Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker. Photo (cc) 2018 by SecretName101.

The state of Illinois has taken a major step forward in trying to ease the local news crisis, with the legislature approving tax credits for publishers to hire and retain journalists; creating a 120-day cooling-off period to slow the sale of independent local news outlets to out-of-state chains; and funding scholarships for students who work at an Illinois news organization for at least two years after graduation.

Mark Caro reports for Northwestern University’s Local News Initiative that the tax credits amount to a modest $25 million over five years, but he quotes state Sen. Steve Stadelman as saying that the measure nevertheless represents a good start. “It was a tight budget year for Illinois, which always makes it difficult to pass legislation,” Stadelman, a Democrat, told Caro. “Was it as much as I wanted? No. But it showed that there’s a commitment by the state of Illinois to local journalism, and that’s significant.”

Gov. J.B. Pritzker is expected to sign the bill.

A couple of points I want to raise.

• The legislation grew out of the state’s Local Journalism Task Force, which was created by Gov. Pritzker in August 2021. Stadelman chaired that bipartisan group. Illinois was the second state to create a commission to study the local news crisis and make some recommendations. The first, you may recall, was Massachusetts; I had a hand in drafting the legislation that created it and would have been a member. But the Massachusetts commission, signed into law by then-Gov. Charlie Baker in January 2021, never got off the ground. There are some favorable rumblings coming out of Beacon Hill, though, and I hope to have better news to report at some point later this year.

• The Illinois tax credits avoid some pitfalls that developed almost immediately after New York State approved $90 million over three years. The New York credits are currently being implemented through an administrative process, and Gothamist reported recently that it’s not clear whether nonprofits and digital-only media outlets would be included, even though some prominent proponents understood that that they would be. The language is also contradictory as to whether out-of-state chains would be able to take advantage of the credits.

By contrast, the language of the Illinois legislation makes it clear that nonprofits and digital-only projects are included and that out-of-state chains are excluded.

The Illinois bill represents just part of a comprehensive package that was unveiled last February. As Caro reports, the Stadelman bill originally called for state agencies to spend half or more of their ad budget on local news outlets, but that provision was dropped.

In addition, a separate bill that would have required Google and Facebook to pay for the news that they repurpose has been put on hold depending on how things go with a similar measure in California. Forcing Big Tech to hand over some of their profits sounds appealing, but it hasn’t been working out very well elsewhere, as Facebook is getting rid of much of its news content and Google is threatening to walk away from the modest assistance it provides to journalism, such as the Google News Initiative.

Any form of government assistance for journalism has to be evaluated for whether it compromises the independence that news outlets need in order to hold public officials to account. Still, the modest action being taken in Illinois seems worth trying, at least on an experimental basis.

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