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Meet the Illinois journalists planting new publications to ward off encroaching news deserts

Kewanee in 2009
Bill Whittaker / CC BY-SA 3.0 / Wikipedia
Kewanee in 2009

When the local newspaper withers away, what replaces it? Often, it's nothing.

These communities become so-called news deserts: places where there are no journalists covering city council meetings, high school sports, or community events.

But in this tale of two rural Illinois cities, reporters aren't letting that happen without a fight.

Susan DeVilder got her start in journalism 22 years ago. She was hired at the Kewanee Star-Courier fresh out of college.

After taking some time off to raise her children, she started dabbling in writing for the paper again about four years ago as a freelancer.

"I guess it was in the fall of last year that you started to get the idea that maybe things weren't going great with them," DeVilder said of the Star-Courier. "They announced that everyone had to take a furlough for one week in December. And that's when we got the notice, I think in November, that we would no longer be needed for December and they'd let us know in January if they needed stringers for the start period."

The Star-Courier is now one of 11 dailies touted in Illinois by Gannett, the company formerly known as GateHouse Media. Among those papers are the Peoria Journal Star, Rockford Register Star, and the State Journal-Register in Springfield.

The trend isn't unique to Kewanee. Regulatory filings show that since GateHouse Media merged with Gannett in 2019, the media conglomerate has shed nearly half its workforce at papers around the country. The chain had 11,000 employees at the end of 2022. That's down from more than 21,000 people on the payroll four years ago.

Tim Franklin is a senior associate dean and John M. Mutz chair in local news at the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University. He's also a member of theIllinois Local Journalism Task Force. He said about 70 million Americans now live in counties with no local news, or only one local news source.

"This is a growing crisis. It's one that happens kind of incrementally over time. It's almost imperceptible to some people. But this is one that has huge implications, I think, for how people consume news and information and also ultimately for our democracy," said Franklin.

There is no local news on the Star-Courier's homepage, and no employees listed on the paper's staff directory. The homepages of the Canton Daily Ledger and McDonough County Voice look virtually identical, with Powerball numbers slotted in as each paper's top homepage story.

The Star-Courier no longer has a physical office in Kewanee. The situation is similar to Macomb, where the McDonough County Voice's lease expires at the end of this month.

Lynne Campbell started her career in sales at the Macomb Journal in 1981. GateHouse later came to town and merged Macomb's two papers into the Voice. Campbell became the paper's publisher, then later transferred to southern Illinois to work as a regional manager for the newspaper chain.

"And that's when I realized and that's when they really were making the switch to everything being digital, not caring so much about local news," Campbell said. "You know, their main priority was how do we get into this digital scene and how do we make our mark on the internet?"

Campbell quit her job with GateHouse, and became co-owner of the Limestone Independent newspaper in Bartonville. In 2017, she moved back to Macomb and started the Community News Brief, a three-day-a-week print publication. The Friday edition later morphed into a weekly paper that now boasts 2,000 subscribers. Campbell is preparing to add an additional publication day on Tuesdays for the subscriber paper, starting next month.

Campbell said she attributes her family-run publication's growth to the community's hunger for local news.

"It's just that deep connection. We try to provide that information that is just hard to get anywhere," she said.

Susan DeVilder is taking a different approach in Kewanee. She got together with fellow displaced Star-Courier stringer Mike Berry, a retired veteran journalist who was DeVilder's first editor at the paper. The pair decided to start a Facebook page, Kewanee News Now, to drive traffic to articles they were contributing to NewsBreak, an online news aggregator.

"We soon realized that that was not going to be sustainable. It was not going to be a sustainable business model. And so we had to think kind of outside the box on on how to fund what we were doing so that we could at least you know, try to make some some money doing it," she said.

DeVilder and Berry decided to start a new community news website called the Kewanee Voice after she attended a webinar hosted by the Institute for Nonprofit News. Berry said an online approach has some advantages.

"You don't have to worry about getting the thing printed, you don't have to buy paper and they run a press or anything like that, and you don't have to pay people to deliver the paper. They can just get it on their phone or on their tablet or whatever," he said.

Berry said becoming a nonprofit also allows people to make tax-deductible contributions to keep the news coming. Those donations will be routed through the Kewanee Senior Citizens organization.

"Nobody's gonna be getting rich doing this," Berry said. "We just want it to be self sustaining, basically."

Franklin, the dean at Northwestern's Medill School of Journalism, said while there are great examples of successful local news startups, he believes either a new commercial model or a system of government subsidies and tax incentives may ultimately be necessary to save local news — particularly for smaller communities around the country where the philanthropic or customer base to support journalism doesn't exist.

"News organizations that are increasingly reliant on reader revenue — that's subscriptions or memberships — may not have the scale to support a local newsroom. That is the worrying thing," he said.

Still, journalists like the self-described "jack-of-all-trades" publisher Lynne Campbell in Macomb or the Kewanee Voice's Mike Berry and Susan DeVilder are carrying the torch.

DeVilder believes local news is more than just keeping people informed. It's the glue that holds communities together.

"The truth is, the underserved communities like Kewanee that lose their news source and lose their journalism, rarely, if ever, get it back," she said.

As for Gannett, the company continues to push more of its efforts into growing its digital subscriber base as print circulations decline.

"We're in this very tricky period right now where publishers are trying to make this pivot from print to digital, and hang on to print revenue and readers for as long as they can, while at the same time they're trying to build this digital habit," said Franklin of newspapers in general.

Gannett has dropped publication of 171 papers since 2019, mostly weeklies. Some of those papers were sold off; others were discontinued. Last month, company CEO Mike Reed told investors on an earning call that Gannett would entertain bids on any of their markets.

In a statement, Gannett said their central Illinois papers have deep roots in the communities they serve, and they're committed to providing resources to newsrooms while also leveraging their network of papers around the country to provide content.

Tim is the News Director at WCBU Peoria Public Radio.
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