Bill Knight: Lawmakers look to help local news

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Bill Knight

Last week, more people in my small-town neighborhood knew about a huge tanker blocking the Suez Canal than realized that a local polling place was open for the day for early voting in next week’s consolidated election.

That’s typical of too many places that no longer have local newspapers with local news for local people.

However, an Illinois lawmaker is starting a process to address that, combining personal political priorities supporting jobs and good government with protecting the best means to inform the public and drawing on his professional background as a newsman.

State Sen. Steve Stadelman, a Rockford Democrat, in February introduced Senate Bill 134, the “Local Journalism Task Force,” and the Commerce Committee last week unanimously passed it, so it’s heading to the Senate floor for further consideration on April 13.

The measure doesn’t address the contents or quality of news, instead focusing on the quantity of news outlets — particularly in Illinois’ small towns and mid-sized cities.

Declines in advertising and circulation resulted in almost half the newsroom jobs at 2004’s newspapers vanishing, and more than 2,000 newspapers around the country closing over the same time.

Stadelman spent decades as a TV reporter before becoming a state senator, so he appreciates the significance of news and the effects of its absence.

“As a former journalist and news anchor, I know how important it is to have access to truly local news,” he said. “People deserve to know what’s happening in their communities regardless of where they live.”

His bill would create a Local Journalism Task Force made up of 13 individuals representing print, broadcast, journalism schools, state government and business, and assign it to study the situation and make recommendations on how to preserve and restore news coverage in “news deserts.” If enacted. the task force would be required to submit a report to the governor’s office and the legislature by Jan. 1, 2023.

For everyday citizens, it’s difficult to participate in representative government without reliable information — about issues and political candidates increasingly reluctant to campaign in rural areas or publicly disclose their position (much less appear in forums or town halls). 

There’s no free press without a press.

Sure, there are hundreds of “choices” via satellite or cable, but broadcasters and metro newspapers can’t or won’t adequately cover areas beyond their more densely populated target markets.

The idea complements a national push (Congress’ bipartisan “Local Journalism Sustainability Act” was introduced last summer) to deal with communities underserved by newspapers, etc. It also acknowledges that people may notice big news globally or nationally — or see unreliable social-media stories — but not what’s going on nearby: school boards and sidewalks, tax revenues and spending, libraries and fire departments, the status of hometown Meals on Wheels programs, neighbors harvesting crops for a recently widowed woman, a café or tavern getting creative during the pandemic, kids’ music or sports, etc.

Stadelman, a 40-year-old journalism graduate from the University of Wisconsin, might be the right person at the right time. In addition to his background in news, he’s proven to be popular, with solid victory margins of more than 60% of the vote in his first race, in 2012, and last year. (He ran unopposed in 2016.)

Restoring local journalism could reinvigorate civic engagement and help create jobs, two issues on which he’s campaigned: “Job creation and development are a top priority,” he said, along with his previous career “advocating for viewers’ interests and keeping a watchful eye on government.”

The proposed task force would have members appointed by each party’s leaders in the House and Senate; Gov. Pritzker’s office; plus delegates from Northwestern, the University of Illinois at Springfield and Southern Illinois University; four journalism trade groups including the Illinois Press Association; and the Illinois Manufacturers Association. The state Department of Commerce and Economic Development would provide administration support.

Its bottom line: There should be no “flyover” areas in Illinois without local news.

“Your address should not dictate the quality and type of information you have access to,” Stadelman said. “This measure is meant to start a conversation and provide new ideas to help address shrinking press coverage in our communities.”

Bill Knight has been a reporter, editor and columnist for more than 50 years. Also an author, Knight is a journalism professor emeritus from WIU, where he taught for more than 20 years. 

via Galesburg Register Mail

March 31, 2021 at 08:49AM

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