A new local journalism task force is gearing up to examine the growing news desert in Illinois under a new mandate that goes into effect the first of the year, but the majority of the people who will do that work have yet to be appointed.
The task force, established by law and signed by Gov. J.B. Pritzker in August, will bring together educators and other key figures in Illinois media to study the state of news coverage in the state and then provide recommendations to the governor about how to address the disappearance of local news outlets. The Illinois Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity will provide administrative support.
The group includes 15 individuals nominated by Illinois legislators as well as those representing state colleges, universities, and media organizations. The task force’s first objective will be to analyze distribution methods of media statewide.
Appointees are chosen from universities and groups like the Illinois Press Association and the Illinois Broadcaster’s Association. The rest are chosen by the state legislature. As of late last month, three legislators were officially appointed as members of the task force as of October in addition to the representative of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and the governor’s office. The remaining positions are not yet filled.
“A strong local newsroom is as important to democracy as any branch of government,” said Jason R. Piscia, the director of the University of Illinois-Springfield’s Public Affairs Reporting Program. “As newsrooms have shed staff over the years, many units of local government – especially those in less-populated areas of our state – no longer have the independent eyes of a journalist making sure leaders are being held accountable. When that happens, taxpayers lose. I’m looking forward to this task force getting together to highlight the seriousness of this problem and suggest ways how all Illinoisans can come together to help restore local media’s role as a vigilant watchdog over government.”
Community newspapers have been particularly hard hit by the upheaval and 15-year decline within the news industry. A pivotal and oft-cited study from the University of North Carolina found that more than one in five papers has closed over the past decade a half, leaving thousands of communities at risk of becoming news deserts. Half of the 3,143 counties in the country now only have one newspaper. Almost 200 counties in the country have no newspaper at all. “The people with the least access to local news are often the most vulnerable–the poorest, least educated, and most isolated,” the report found.
Illinois was one of the three most populated states that lost the most weeklies over the last 15 years, with 157 weekly papers closed.
Some of the Illinois papers that were closed in recent years include the Murphysboro American and Daily American in Southern Illinois.
“I think it is very forward thinking by the governor to create a Task Force to analyze where our news deserts are and how we can assist in bringing news to these communities,” said Jan Thompson, director of The School of Journalism at Southern Illinois University at Carbondale. (GJR is housed in the school, which has a representative on the task force.)
Illinois Sen. Steve Stadelman, a Democrat from Winnebago County, told Illinois Public Media’s The 21st Show that public funds or tax incentives might remedy the lack of journalism in rural areas.
The results of the task force are expected to be presented within a year.
The task force will meet a minimum of five times to review, study and analyze data on the status of journalism. The specific methodology, outlined by the legislation that created the task force, is to “conduct a comprehensive, nonbinding study relative to communities underserved by local journalism in Illinois” as well as to “review all aspects of local journalism,” including new strategies for the accessibility and longevity of smaller media outlets.
Nikki Usher, the University of Illinois appointee, told The 21st Show that the decline of local media is a direct result of the decline of rural America. The story of what is happening in America’s small towns is dependent on strong regional reporting, she said.
Illinois Rep. Dave Vella, a Democrat from Northern Illinois, is hopeful that these results might be a turning point in the way news gets circulated on a smaller scale.
“There was a time when local journalism thrived in Illinois,” he said. “This task force seeks to find out what happened to the funding and the focus of our news outlets toward local issues. We hope to give recommendations to the General Assembly about actions that may be taken to help nurture local news reporting in an ever-changing media environment.”
Alexander Schmelter is a correspondent for GJR and a student at Columbia College Chicago. He can be contacted via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.