Legislation would support local journalism

"We are living through seismic changes in how people consume news."

The number of journalism jobs at Illinois newspapers has dropped 86% since 2005, but press advocates see signs of hope in proposed college scholarships, state tax credits, scholarships and other subsidies to benefit local news outlets.

"I'm cautiously optimistic we will see something," Sam Fisher, former president of the Illinois Press Association, said as the scheduled May 24 adjournment of the Illinois General Assembly's spring session approaches.

The package of legislation has "raised awareness of the local news crisis that we have," he said.

Senate Bill 3592, dubbed the Strengthening Community Media Act, passed the Democratic-controlled Senate 43-13, mostly along partisan lines, on April 17, and headed to the House floor after passing a House committee May 1 on an 18-8 vote.

The legislation would create state-funded college scholarships for students pledging to work at local news organizations in Illinois for at least two years after graduation and require 120 days prior notice before local newspapers can be sold to out-of-state companies.

Senate Bill 3591, titled the Journalism Preservation Act, would require online platforms such as Google and Meta, the parent company of Facebook, to pay fees to newspapers and other media organizations when linking to, displaying or otherwise presenting digital news content.

That legislation, which would provide a steady stream of revenue to news organizations, is being considered in several states.

Legislation adopted by Canada late in 2023 is expected to funnel up to $100 million in Canadian dollars to media companies in that country each year.

SB 3591 hadn't received any votes in the House or Senate as of May 7, but still could be considered in the waning days of the session, according to bill sponsor Steve Stadelman, a Democrat from the suburban Rockford community of Loves Park.

Tim Franklin, an associate dean and director of the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University, said the internet subsidies "could be a game-changer for a lot of local news organizations," and the tax credits and scholarship program would be a big help for a struggling industry.

It's "too early to tell" whether the legislation in Illinois and other states will save local journalism, Franklin said, but "it couldn't hurt."

"This is a time of both great peril for local news and a time of great possibility," he told Illinois Times. "We are living through seismic changes in how people consume news."

The legislative proposals emerged from the Illinois Local Journalism Task Force report, released in January 2024. Participants on the task force included Fisher; Franklin; former state Rep. Tim Butler, R-Springfield; NPR Illinois General Manager Randy Eccles; Allison Petty, Lee Enterprises central Illinois executive editor, representing the Illinois Legislative Correspondents Association; and Jason Piscia, director of the Public Affairs Reporting Program at University of Illinois Springfield.

Stadelman said the proposed scholarship program is designed to create a pipeline of prospective journalists. And he said prior notification will give nonprofits and local business entities more time to buy newspapers that are up for sale and maintain local control.

Preserving local ownership is critical now more than ever, Stadelman said, because newspapers have lost advertisers to the internet and hedge funds. Publicly traded companies such as Gannett and Lee Enterprises have been buying local newspapers and then gutting newsroom staffs to boost corporate profits and satisfy shareholders, he said.

"Let's give opportunities for local entities," Stadelman said during debate on the Senate floor.

But Sen. Jason Plummer, R-Edwardsville, who voted against SB 3592, said advance notice would lead to more hedge-fund and out-of-town purchases of local newspapers because those entities could outbid local groups.

Stadelman, a former Rockford television news reporter, said Plummer's scenario was unlikely.

Republican senators voting in favor of the bill included task force member Donald DeWitte of St. Charles; Steve McClure of Springfield; Sue Rezin of Morris; and Chapin Rose of Mahomet. Democrats voting in favor included Doris Turner of Springfield.

Republican Sally Turner of Beason voted against the bill.

Stadelman said he believes more Republicans will support the bill when they are educated about the problems facing local media.

SB 3592 originally included refundable tax credits for news organizations for each reporter hired or retained – or up to $25,000 per "qualifying journalist" each year. Also included was a provision to give small businesses up to a $2,500 state tax credit when they advertise with local newspapers or broadcasters.

Stadelman removed those credits before the bill passed the Senate. He said he hopes to pass them in a separate bill.

He had no estimate of the cost to the state for the tax credits or the scholarship program. He said he will try to get money for those purposes included in end-of-session legislation to fund the upcoming fiscal 2025 state budget.

New York Gov. Kathy Hochul recently signed a 2025 state budget that included $90 million in tax credits for local media outlets over a three-year period. Advocates of those credits worked for several years to pass them into law, Stadelman said.

He noted that New York's budget is larger than Illinois', and this is the first year he is pushing legislation to preserve local journalism in Illinois.

Publicly traded companies aren't eligible for the new tax credits in New York. Such companies would be eligible for the proposed Illinois tax credits, but there would be caps for each newsroom and corporation.

A Stadelman aide said the legislation is tailored to ensure any financial benefits to news organizations are invested in local coverage rather than used to boost corporate profits and benefit company officials already earning multimillion-dollar salaries.

Franklin said Illinois' newspaper journalism job losses are proportionately the largest in the country. That may be because Gannett, and its predecessor, GateHouse, owns or owned more than 20 papers in the state and have aggressively reduced the number of journalists employed, he said.

Lee Enterprises has eliminated many jobs at its downstate newspapers, and there have been "huge job losses" at the Chicago Tribune since 2005, Franklin said. Alden Global Capital, a New York-based hedge fund known for slashing newspaper budgets, bought the Tribune in 2021.

"These are staggering losses, and the implications are profound," Franklin said. "This has an impact on civic engagement. There's research that shows that in 'news deserts' and low-information communities turnout in local elections drops, the number of candidates seeking office drops and straight-ticket voting increases ... so there's more partisanship in how people vote."

Research also shows a lack of watchdogs in communities results in increases in government borrowing costs, he said.

Education of lawmakers and the public is key to turning the situation around, Franklin said.

"The challenge is that the vast majority of the public doesn't know there's a crisis in local news," he said.

Dean Olsen is a senior staff writer at Illinois Times. He can be reached at 217-679-7810, [email protected] or twitter.com/DeanOlsenIT.

Dean Olsen

Dean Olsen is a senior staff writer for Illinois Times. He can be reached at:
[email protected], 217-679-7810 or @DeanOlsenIT.

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