Like your news organization, Capitol News Illinois continues to adapt to changes and evolve



Director, Illinois Press Foundation

As editor of Capitol News Illinois and director of the Illinois Press Foundation, I have a daily connection to editors and publishers at newspapers of all shapes and sizes in every part of the state. It has been a difficult year, seeing all that you went through in 2020.

But while there was a steady flow of bad news in the Illinois newspaper industry in 2020, I prefer to look at the past year in a few different ways.

First, the resilience and ingenuity of editors, reporters, publishers, ad directors and ad reps was on display. The many ways that you all adapted on both the editorial and business sides made me proud. But I wasn’t surprised.

Second, the importance of good, trusted journalism is even more evident in this era of “fake news” and a pandemic. Newspapers are helping their communities through these difficult times. This also is not a surprise.

Finally, the past few months have forced every industry and workplace to find new ways of doing business. Some of those changes will be permanent, because they actually strengthen the business model. I think we all understand that significant changes in our industry have been needed for some time. Among many other things, I prefer to look at 2020 as year of opportunity – when crises began to shake newspapers into some difficult but necessary changes that will ultimately make our industry stronger.

The landscape for Capitol News Illinois and statehouse reporting is also changing.

The Illinois Press Foundation started the nonprofit news service in great part to fill a void left by the exit of bureaus and reporters from the state Capitol in Springfield. Our hope is that this effort helps spark a return of reporters and bureaus from around the state to the statehouse. While some see Capitol News Illinois as a threat to making obsolete other reporters and news organizations covering state government, we don’t see it that way. How we see it is that increased coverage creates an increased interest in state government. That increased interest ultimately necessitates more resources deployed to covering state government.

That theory has certainly been put to the test in the first two years of Capitol News Illinois.

Longtime statehouse reporters Bernie Schoenburg and Doug Finke retired in 2020, taking with them a vast reserve of institutional knowledge. A bureau that had a full-time reporter also left the Capitol in the past year, and there are three organizations that are no longer providing internships for students in the Public Affairs Reporting program at the University of Illinois Springfield.

None of these are bright spots, certainly.

But the Daily Herald in Arlington Heights has rejoined the PAR program, and this spring has its first intern in a long time. The Chicago Sun-Times rejoined the program in 2020 and has an intern for a second consecutive year. Quincy Media launched a broadcast bureau at the Capitol in 2020, and also has an intern this spring.

These are all welcome developments.

And just this past weekend, we learned that Lee Enterprises has hired a reporter to cover state government for its Illinois newspapers – all of which have been strong partners of Capitol News Illinois.

So that landscape is constantly changing.

Would we love to see more newspaper companies like Lee Enterprises return to devoting more resources to state government reporting? Absolutely!

Would more news organizations devoting resources to state government reporting force changes in approach for Capitol News Illinois? Perhaps, and probably likely.

But just as you do at your news organization, Capitol News Illinois will face this ever-changing landscape with adaptability and continue to grow and thrive.

Speaking of the Public Affairs Reporting program at UIS, Capitol News Illinois is fortunate this spring to have two interns working as full-time reporters! We have had one intern each of the past two spring semesters. This year, we have both Grace Barbic and Tim Kirsininkas working with us. They’ve already made strong contributions and had a baptism by fire of sorts with the General Assembly having a wildly fast-paced and newsworthy lame duck session during their second week on the job.

We’re happy to have two young, rising stars on our team. However, we have two PAR interns in great part because there are more students than there are print organizations. There are 7 print journalists in this year’s program and only 5 print news organizations. The hope is that the PAR program continues to rebuild to a larger number of students. But there also is a hope that more print journalism internships are made available to those students in the future.

Another area where change is going to be needed in 2021 for Capitol News Illinois is fundraising. We have been fortunate to have had significant financial support for the first few years from the Robert R. McCormick Foundation and the Illinois Press Foundation. And while our hope is that those financial partnerships continue in the future, we cannot count on it.

We must establish a more robust and diverse funding base for CNI to continue its work in the coming years. That was always the plan. One way Capitol News Illinois could get on firmer footing financially is through increased donations from the newspapers that publish the content daily and weekly. If each newspaper, as it prepared its 2022 budget later this year, considered Capitol News Illinois as a news service like others it pays and donated a few thousand dollars, a huge difference would be made. Let’s say every daily newspaper in Illinois made a $5,000 donation to CNI – and looked at that as a budget expense for a service it uses so frequently. That alone would essentially pay for a year of CNI operations. A $1,000 donation from each of the nondaily newspapers in Illinois – also seen by the newspaper as a budget expense for a news service it uses frequently – would fund another year-plus of operations.

Expect further communications of this sort from us throughout the year as we look to grow our funding base.

Our year-end NewsMatch fundraising campaign is another way that we grow that base. Our 2020 campaign ended Dec. 31, and I am happy to report that we will be receiving the maximum match from the national NewsMatch organization of $12,500. While we fell short of our overall campaign goal, we did receive more than the $12,500 we needed to raise to earn the full match.

A special thank you to John Lampinen, senior vice president of Paddock Publications and editor of the Daily Herald, and Chris Coates, Lee Enterprises’ central Illinois editor, for the video testimonials they recorded for our NewsMatch fundraising appeals! Thanks also to PAR Director Jason Piscia for doing the same!

We can do better in our 2021 NewsMatch campaign, and we will. That will require CNI to build more relationships with individuals and organizations with an interest in state government coverage. That work is underway. It will also require the further establishment of Capitol News Illinois as a standalone news source in addition to one that provides contents to daily newspapers. This is work that will have to become more of a focus in 2021.

But here, again, IPA member newspapers can help the cause. How? By sharing with CNI the digital reach of its content on your own websites, for instance. Promoting Capitol News Illinois and its need for funding in your print and digital products would help, too. Occasional shout-outs to CNI on your social media platforms would also be great. Much of this is happening now, but more of it happening moving forward can help as we promote our partnership with newspapers in fundraising campaigns.

You’ll all be hearing more about this in the coming months as well.