Oases in the News Desert?

The capitol in Springfield, Ill. (Screenshot from The Capitol Connection blog)

By Ellen Clegg

In a flurry of summer’s-end legislative action, Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker signed a measure that could have broad implications for the news industry in the Land of Lincoln. Illinois Senate Bill 134, which Pritzker signed into law on Aug. 23, establishes a 15-person Local Journalism Task Force to “conduct a comprehensive study relative to communities underserved by local journalism in Illinois.” As first reported by Andrew Hensel of the Illinois Radio Network, the task force will launch on Jan. 1, 2022, and is expected to recommend a slate of public policy and business strategy solutions (both private and nonprofit) to Pritzker and the Illinois General Assembly by Jan. 1, 2023.

Granted, that seems like a long way off, especially when clocked in Pandemic Time. But the new law is just the latest sign that the gutting of local newsrooms and the spread of “news deserts” is of more than academic interest.

State and local politicians need to get their message out, if only to demonstrate their continued relevance and constituent service to voters. And as hard-right, nationalized news sources churn through social media channels and gain currency in the public square, Democrats like Pritzker and his cohort in the Illinois General Assembly are justified in sounding more than a little eager to cultivate a local press corps, at least in part because state house and city hall journalists are more likely to focus on the prosaic and often nonpartisan details of governance that underpin civic life.

“Robust local journalism is vitally important and I look forward to reviewing the recommendations from the task force as we seek to maintain and grow a strong press corps in Illinois,” Pritzker said in a statement. Illinois state Rep. Dave Vella, D-Rockford, put it more bluntly to Hensel: “You used to have a bunch of local reporters who gave us insight into what is going on in our cities. As the years have gone by, local news has gone by the wayside. I believe it is way too important to let that happen.” The Illinois task force will include appointees from politics, academia, professional associations and citizens’ groups.

In her path-breaking research on U.S. counties where no newspaper is published, Penelope Muse Abernathy, visiting professor at Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism, classified two Illinois counties as news deserts. Hamilton and Pulaski counties are not home to any newspaper, although, the research notes, there are newspapers in adjoining counties that circulate there. Cook County, by contrast, where Chicago is situated, is home to 87 newspapers.

A similar effort is under way in Massachusetts. Early this year, Beacon Hill approved the creation of a commission to study journalism in underserved communities in the Bay State, thanks to a prolonged effort by state Rep. Lori Ehrlich, D-Marblehead, and state Sen. Brendan Crighton, D-Lynn. My research partner, Dan Kennedy, was present at the creation and will be a commission member. I’m certain he’ll keep this space updated, as well as his readers at Media Nation. The commission is charged with studying the ratio of residents to media outlets, the history of local news in Massachusetts, print and digital business models for media outlets, the impact of social media on local news, strategies to improve local news access, public policy solutions to improve the sustainability of local press business models and private and nonprofit solutions as well as identifying career pathways and existing or potential professional development opportunities for aspiring journalists in Massachusetts.

Ehrlich, who is working on logistics, promises to announce more details very soon. She has a sweeping vision. “I’d like to see the commission we’re starting here in Massachusetts in every state in the country,” she told me in an email. “Though there are national commonalities, each state has unique regional and ownership differences so a state-by-state approach makes sense. Perhaps Massachusetts and Illinois can confer as we go.”

Although I’ve voiced skepticism about the conflicts that government support might pose for the news business, Louisiana State University researcher Joshua Darr offered a countervailing view in a recent interview. Print newspapers have benefited from government support before, he argues, in the form of historic discounts in postal rates and exemption from the Federal Fair Labor Standards Act so kids could deliver the product to local doorsteps. “Of course, you don’t want to [get government to] support the news but lose what makes it unique and valuable. Indirect support might be more valuable, whether that is local news credits to people directly to buy subscriptions to local news, or whether that is helping news outlets to collectively bargain with the tech companies to negotiate ad revenues. As opposed to pure subsidies or loans or cash transfers or, certainly, making [newsrooms] report to any sort of commission or government body.

Back in the Illinois capital of Springfield, Jason Piscia, public affairs reporting director at the University of Illinois Springfield, is already spinning out possible solutions. As he wrote in a recent post on The Capitol Connection blog, “I’m hoping this task force can present some ideas that are financially and politically possible. I don’t want to get ahead of the group’s work, but tax credits for news subscriptions, government-sponsored foundations that support journalism and forgiving student loans for journalists who commit to work in rural regions are all adaptations of initiatives used to support other industries.”

Correction: This post has been updated to reflect Penelope Muse Abernathy’s new title.

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