The issue no one talks about

What will it take to put the plight of local journalism on the public agenda?

Despite the large number of issues President Joe Biden raised in his State of the Union speech Thursday night and that Sen. Katie Britt of Alabama mentioned in her Republican rebuttal, the dire state of local journalism throughout America was not among them.

That was not unusual. In fact, it would have been a surprise if the topic had come up. As candidates campaign for congressional and state legislative offices in Illinois' March 19 primary and later the Nov. 5 general election, they are not likely to talk about it either.

The health of our nation, as well as our state and our communities, is dependent on an informed citizenry, and yet what the plight of the vigorous, independent local journalism that is a primary means for delivering that information is a crisis that largely goes unspoken.

Admittedly, even we hesitate to bring it up in today's editorial because as a local news organization, we obviously have a vested interest in the outcome.

But here is the thing. All of us have a vested interest in it. You do. Your community does. The country does. Our government as a republic does. All of us. Not just the news organizations.

The state of Illinois has created a Local Journalism Task Force, thanks largely to the sensitivity to this issue of State Sen. Steve Stadelman, a former newscaster from Rockford. But its work has been painfully slow considering the urgency of the problem.

The threat to local journalism is not a partisan matter. Stadelman is a Democrat but Republicans should be concerned too. In fact, rural red communities have suffered the heaviest losses of local news coverage.

Research by Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism found four of the state's counties have no local source of news, and 33 others have only one source.

What will it take to put the health of local journalism on the public agenda?

A proposal now under consideration in Illinois would require that Big Tech and social media monitor use of local news on their platforms and compensate local news organizations for the use of the journalism they provide. The devil always is in the details, but on its face, that seems like a reasonable place to start.

The task force is reviewing several other options to reinforce local journalism and its independence. Among the ideas: tax credits for subscribers, tax credits for advertisers, journalism payroll tax credits, corporate tax credits for news organizations, incentives for local ownership, set-asides for government advertising.

Some of these ideas no doubt are better or more flawed than others, and we are not comfortable taking editorial positions on individual proposals that might directly benefit our company.

The key is to get the discussion going. The future clearly is going to look a lot different from the past, as is the case with most things, but how as a matter of public policy do we sustain local journalism?

This is a question to ask candidates and public officials of both parties.

In an analysis released recently, the task force warned, “Illinois and the nation are in the midst of a local journalism crisis, with news outlets closing or shrinking at an alarming rate. This isn’t just a business problem. It’s a democracy problem, too. An informed citizenry is essential to the health of our government on both the national and local levels, and reliable information is becoming an endangered resource as the news industry struggles with widespread technological and financial disruption.

“As researcher (Medill’s) Penny Abernathy (told the task force) … studies have shown that communities lacking robust local journalism have lower levels of voter participation and higher levels of corruption. And, of course, misinformation flourishes.”

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