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Macomb effort brightens a dark Illinois local media scene

The Community News Brief is published in Macomb, Ill.
The Community News Brief is published in Macomb, Ill.

Tim Franklin will be sharing some depressing statistics when he speaks at the Rural Communities Conference in Springfield later this month.

“Illinois has lost 232 newspapers since 2005, losses that have hit all parts of Illinois,” he said.

Franklin is a former Chicago Tribune reporter and editor who’s now a dean at Northwestern University and heads up the school’s Local News Initiative. He was a member of the Local Journalism Task Force that recently filed a report on the decline of local journalism with the Illinois General Assembly.

Half of the papers lost in Illinois have been in the Chicago area, said Franklin, noting that DuPage County and Lake County have lost two-thirds of their newspapers since 2005.

The problem of news deserts—regions without a local news outlet of any kind—tend to be in rural parts of the state, he said. Franklin said the task force now listed 33 counties in Illinois with only one local news outlet.

In addition to the loss of media has been the loss of experienced news personnel, he said.

“Eighty-five percent of newspaper journalist jobs have been lost since 2005 in Illinois. That’s the highest loss in terms of percentage in the nation,” said Franklin.

While encouraged by startups that seek to fill the void, Franklin said the number of new enterprises “is not coming close to what’s being lost.”

One of those startups is the Community News Brief in Macomb owned and operated by Lynne Campbell who now publishes her paper twice a week—on Tuesday and Friday. The News Brief is mailed to 2,200 subscribers in Macomb and surrounding communities. Campbell also posts a “free” digital edition of the paper on Wednesday each week.

“The content kept growing along with the advertising so we had to add a second edition. We had to up the prices a bit but no one seemed to mind,” she said. A year’s subscription to the Community News Brief is $65 ($55 for seniors), said Campbell, who started her career in sales in 1981 at the Macomb Journal, which later became the McDonough County Voice.

“Content is king. The other papers are closing because they don’t have the journalists to create the content. Gannett, which owns most of the papers in Illinois, decided the direction they wanted to go was a digital one and took their eye off their core product which was print. They thought they could do more with less,” she said.

After Gannett closed the McDonough County Voice in 2023, Campbell did more by paying for contributions by journalists available to work. She credits people like Darcie Shinberger, Patrick Stout, and Dewain Hulett with having the expertise and energy to generate content for the paper.

“I’d love to see every little community go back to the day when they each had a little newspaper. There have been so many that have been gobbled up and then thrown away. It would be wonderful to see a resurgence of that,” said Campbell.

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