News Analysis: Tackling the crisis of local journalism in Illinois

By Dong Han

Local journalism is in crisis. Across the nation, local news outlets are disappearing, and media coverage of community events and local public decision-making is shrinking dramatically. According to research by the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University, 203 counties in the United States are now “news deserts,” meaning they lack any source of local news. That number threatens to grow. 

The reason for the decline of local journalism is complicated. New technology plays a big role, not only because social media feeds people with “free” and “fast” news, but also that new marketing strategies in the digital environment siphon off advertising dollars. In the “traditional” model, advertisers sell news content to fund the media. In the age of “big data,” targeted marketing based on tracking and personal data promises a more efficient use of advertising spending than taking a pot-shot at a faceless news audience. Audiences widely know  that Google’s advertising revenue negatively correlates with that of the news media. Does Google provide better news? No. But it provides “better” audiences to advertisers.     

During this seismic change in news production and distribution, different media outlets suffer differently. Media organizations that operate nationally or in affluent news markets may have a larger “buffer zone” and be able to transform, downsize, and adapt. Smaller and community-based media, on the other hand, are cornered. Take Illinois as an example. The Chicago Tribune lost more than four-fifths of newsroom staff from 2006 to 2022, but as a paper still survives. By contrast, many smaller outlets are not as “lucky.” In fact, so many of them are gone that 33 counties in Illinois today have only one local news source, and five have none. All of these five “news deserts,” Pulaski, Alexander, Perry, Hamilton, and Edwards, are in the Southern Illinois area and are among the poorest counties in the state. The crisis of local journalism, at least in the case of Illinois, is closely tied to socioeconomic situations. 

A number of states across the nation have moved to tackle the crisis. In Illinois, the Local Journalism Task Force, chaired by State Senator Steve Stadelman, a former TV reporter,  and consists of people from the industry and the academia, worked a full year to analyze the situation and propose policy solutions. Earlier in 2024, Stadelman introduced two bills in the Illinois General Assembly, the Journalism Preservation Act and the Strengthening Community Media Act, which incorporate most of the policy recommendations from the Task Force. 

The legislation advanced this week in the Illinois statehouse.

The report generated by the Local Journalism Task Force provides an overview of local journalism decline in Illinois with ample data and examples. Since 2005, more than a third of Illinois newspapers have disappeared, and journalism jobs in newspapers have decreased by 86%. The Chicago area ranks among the highest in the U.S. with regard to the loss of news sources per capita. Outside of Chicago, four more counties are likely to lose their only news source in the next five years and become new news deserts. Journalism as a profession is under threat when profit-driven decision-making always results in layoffs. In 2023, when Paxton Media Group bought the Southern Illinoisan newspaper in Carbondale, all of the paper’s journalists lost their jobs

The report and the proposed legislation contain a number of policy recommendations to support local news organizations and journalism jobs. The Strengthening Community Media Act includes a broad array of initiatives. For example, the bill requires state agencies to spend at least half of their advertising dollars with local news outlets. It provides tax incentives to local media to hire journalists. In addition, it offers scholarships to journalism students who work in local media for at least two years after graduating from Illinois public universities. The Journalism Preservation Act, on the other hand, focuses on big tech and asks moguls to pay local news media for carrying their news stories.  

Task Force meetings have held extensive debates about the pros and cons of these policy recommendations. Many of these proposals are not quick cures, and their implementation cannot survive without vigorous oversight. For example, whether and how the government set aside of advertising dollars may encroach on editorial deliberations is a legitimate concern, although the severity of the problem should also be assessed in the context of private advertiser’s influence on media production. Payroll tax credit for hiring journalists will provide incentives to invest in news production, but how much the media needs incentives is not entirely clear and perhaps should go through trial and error. In addition, regulatory moves that go against the market status quo will always be an uphill battle against beneficiaries from existing arrangements, and wrenching money from tech behemoths is not easy. In Canada, the Online News Act in 2023 requires big tech to pay news outlets for content. Google obliged but Meta blocked all news stories on Facebook and Instagram to avoid pay, a severe blow to local media outlets that rely on large platforms to attract audiences. Similar legislation in Illinois is worth a try, but fate does not preordain how the legislation will unfold.

As noted in the Task Force’s report, the crisis of local journalism is a democracy problem. A robust journalism sector is critical for an informed citizenry and democratic self-governance. Our country needs to deal with any potential threat as early as possible and before more harm is done. With profound changes in the political economy of news production, local journalism in the U.S. and Illinois faces an unprecedented challenge. The work of the Task Force and the proposed legislation are only the beginning. The system needs more industry and academic research to better understand the crisis. There also exists a need for vigorous actions to push for meaningful changes.  

Perhaps a lingering question remains: Does a government-led initiative mean more regulation of the media? The fact is that the choice on regulation has never been a simple yes or no. From postal subsidies of newspapers in the early republic to the myriad of regulations by the Federal Communications Commission, governmental regulation of the media has never gone away. Of course, this is not to say that policy moves in the name of democracy should be immune from interrogation, but rather that it is unwise to constantly watch the market, and money, controlling the media sector. U.S. history is rich with instances of protecting social and public institutions against the intrusion of market forces, which thus provides ample precedents for today’s endeavors. Overcoming the crisis of local journalism will be a long and winding road, but steps need to be taken and changes need to be made, not because they are easy, but because they are right.

Dong Han is associate professor in the School of Journalism and Advertising at Southern Illinois University Carbondale. He is a member of the Illinois Local Journalism Task Force

Share our journalism