Journalist turned politician hopes to eliminate Illinois' news deserts

A former television journalist who has spent the last decade as an Illinois state senator is hoping a newly created Local Journalism Task Force will help find a way to reverse the growth of news deserts throughout Illinois.

Noting that dozens of Illinois towns have lost local news sources over the past 20 years, while others have seen newsrooms depleted, state Sen. Steve Stadelman, a Rockford Democrat, sponsored the task force legislation that Gov. J.B. Pritzker signed into law last month.

"The business model has been severely tested over the past 10 to 20 years," Stadelman said in a meeting with editorial board members of the Daily Herald and the Southern Illinois Local Media Group. "Especially in rural areas, you have school board meetings and city council meetings where there are no reporters, and that's not usually good for the democratic process."

The task force idea has been tossed around for a number of years, officials at the Illinois Press Association said.

"Nothing but good can come from a discussion about how to support, defend and extend local journalism," said association CEO Don Craven. "With the diversity of groups appointing members to this task force and the diversity of thought represented, it can be nothing but a good discussion. The fear is it's going to wind up being a pretty blue binder on somebody's shelf."

Stadelman, who was a staple of Rockford television news for more than two decades, believes the task force should focus its efforts on economic development policies that could help create new newsgathering outfits or sustain and grow existing ones. The Illinois Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity is providing the task force with administrative support.

Stadelman said he hopes the task force will consider "whatever we can do to encourage news organizations to bring news and information to underserved communities. But I'm not going into this with any preconceived notions. If we study this and find out they really shouldn't be involved or there isn't a role for state government, that's fine; I don't have a political agenda."

Members of the task force will be made up of legislative and gubernatorial appointees, academics, industry leaders and other interested parties. Currently, 13 different groups or state officials will appoint to the task force, but Stadelman said he is game for adding a few more members to ensure "as many diverse voices as possible and different groups who may want to have input."

Pritzker has already announced his press secretary, Jordan Abudayyeh, will serve on the task force as his office's pick.

The task force is slated to begin meeting next year and will ultimately report back to the General Assembly within two years with its findings and recommendations.

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