Just days before the 4th of July holiday, the DuQuoin Weekly in Southern Illinois got a tip that the country music band, Confederate Railroad, would no longer be playing at the DuQuoin State Fair in August.
At first it appeared like a typical scheduling conflict, which wouldn’t have been much of a story. But earlier in June, a journalist in the Illinois capital had asked readers in his widely read political blog whether a band with “confederate” in its name should be playing at a state-owned facility.
The paper made the connection and broke the story in its July 3 print edition, confirming that state officials booted the band from the fair lineup because of its name.
Other than the print story, the Weekly–and its sister paper, the Pinckneyville Press— didn’t share the story digitally. It didn’t put the story on either paper’s Facebook page or website.
“It didn’t take long for us to learn we were competing with ourselves when we throw stories up on Facebook or on the website,” said Jeff Egbert, publisher and co-owner of the Weekly and Press newspapers.
But that didn’t stop the story from going viral. Readers shared pictures of the print story on Twitter, and local TV station WSIL covered the cancellation, crediting the Weekly for the exclusive. As the story started taking off in Southern Illinois, AP’s reporter in Springfield wrote an account, with ABC, Fox News, Billboard and The Washington Post eventually picking it up.
It’s a reminder that for community newspapers, word-of-mouth still goes a long way. “We’ve double down on print because print works,” Egbert said.
The story started in June when longtime Springfield journalist Rich Miller asked his readers whether taxpayers should foot the bill for a band that celebrated the confederacy. Miller’s Capitol Fax has a website but its subscription content is sent via fax.
Confederate Railroad, which has played at the Southern Illinois state fair before, is a Georgia-based country rock band with hits like “Jesus and Mama” and Trashy Women.” The band’s logo features a steam locomotive flying Confederate flags. In defending his administration’s decision to cancel the band, Gov. J.B. Pritzker told reporters that the confederate flag remains a symbol “of racists, of white nationalists, of the alt-right. I cannot think that the state of Illinois should be sponsoring something that is amplifying that symbol. That is why we took the action we did.”
The story played big nationally because it had the classic elements of a liberal versus conservative clash even without the Illinois particulars: a newly elected Democratic governor from Chicago who just raised taxes goes after a band set to play in conservative Southern Illinois where voters (and their politicians) consistently feel overlooked–if not downright stiffed–by the more powerful lawmakers to the populous north. (Conservative Illinois lawmakers have twice now produced a resolution calling on Congress to declare Chicago the 51st state as part of a downstate movement to separate the nation’s third largest city from the rest of Illinois.)
“I do think it is a big story for the area as it is another example of how the governor and southern Illinois don’t get along, understand each other,” said Mary J. Koester, managing editor and editor of the North County News in Red Bud.
Southern Illinois news outlets have continued to follow the story closely, including a squabble between the governor’s office and a lawmaker over a meeting that took place between them. (The representative, Terri Bryant of Murphysboro, posted an account of the meeting on her Facebook page that governor’s office disputed.)
Their counterparts in the north also have weighed in. The Springfield Journal-Register devoted a podcast to the controversy. The Chicago Sun-Times editorial board weighed in, arguing that the governor should have let the band play. “It feels to us like a poorly thought-out violation of the spirit of free speech, our nation’s most sacred principle, given that the band was hired before it was given the boot,” according to the editorial. The News-Gazette in Champaign also criticized the governor.
A band member called the state’s decision “disappointing” in a statement that also thanked fans for their outpouring of support. “After its state fair gig was cancelled, a Harley-Davidson dealership in nearby Marion, Illinois, booked the band for a private concert.
“It’s been a very rapidly evolving story,” Egbert told GJR.
But don’t look online for the paper’s updates.
Jackie Spinner is the editor of Gateway Journalism Review. Follow her on Twitter @jackiespinner.