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March 13, 2019, 9:06 a.m.
Reporting & Production

Collaborating at the Capitol: A new Illinois reporting service nearly doubles the number of statehouse journalists

Reporters in Oregon, Pennsylvania, Florida, and now Illinois are banding together to share statehouse coverage.

Serving the thousand or so people of Roseville, Illinois, the Roseville Independent is an “occasional” newspaper with 143 subscribers and a Facebook page followed by as much as half of the town’s population. It now also regularly publishes explainers on the state’s government happenings and policy debates (including those still in committee!).

How? Through Capitol News Illinois, a new service from the Illinois Press Foundation, journalism on topics like the implications of the newly raised $15 minimum wage, skipping answering the census next year, and the governor’s promise of revenue from legalized cannabis could again become commonplace in Illinois newspapers. Note those links are from the Southern Illinoisan, the Decatur-based Herald-Review, and the Rockford Star, a sampling of the 250 newspapers (out of IPF’s 440 members) that have published CNI’s reporting since it launched in January. Roseville, about 226 miles miles west of Chicago and 20 miles from Western Illinois University, is the smallest member, but on the other end is the Chicago Sun-Times with its circulation of 120,000 (“Statewide bag tax advances out of committee”).

“We were looking at which parts of the state [were news deserts] to see what we could do, but the biggest news desert was at the Illinois capital. That particular news desert impacted every newspaper, every area, every corner of the state of Illinois,” Sam Fisher, the Illinois Press Association‘s president and CEO, said. (The foundation is the educational arm of the organization, and once upon a time I participated in an IPF-paid journalism program.)

Here are Penelope Abernathy’s numbers for the Illinois newspaper landscape:

Seven in ten newspapers in the U.S. did not have a statehouse reporter in 2014, a Pew analysis then found, and it’s quite conceivable that that number has only grown since. Between 2003 and 2014, the number of full-time statehouse reporters declined by 35 percent, with Illinois experiencing the strongest impact: losing seven full-time newspaper statehouse gigs in those 11 years. (Right as the state’s former governor was getting nailed on corruption charges, I might add.) That’s the same number of news organizations’ reporters in the Illinois statehouse press corps today, plus one from a conservative think tank.

The presence of Capitol News Illinois adds three reporters, an intern from the University of Illinois Springfield, and bureau chief/foundation director Jeff Rogers. Rogers heads the team and is double-cast as IPF’s director while spearheading the bureau as interim chief. This initiative is funded for the next three years by IPF, which collects money from individuals and association members, and the McCormick Foundation.

The Springfield initiative joins the Oregon Capital Bureau, started by three local publishers; Spotlight PA/PA Post, foundation-supported collaborations between Pennsylvania’s local outlets of various media; and the 11-year-old combined Miami Herald-Tampa Bay Times statehouse bureau as the latest united-front state government coverage. CNI is part of IPF and its content can freely be used by any of its member newspapers, while the Oregon and Florida collaborations are between individual for-profit news organizations and Pennsylvania’s was spurred on by a group of foundations.

“We’ve tried to provide a lot more coverage of committee hearings. That’s where the real discussion about these issues has come up. We’re trying to get our readers through the papers aware of the issues as they’re starting to be discussed, rather than on the floor and already decided,” Rogers said.

The team is also emphasizing the civics of the lawmaking process: “We try really hard in our stories to explain why it matters, what’s next, what the process is, so readers get more of an understanding of how this works. A lot of media outlets don’t have the time,” he added.

As four people covering state-level policy for a 12.7 million-person state, the team makes do with little time as well. Rogers said the newspaper editors reach out with requests for certain committees or issues related to their local areas, and CNI has even written separate stories for a local paper.

The value of this type of reporting across the state appears to be high. Fisher said that as much of a quarter of CNI’s coverage is published on the local papers’ front pages, and Rogers said CNI usually publishes four to five stories a day but sometimes as many as eight. (I reached out to a few editors from the local newspapers in question, but none responded.)

CNI is exploring ways to expand the collaboration to broadcast TV and radio as well. Still, considering that it just launched in January, it’s already made an impact. “We knew there was a need. The thing we didn’t know was the rapid adoption,” Fisher said.

Image of the Capitol News Illinois team courtesy of Jeff Rogers.

POSTED     March 13, 2019, 9:06 a.m.
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