illinois goes far beyond Chicago. Last May, the Executive Editor of the capital-city newspaper, the State Journal-Register in Springfield, resigned after a series of staff cuts, hoping her action might help other colleagues keep their jobs. The editor, Angie Muhs, held a prominent national industry position at the time as president of Associated Press Media Editors. The 189-year-old Journal-Register, which calls itself “the oldest newspaper in Illinois,” was then owned by GateHouse, which has now merged with Gannett to form the nation’s biggest newspaper chain.
According to a major University of North Carolina survey of the nation’s “news deserts,” Illinois has two counties without a single newspaper and 28 others with just one.
Stadelman’s bill, which has been assigned to the Senate Commerce and Economic Development Committee, would require the task force to come up with a report to the governor and the General Assembly. Stadelman is optimistic about the bill’s passage this session.
“Generally speaking, task forces don’t draw too much opposition,” Stadelman said. “It’s when you come to specific public policy recommendations that you may see opposition.”
Stadelman noted that proposals in other states have called for the spending of taxpayer funds to help local journalism.
“A couple states have gone down that path,” Stadelman said. “New Jersey, for example, actually created a fund that provided some initial revenue for media sources. That’s one thing. I want to look at all potential solutions. Obviously, anything that’s going to cost the state money is going to be more controversial. … Potential solutions include creating a fund as New Jersey did to bring news and information to underserved communities. I think some states looked at providing tax incentives to persuade media outlets to close that local news gap. And one other option would be more money for public broadcasting.”
Newspapers ... have historically connected local business with readers, and radio stations with listeners.Illinois state Senator Steve Stadelman, D-Rockford
Local journalism provides an obvious community benefit in keeping people engaged and informed, but Stadelman believes “there’s an economic development component” as well.
“Newspapers, for example, have historically connected local business with readers, and radio stations with listeners,” he said. “And without that connection I think the local economy and local businesses are hurt.”
The membership of the task force would include a House member appointed by the House speaker; a House member named by the minority leader; a senator named by the Senate president; a senator named by the minority leader; a person appointed by the governor; and one representative each from the Medill School; the journalism department at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign; the journalism school at Southern Illinois University Carbondale; the Illinois Press Association; the Illinois Broadcasters Association; the Illinois Legislative Correspondents Association; and the Illinois Municipal League.
Stadelman said “there may be more groups out there that could and would be willing to take part,” and he is open to that.