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U of I professor: Save democracy by supporting local journalism

Bob McChesney, professor emeritus of communication at the University of Illinois, has been writing about the state of journalism for years. Along with a string of books, numerous articles and a program on public radio, McChesney has now collaborated with Wisconsin journalist John Nichols to offer the Local Journalism Initiative.

McChesney isn’t new to the subject of our changing media. One of his books, published in 2013, was entitled “Will the Last Reporter Please Turn Out the Lights.” For McChesney, it’s not just about giving reporters an opportunity to earn a living, it’s because he believes the future of democracy in the United States hangs in the balance."For the first time in U.S. history, most Americans lack access to what used to be considered their birthright: well-established, competing and accountable local news media covering their communities and drawing the citizenry into public life,” he stated.The tsunami of misinformation, and the extent to which it now permeates our politics, results from a much larger problem," said McChesney.

"The collapse of local journalism in the United States has its roots in the patterns of media consolidation that emerged in the final few decades of the 20th century, and then exploded with the emergence of the internet and social media in the first decades of the 21st century,” he said.

But we’re not just missing the thud of the morning paper landing on the front porch. “Unless the collapse of local journalism is addressed directly and successfully, it is impossible to see how the threat of a more authoritarian, even fascistic, future can be subdued--or put another way, how functional self-government and the rule of law can survive," said McChesney.

McChesney said the initiative would establish well-funded, competitive, independent, locally based and uncensored nonprofit news media in every town, city and county in the United States. The proposal calls for government support that would come in the form of grants to communities across America, grants approved by local voters, said McChesney. Grants would allow local efforts to take over media outlets that have withered under chain ownership, he said.

Local PBS, NPR and community media stations present a special case for the initiative, said McChesney. “LJI support seems appropriate, because it will create more local journalism,” he said.

The recent merger of Chicago public radio station WBEZ with the Chicago Sun Times to create a robust nonprofit news organization would be a classic beneficiary of LJI funding, said McChesney.

A national initiative will cost billions but McChesney believes since the system of ad-supported journalism has shown that it’s to longer viable, it’s time that journalism was viewed as a public good like education or healthcare.

McChesney said he and Nichols are still hammering out a formal proposal to take to legislators. In the meantime, he’s looking for input from others. For more information on the initiative, head to https://www.freepress.net/sites/default/files/2022-03/to_protect_democracy_recreate_local_news_media_final.pdf

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Steve Tarter retired from the Peoria Journal Star in 2019 after spending 20 years at the paper as both reporter and business editor.