ROCKFORD, Ill. — More than 15 years worth of declining advertising revenue and circulation have translated into fewer newspapers, fewer newsroom jobs, and news deserts around the country and in Illinois.
State Sen. Steve Stadelman, D-Rockford, a former local TV news anchor, wants to do something about it.
He is sponsoring a bill to create a Local Journalism Task Force with the aim of providing local news to underserved communities around the state.
“As a former journalist and news anchor, I know how important it is to have access to truly local news,” Stadelman said. “People deserve to know what’s happening in their communities, regardless of where they live.”
According to information compiled by usnewsdeserts.com, the number of daily and weekly newspapers in Illinois fell from 573 in 2004 to 383 in 2019, a 33% decrease. (In Missouri, the number fell from 256 to 220, a 14% decline.) During the same time frame, total newspaper circulation dropped from 6.4 million to 4 million.
Furthermore, the site found that two Illinois counties do not have a newspaper and 28 counties have only one.
Senate Bill 134 would create a Local Journalism Task Force, which would be made up of 10 individuals representing print and broadcast media, journalism schools and state and local government. The task force would be charged with conducting a study on communities underserved by local journalism and making recommendations on how to preserve and restore news coverage in these areas.
“This measure is meant to start a conversation and provide new ideas to help address shrinking press coverage in our communities,” Stadelman said.
While government funding, an inherit conflict of interest, is an unlikely solution, Stadelman said, some solutions may come from the private sector.
“You have philanthropy, you have nonprofit news websites that are supported by foundations and individual contributors,” he said.
Stadelman noted many newspapers around the state no longer staff a statehouse news bureau. Helping to fill that void is Capitol News Illinois, a nonprofit news service operated by the Illinois Press Foundation. The organization staffs reporters at the statehouse and allows newspapers across the state to access their content.
Stadelman said: “Can we adapt that (model) at the local level as well?”
The senator said he is not aware of any opposition to the bill.
“Elected officials, they many not like tough questions from reporters, but we all realize it’s an important part of the democratic process and making sure that we have a functional society.”
Senate Bill 134 passed the Senate Commerce Committee without opposition and is now headed to the Senate floor for further consideration. If signed into law, the task force would be required to submit the findings from its study to the governor’s office and the General Assembly no later than Jan. 1, 2023.