A new effort boosts a diminished Illinois statehouse press

The Capitol News Illinois team of (from left) Grant Morgan, Rebecca Anzel, Peter Hancock, Jeff Rogers, and Jerry Nowicki discuss coverage plans in their office at the state capitol in Springfield, Illinois. Photo by Lee Milner/Illinois Times.

Just four months after the launch of an Illinois Press Foundation project aimed at providing nonpartisan statehouse news, nearly 300 papers around Illinois have already reprinted its content, and several editors say its coverage has become an invaluable fixture in their papers.

The success of Capitol News Illinois is a hopeful result for political journalism in Illinois, which in recent years has seen its number of capitol reporters dwindle, mirroring a nationwide decline in statehouse coverage as local papers face cutbacks. It also suggests that in the face of existential threats to the news industry, turning to collaboration—and away from traditional notions of competition—can pay off for local news.

“Our company doesn’t have anybody in Springfield,” Jon Styf, the editor of The Northwest Herald, a McHenry County property of Shaw Media, says. “It’s really hard for us to get people because they’re in and out. It’s easier for us to get the lawmakers when they’re back in town. Capitol News Illinois really helps us keep in touch and keep on top of what’s going on in Springfield.”

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Illinois Press Foundation Director and Capitol News Illinois Interim Bureau Chief Jeff Rogers says that the idea to operate a news bureau originated on the foundation’s board over two years ago. (The foundation is the charitable arm of the Illinois Press Association.) John David Reed, a former journalism professor, galvanized the board to take action in the face of Springfield’s shrinking press corps.

A 2014 PEW study on statehouse reporting found that Illinois went from 12 to five full-time newspaper reporters in the press corps from 2009 to 2014. This was the sharpest decline in statehouse reporters in the country, in a state with a known history of political corruption. Since then, partisan outlets—including newspapers and websites funded by a wealthy conservative talk show host, a news network funded by a right-wing policy institute, and a new progressive site created by a Chicago aldermen—have stepped in to offer ideologically motivated statehouse coverage to newspapers around the state. Capitol News aims to offer a rigorous nonpartisan option.

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This past fall, Rogers announced the project’s forthcoming launch and hired three reporters with statehouse experience—Rebecca Anzel, Jerry Nowicki, and Peter Hancock—as well as full-time intern Grant Morgan. Funding comes from the McCormick Foundation and the Illinois Press Foundation, which receives money from member dues and other programs. All Capitol News content is free to members of the Illinois Press Association.

Instead of writing for one paper, feeling like I’m in a competitive race against other papers in the same region or the same market, we’re now working for all of them.

The bureau’s arrival in Springfield roughly doubled the number of full-time print newspaper reporters working at the statehouse. The team has since settled into its assigned office in the basement of the Illinois Capitol building, which it shares with two other news outlets. Anzel says she and her colleagues “lucked out” in getting the only press room office without a window, making it easy to focus during long days.

First thing in the morning, reporters plan out their days based on the legislative schedule, and by late morning, Rogers sends a tentative budget of anticipated stories to member papers. The reporters have issue-based beats that were decided informally, based on personal interest and availability. Hancock and Nowicki usually write multiple stories each day, while Anzel tends to write a single, more in-depth story daily. Rogers edits all of the content and sends it to member papers, which are free to edit stories as they see fit.

Hancock says that the day-to-day work of the job isn’t much different than his previous work as a statehouse newspaper reporter in Kansas, but Capitol News’s mission is distinct.

“Instead of writing for one paper, feeling like I’m in a competitive race against other papers in the same region or the same market, we’re now working for all of them,” he says. The effort places Capital News at the intersection of coverage interests that vary around the state.

“You hear from editors in Southern Illinois saying, ‘Are you following this bill that impacts coal?’ whereas editors from Northern Illinois might be saying ‘Are you following this bill that impacts wind and solar?’” Nowicki says. “But it’s the same bill, so you’ve got some very different perspectives that you’ve got to satisfy.”

To date, Capitol News stories have been published in 293 outlets—46 daily papers and 247 weeklies—and all of their 253 stories have been picked up. For some small papers, Capitol News is the only source for statehouse coverage; at others, like Springfield’s State Journal-Register and the Chicago Sun-Times, editors use it in addition to reporting by their own staffers. (One notable exception is the Chicago Tribune, the state’s largest paper, which has never used Capitol News content. The Tribune recently hired a new statehouse reporter after six months without one.)

Editors at participating papers are encouraged to reach out to Capitol News with requests for coverage of interest to their region, which reporters do their best to fulfill. John Lampinen, editor of the Daily Herald in suburban Chicago, suggested forming an official editorial advisory committee; starting last month, a group of 20 editors have had weekly phone calls with Rogers to talk about how to make Capitol News work best for them.

According to its website, one of Capitol News Illinois’s goals is to “increase news consumers’ awareness, interest and participation in state government.” But it can be hard to quantify progress on that front. Rogers says he’s heard from a lot of editors that readers are pleased with the statehouse coverage, but he wants to figure out whether increased coverage has spurred increased political engagement.

One clear consequence: the bureau has encouraged more discussion among papers across the state. “I’ve learned a lot about other member news organizations across the state that were often in these kind of siloes working on journalism generally,” Chris Coates, Central Illinois editor for Lee Enterprises, says. Lee owns five papers in the state but no longer has a statehouse bureau. Coates says advising Capitol News has led to conversations with other papers about potential collaborations and partnerships.

Many local papers find  the collaboration spurred by Capitol News more natural than competition. Gone are the days when Capitol News could have been seen as a threat by existing statehouse reporters; instead, the rest of the press corps is relieved to see an energetic new operation joining the ranks.

“The more eyes we have on officials,” Heather Cherone, managing editor for The Daily Line Springfield, says, “the better it is for everybody.”

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This post has been updated to correct the number of newspapers owned by Lee Enterprises in Illinois. CJR regrets the error.

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Mari Cohen is a Chicago-based freelance journalist. She is associate editor at Belt Magazine and a longtime editor at the South Side Weekly, where she also manages a free journalism workshop series. Previously, she covered criminal justice as a reporting fellow at Injustice Watch.