In the blur of legislative activity that closed out the spring 2021 session of the Illinois General Assembly, state lawmakers passed a bill that would help figure out how to save local journalism.
Senate Bill 134, the Local Journalism Task Force Act, cleared the Senate on April 22 and the House on May 27.
If signed by Gov. J.B. Pritzker, the law would create a group of 15 people, including appointees of legislative leaders and the governor and representatives of statewide journalism associations and college-level journalism programs. I’m grateful one of the journalism programs would be our very own Public Affairs Reporting program here at UIS.
The group would study communities underserved by local journalism and recommend ways to preserve and/or restore coverage in those area.
“Your address should not dictate the quality and type of information you have access to,” said state Sen. Steve Stadelman, D-Rockford, who sponsored the bill and is a former journalist. “This measure is meant to start a conversation and provide new ideas to help address shrinking press coverage in our communities.”
As I’ve mentioned in past blog posts, local newsrooms have been aggressively cutting staff and other resources for more than a decade. The COVID-19 pandemic has accelerated the decline, even while news audiences flocked to the web for information to protect themselves.
That trend has been in the spotlight for the past week as several longtime Chicago Tribune journalists said they are taking a buyout from the newspaper’s new owner, Alden Global Capital, a hedge fund known for slashing the size of the newsrooms it acquires. Whether the Tribune will replace any of those vacancies remains to be seen.
I was working at The State Journal-Register in the mid-2000s when layoffs and/or buyout offers became almost a yearly (and painful) experience. At the beginning of it, we adopted a “do more with less” approach – or at least a “do about the same with less” approach. As the cutting continued, we just simply had to do less and make tough decisions on what topics and geographic areas we just weren’t going to cover as regularly anymore.
As these tough decisions have rippled through the country, many areas – especially in rural regions – have become news deserts, places where local governments go unwatched and uncovered.
So what’s the solution?
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.
If Pritzker signs SB 134, the task force would be required to submit its findings and recommendations to the governor and General Assembly by Jan. 1, 2023.
Jason Piscia is an assistant professor and director of the Public Affairs Reporting program at the University of Illinois Springfield. He came to UIS following a 21-year career at The State Journal-Register.
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