It has been a big year for Illinois Issues. Last spring, the magazine merged with Springfield NPR affiliate WUIS. The combination brought with it several opportunities.
Illinois Issues got a substantial online upgrade by moving to WUIS.org. The website was also recently redesigned to be responsive, which means that it shrinks or expands visually to fit whatever size screen you use to view it. This feature is key now that so many are using tablets and smartphones to find their news.
We are now producing radio components to our stories, which allows Illinois Issues to reach a whole new audience, not just through WUIS, but through public radio stations throughout the state. The magazine has also been able to call upon the talented reporters at WUIS. Statehouse Bureau Chief Amanda Vinicky wrote in-depth stories on the state’s political climate under the new governor. Reporter Brian Mackey, who has a background in print journalism, wrote regular features and took on the State of the State column. Education Desk Reporter Dusty Rhodes and Arts and Culture Reporter Rachel Otwell have also contributed compelling stories, including a report on the declining numbers of African-American students at some state universities and a look at what life is like for Illinoisans who are transgender.
A shared mission and these mutual benefits were the driving factors behind the merger, and it has been exciting to watch things come together successfully. The merger was not about cutting costs or trying to reduce what we do, but instead about pooling our resources and working together to be a premiere source of news in the state. But as our readers know, these days in Illinois, budget cuts are a reality.
Gov. Bruce Rauner has called for a 30 percent cut to state funding for higher education. The state does not a have a budget for the current fiscal year. As long as lawmakers and the governor fail to come to terms on a spending plan, all we have to work with are estimates of what our final budget might look like.
We are modeling a 20 percent cut in our state support, which is passed through the University of Illinois Springfield. This results in a $120,000 projected deficit for Illinois Issues and a $70,000 projected deficit for WUIS.
We cannot wait to see what will happen. We must make contract decision for the new fiscal year, which is already upon us. And we must make tough choices now to avoid what could be potentially deeper cuts later in the fiscal year, depending on the level of funding we eventually receive.
After much evaluation, we have decided to go digital only. August will be the final print edition of Illinois Issues. When this reality first became apparent, it was difficult for us to accept. Those who have been with the magazine for years are proud of its history and where it stands today. But we have also watched subscription numbers steadily decline in the recent past. We had to ask ourselves: What are the best ways to use our resources and keep the mission of Illinois Issues alive? After consulting with the advisory board and others with longstanding ties to the magazine, the answer became obvious. While it may be difficult to let go of the print edition, it allows us to focus our efforts online, where we have the potential to bring important stories to more people. It also allows us to offer those stories for free — with the support of donors who believe that good public policy journalism is for everyone.
Eliminating print will not close our budget gap, but the choice protects us from having to consider staff cuts. It will also hopefully position us to eventually expand our online offerings to an app that would include news and a version of our Roster of State Government Officials.
WUIS has also had to make tough choices to address its budget deficit. The station will no longer be airing programs from Public Radio International (PRI). That list includes Science Friday, To the Best of Our Knowledge, The Takeaway, Q and Riverwalk Jazz. The affiliation with PRI came with administrative fees that cost nearly as much as the programs. So by cutting all the PRI programing, WUIS is able to avoid the fee, too. Fans of these programs can keep listening by clicking here to download them as podcasts. While you are there, you can also download Illinois Issues audio pieces if you missed them on the radio.
This transition is an opportunity to refine our work and put an emphasis on what we do best and are typically known for: in-depth reporting. Our strategy going forward is to roll out a new Illinois Issues in-depth story each Thursday at WUIS.org. The piece will have a radio component that will air on WUIS and, along with the online feature story, will go out to other public radio stations throughout the state.
Those who subscribe to the Illinois Issues in-depth email will get an alert each Thursday morning reminding them that the weekly story has been published online. If you have not received this email alert, please take the time to sign up. We may publish Illinois Issues in-depth pieces more than once a week, but we wanted to ensure a level of consistency that current readers can count on and those who are new to Illinois Issues can become familiar with.
As we have gone through these changes and worked to stay true to the mission of Illinois Issues, something written by the staff in the magazine’s inaugural issue helps to guide us: “The test will come in acceptance by readers. Without this, we will fail. With it we can succeed.” The response to the first Illinois Issues online story was a positive indication that this acceptance will continue. At the writing of this letter, the story had more than five times the page views than the magazine had paid subscribers last year.
Before budget cuts became an issue, we had planned to continue printing the magazine on a bimonthly basis for those who wanted it. We understand some subscribers may be disappointed that this will no longer be the case. Since we moved to a philanthropic model (a change that was made shortly after the merger) we are counting on donors, not subscriptions, to support our work and bring it to all who have a desire to better understand our state. We hope you value that goal, too, and will consider allowing your subscription balance to support public journalism. If you do not wish to do this, refunds are available. If you have questions, comments or want to inquire about a subscription refund please call 217-206-9847 or email Tracy Knox. We thank you for your support over the years and hope that you will continue to read and listen to Illinois Issues each week online and on air.