How one reporter’s beard gimmick became a useful tool for covering Illinois’ budget stalemate

Photo courtesy Chris Kaergard

About 10 months ago, Chris Kaergard, an editor and political reporter at the Peoria Journal Star, started growing a beard. It was clear that the state’s Democrat-controlled legislature and Bruce Rauner, the Republican governor, would have a hard time agreeing on a state budget. The idea was that Kaergard wouldn’t shave until a deal was struck—a simple way to bring a little color to a fiscal policy standoff.

“I was primed for a couple of months of this and no more than that,” Kaergard said recently. “That’s part of why I came up with this. We were just going to need a foot in the door for a few months of stories to focus people’s attention early on.”

But then the new fiscal year started in July, summer passed, and the state still had no budget. Winter came without a budget, then the first buds of spring. In February, Gov. Bruce Rauner proposed a new fiscal year budget, even though the state still doesn’t have one for the current year.

Somewhere along the way, the beard took on a life of its own. Kaergard’s gimmick is now past his collarbone and growing (bah-dum-ching) in popularity. It’s been featured on WGN and in the Chicagoist, Politico’s Illinois Playbook, and Rich Miller’s Capital Fax newsletter. And, naturally, it has its own hashtag.

 

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The paper has even used the beard to help explain the budget story to its readers, with an interactive timeline, built using an open source tool from the Knight Lab at Northwestern University, that matches Kaergard’s progressive shagginess to notable stories and news developments. It also created a social media campaign for the beard, with #budgetclaus and #budgetcupid for Christmas and Valentine’s Day.

“The Journal Star has been really great about capitalizing on the beard,” said Sara Netzley, associate chair of the communication department at Bradley University in Peoria, where Kaergard is faculty adviser to the student newspaper. “It’s great branding for them, for their content, but it reminds people that our lawmakers in Springfield are children. It’s a good reminder without making it feel like a lecture in a newspaper.”

Kaergard is more than his beard, of course. A graduate of the public affairs reporting program at the University of Illinois-Springfield, he has been covering and following state politics for more than a decade.

“The shtick of beard gets you in the door, and then you talk about the issues and you hope you are compelling enough,” he said.

The budget impasse is not always an easy story for reporters around the state to tell or for readers and viewers to understand. (Chicago’s WBEZ had a great feature that aired this week to help explain it.) Political dysfunction is a familiar story by now, and the squabbling is taking place in Springfield, far from home for most people. The state government hasn’t closed, and for many residents of the state, there hasn’t (yet) been a clear impact. The residents most affected by the budget impasse tend to be elderly, poor, or otherwise dependent on government help, and with limited political influence.

“Had there been no budget for K-12 education, the impasse would have been over now for a long time because that would have affected everyone in an immediate way,” said Charles Wheeler, director of the public affairs reporting program at University of Illinois Springfield. “The greater harm is being done to people who aren’t able to defend themselves. People don’t connect the dots.”

As the stalemate has dragged on, in some ways, it has been an easier story for reporters to tell locally because the financial hurt is becoming more evident, particularly at the state’s colleges and universities. Northeastern Illinois University, a diverse school with about 10,000 students—where I happen to be writing this story—has indicated it might not be able to stay open without state funding. A sign on a door in the student union warns students that not all computers labs are available because of the budget stalemate. Chicago State University, a historically black school of about 5,000 students, already has sent layoff notices to all faculty, staff and administrators. 

At the Journal Star, Kaergard has written about the impact on the Boys and Girls Clubs in the Peoria area and a local company with contract to service state vehicles that hadn’t been paid.

“The numbers they are talking about statewide are so staggering people have a hard time comprehending them,” Kaergard said. “People have a hard time tuning into budget issues or dismiss them because they don’t affect them.”

The Journal Star has delivered some solid journalism making those issues more accessible–and the budget beard has turned out to be a useful way to draw attention to it. But Kaergard is probably still looking forward to the day he gets to shave.

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Jackie Spinner is CJR’s correspondent for Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, and Wisconsin. She is an associate journalism professor at Columbia College Chicago and a former staff writer for The Washington Post. Follow her on Twitter @jackiespinner.