Reporter-Turned-State Senator Fights For Local Journalism
Gov. JB Pritzker signed a bill late last month to address what he called “local news deserts” in Illinois. The legislation's goal is to ensure local journalism survives in Illinois’ small towns and mid-sized cities.
State Sen. Steve Stadelman, D-Rockford, a former TV reporter and anchor for 25 years, says the idea of a local journalism task force was driven by his concern for vanishing local reporters and shrinking newsrooms.
“Since 2004, more than 2,000 newspapers across the country, including this state have closed. A lot of newsrooms have lost jobs," Stadelman said.
Stadelman’s bill initially called for a 10-member task force, but that’s been revised upward to 15 members in the final bill signed by the governor. It will include representatives from print and broadcast media, journalism schools, and state and local government. The Illinois News Broadcasters Association (INBA) also pushed to be represented.
In a news release, the organization’s president, Jenna Dooley, said, “The goals of the organization are to preserve and protect the public’s right to know, to ensure the free flow of information, to provide scholarships and to exchange information among members.”
She added, “ We believe our presence would promote government transparency of process and give INBA an opportunity to provide insight about how local newsrooms work and what they need to succeed.”
Stadelman embraces the idea of having key players at the table because he realizes the importance of exploring sustainable models of local journalism. In an interview with WGLT, the senator reiterated his battle cry about the need for all citizens throughout the state to have access to reliable information.
“The quality of information you get should not depend on where you live or your zip code.”
Specifically, the task force’s work will begin Jan. 1, 2022, investigating the adequacy of press coverage of communities, print and digital business models for media outlets, the impact of social media on local news, strategies to improve local news access, and public policy solutions to improve the sustainability of local press business models and private and nonprofit solutions. It will submit final recommendations to the governor and General Assembly by Jan. 1, 2023.
Stadelman said it’s important to examine the role of social media and ways quality journalism locally and nationally can thwart misinformation.
“That (misinformation) really affects the dialogue when it comes to our democracy. So objective (journalism), however you define that, and access to local news, I think that is worthy of a national discussion as far as what can be done to make sure that continues as we fight misinformation. I think that should also be part of the discussion of the local journalism task force,” he said.
The senator also is concerned about the growing anti-journalist rhetoric.
“That somehow journalists and reporters are somehow not good for the country and that investigations are somehow undemocratic," he said. "That’s been a real drumbeat and it’s working against the watchdog role that journalism plays, especially local journalism.”
New models of subscriber or foundation-funded journalism have emerged in Illinois such as Block Club Chicago and Capitol News Illinois. Stadelman isn’t sure whether those are sustainable and whether public funding might be needed. He thinks the task force will examine what’s working elsewhere.
“Some solutions that other states have looked at have involved some sort of public funding. Are there ways to persuade local news outlets to close news gaps? More money for PBS? Can we encourage local news outlets to collectively negotiate with organizations such as Google and Facebook for advertising revenue," said Stadelman.
“I have no preconceived notions. There may be some sort of public funding policy recommendations, but I’m not coming into this task force with, 'This is what we should do,' or 'This is how we should steer the discussions.' I really want to hear what the different task force members have to say.”
The League of Women Voters of McLean County (LWVMC) will host Stadelman at its membership recruitment kickoff meeting that will be held online Sept. 29.
“We agree with the masthead on the Washington Post — “Democracy dies in darkness” — and the League of Women Voters is interested in supporting any efforts to promote and encourage new models to sustain a watchful and robust media presence in both small, medium and large communities throughout Illinois,” said current League of Women Voters President Laurie Bergner.
The League's meeting is open to the public, but the organization is requesting registration to receive the online link.