It’s Time For Illinois To Subsidize Local News Gathering

The Danville Commercial-News building in Danville, Illinois. Once a 30,000 circulation daily paper, it now claims about 15,000. Credit: Randy von Liski/Flickr

The business of reporting local political news is dying because we consumers just don’t care. It was never that big to begin with, anyway, since while local politics got front page treatment, the real reason we watched, read and listened was to learn about the new movie, restaurant or big game. But the Great Internet Disaggregation has given us Fandango, Yelp and ESPN, and myriad other information sources that do a much better and thorough job. As a result, we’re no longer drawn to news organizations like we once were and miss out on local political news.

Stripped of features, listings and everything fun, newspapers and local television and radio news have doubled down on the hard stuff: City and regional government reporting. It’s all critical information that can directly affect our lives, but for the vast majority of consumers, local politics is boring dreck that pales in comparison to just about everything else on God’s green earth. We’re ditching our news subscriptions for hundreds of other more fun things, like Candy Crush, TMZ, fantasy football sites and whatever else captures our fancy.

While Chicago’s “big” publications, The Chicago Tribune, Sun Times and Chicago Reader still exist, they are all shadows of what they were just ten years ago. Across the Illinois, McClatchy, Lee and Gannett-owned newspapers in smaller cities are often barely beyond pamphlet size on some days. Without help, there’s only one direction for this trend: down.

It’s a tough business competing for eyeballs against all the digital attractions of today’s media age. If news organizations want to survive, they have to focus their reporting resources on things more alluring than city council meetings.

As a result, it’s time for Illinois’ local daily newspapers to do away with paying for city and county reporters and for the state to directly fund a local reporting wire service for every big and medium-sized city and county around the state. Subsidized local reporting could be put into print, but would also be more economically published on local news organizations’ websites, going right to the people often missing quality, local reporting.

A far from radical idea, government subsidies for local news are becoming old hat these days. The Canadian government has debated increasing their local news subsidy to C$350 million (Vice News has already been a beneficiary in Toronto) and the New Jersey legislature just implemented a $5 million local news subsidy.

The Illinois Local News Wire would be inexpensive, as government programs go, and would fight local corruption more efficiently than any other government program. It would free up local news organizations resources so they could be focused on more interesting stories, such as human interest or deep investigative work, that would draw more local readers, strengthening the overall news ecosystem.

We should implement this plan sooner, rather than later, before news audiences completely lose faith in their local publications and there’s nothing left to prop up.

Most consumers are totally uninterested in local government and politics until something important happens. We tune out, concentrating on our personal lives––and then a scandal, tragedy, big sports win or terrible crime occurs. Big or salacious, these events grab our attention and focuses us on our broader community. As a result, news publications experience unpredictable waves, big ups and big downs of audience attention. We all want a copy of the local paper’s front page after the World Series win, but could care less about the county board budget vote the next day.

This kind of wave can be exhilarating, but undulating audiences are hard to monetize. Publishers need consistency to keep advertisers.

Smart editors know this, and employ a litany of stratagems to hold our attention. In Chicago, The Chicago Tribune runs lots of deep investigative stories, thinking that readers want to feel like they’re being educated about government run amok. The Sun Times also has its own splashy investigative stories, with a smattering of crime stories. In the Big Apple, the newly shrunken New York Daily News looks like it will focus on crime stories as well. There’s always a tranche of paranoid citizens that want to know the worst.

Lost in this is boring local government reporting for average citizens. Yes, metro daily newspapers still keep City Hall beat reporters on the job, but it’s viewed as a sunk cost, rather than than a venue for differentiation and to attract daily readers. And in towns like Chicago where there are multiple news outlets covering local government every day, basic city hall reporting is pretty much the same, barring stylistic differences noticeable only by the most dedicated readers. (Insider political publications like The Daily Line and Capitol Fax are a different breed, since they contain a level of detail no average reader would ever care to ingest.)

But smaller cities, like Peoria and Carbondale, are almost entirely lacking regular local government coverage because newsrooms just can’t afford it like in years past. As a result, when something big happens, and news organizations are caught flat-footed, by missing major details or even the entire story, local audiences lose faith in the publication, dropping the daily news habit.

Creating and maintaining The Illinois Local News Wire would be relatively cheap and easy. Contracted on five-year basis and operated by a non-profit news organization, such as Illinois Public Radio or the Illinois Press Association, operating a strong team of text-only reporters and editors for every city and county over 30,000 people in Illinois would cost less than $3 million a year. Like the old City News Bureau in Chicago, reporters would stick to the basics of government meetings, announcements and elections. Investigative work could come from the local paper of record, while The Illinois Local News Wire would provide baseline reporting.

Like other wire services, reporting content would be made available to qualifying news organizations, with a low hurdle, such as membership with The Illinois Press Association, or demonstrating that your organization includes more than one full-time editorial staffer. Like most Associated Press reports, only publications could have access to the reporting. The point is to drive local news publication readership, and for local editors to make local editorial decisions.

Creating an Illinois Local News Wire would free up local news organizations to fill their pages with stories readers really want, give local politicians and leaders a platform to communicate citizens, and ensure local governments across the state get the watchdog reporting they need to stay honest and effective. It’s time for us to recognize that the free market has failed, and local government and politics reporting is too important to let lapse.

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