Two foundations announced Nov. 6 that they are setting aside $2 million toward improving news coverage in Springfield and surrounding communities.
"I don't know if we're what they call a news desert, but it's gotten awfully dry," said John Stremsterfer, president and CEO of the Community Foundation for the Land of Lincoln during a grant announcement held at University of Illinois Springfield's Student Union.
Springfield is one of six inaugural communities across the United States to receive grants in an endeavor called Press Forward, which ultimately will distribute $500 million over the next five years.
"Press Forward Springfield aims to address a vital need that is not unique to our region, but a need that is vital to the success of a healthy democracy throughout the greater Springfield region, our country and democracies around the world," Stremsterfer said. "We are thrilled to partner with the MacArthur Foundation to accelerate the establishment of permanent local resources to support fair, independent and robust local news systems in our community."
John Palfrey, president of the Chicago-based MacArthur Foundation, said his organization is contributing $1 million toward the local initiative being spearheaded by the Community Foundation for the Land of Lincoln. The CFLL is matching that gift with $1 million given to the foundation by the estate of former State Journal-Register publisher Patrick Coburn.
While much of the concern expressed centered on the decline in news coverage by the State Journal-Register, Palfrey said Springfield is not unique. He noted many communities have experienced similar reductions in news coverage.
Former State Journal-Register reporter and columnist Bernard Schoenburg noted that his former employer's newsroom has dropped from more than 70 staff to fewer than 10.
In an interview with Illinois Times, Schoenburg compared the newspaper's coverage of the derecho, which struck Springfield June 29, to its coverage of the two tornados that hit the community March 12, 2006. He counted the number of local stories published about the storms during the seven days following each calamity and found that about nine times as many articles were published in 2006.
"We realized we have a crisis in local news in the United States," Palfrey said. "And we noted also that this was something that was a great business a few years ago, even one generation ago – whether you were the Chicago Tribune and you generated the great fortune of Colonel McCormick or any number of other great fortunes that have been made, that is no longer true. In order to sustain local journalism, philanthropy has to play a role."
Just how the money will be used to improve journalism in the community has yet to be determined, Stremsterfer said. The $2 million will be placed in an endowment and investment income raised from it will be distributed to projects geared toward improving news coverage in central Illinois.
"When you're creating a fund that'll be there in perpetuity, you use the earnings. So, if you're looking at $2 million, (it will generate) $80,000 to $100,000 in year one," Stremsterfer said.
But he said it is his hope that the principal will continue to grow through future donations.
"We hope that will catalyze other gifts locally, and that other people who have the ability to do so will support this endowment, and that it will sustain local journalism here in Springfield for years to come," he said.
How the grant money will be distributed and to what organizations has yet to be determined.
"We're engaging the American Journalism Project, which is a first-class group that comes into communities, researches their news ecosystem, convenes community members to get input and then comes up with a plan," Stremsterfer said. "So, when people ask, 'Well what are you going to do with the money?' – we don't know yet, as far as how we're going to deploy that locally. We're going to wait for this process to develop and come up with a strategy for funding."
Funding could go toward journalism nonprofits such as Capitol News Illinois, which covers the Statehouse for newspapers and broadcast outlets across the state. Or it could benefit a for-profit news operation that serves a unique niche, such as rural or minority communities.
Stacy Reed, chief program officer for the Community Foundation, said the need for more comprehensive news coverage may be even greater in rural areas of Sangamon and neighboring counties.
"Journalism has been undercapitalized, under-resourced for too many years," she said. "The community has really talented reporters and staff, but not enough. We need more. And we need it across our region -- not just Springfield. We want to hear about all things going on, whether it's Auburn or Riverton or Petersburg. It all affects us. We need more resources and support to increase credible, reliable news reporting."
After the announcement of the grants, Schoenburg moderated a discussion with representatives who have been involved with nonprofit journalism organizations: Evan Smith, senior adviser of Emerson Collective; Jennifer Kho, executive editor of the Chicago Sun-Times; and Hannah Meisel, a reporter for Capitol News Illinois.
Meisel said she was initially skeptical of nonprofit news models such as CNI and feared that providing news stories at no charge would de-incentivize news outlets to invest in Statehouse reporters.
"I came to realize that these market forces that unfortunately shape these big media conglomerates – their incentives – it's just so much larger than me," Meisel said. "It's so much larger than the press corps. It's not going to – no matter how much I would like it to – return to the time of advertising dollars funding great journalism. ... I've come to understand that nonprofit news is the way of the future."
Scott Reeder, a staff writer for Illinois Times, can be reached at [email protected].