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Philanthropy to provide boost for Springfield area news coverage

Patrick Coburn
Patrick Coburn

Springfield is one of only six chapters in the country to be part of a national effort to fund coverage. Press Forwardis raising money to bring more information and improve engagement in communities.

Springfield will join Chicago, Alaska, Minnesota, Philadelphia and Wichita with chapters.

The decline of local newsrooms has given way to a rise in misinformation and less governmental accountability. Those behind this project see it as a long-term investment in improving civic engagement.

“This has to be a commitment of people who care about America,” said John Stremsterfer, President and CEO of the Community Foundation for the Land of Lincoln. “If we are going to turn the tide of what has diminished in the past two decades in local news and information, it’s going to take a lot of people.”

Springfield’s involvement got started thanks toa $1 million gift from Patrick Coburn,the late State Journal-Register publisher. The John D. and Katherine T. MacArthur Foundation is matching that gift. Local contributors will also be sought.

In the Community Foundation's original announcement about Coburn's gift, former co-worker Rich Saal said his legacy was quality community journalism.

“Not only did he operate an outstanding newspaper – his legacy was his love of Springfield and the support he gave it. He was making gifts to all kinds of organizations and causes throughout his life,” Saal said.

Coburn's sister, Maggie Cope, said his family was not surprised he left a generous gift to the city.

“A tribute isn’t anything Pat would want,” she said. “He didn’t do this for attention or accolades. He was humble. What he would want – if anything – would be if people would look at him as an example. That those who have plenty might think about doing something similar to give back.”

“For local news to be sustainable over the long term, communities will need to stand up and support their local news providers,” said John Palfrey, the MacArthur Foundation’s President. “We will need to invest in local news the same way we invest in arts and culture, hospitals and our alma maters.”

The next step is getting a committee formed to determine the best way to move ahead. The American Journalism Project will lead the planning.

Stremsterfer said it’s too soon to spell out what kind of coverage will be funded or what organizations, existing or new endeavors, could be awarded grants.

He pointed out the endowment will be set up to serve the purpose for years to come. Only a portion – likely less than $100,000 per year at the beginning – will be given out. The first awards are likely 12-18 months away.

The focus will be on Sangamon and neighboring counties the CFLL serves.

Nearly all news organizations in the region have reduced staff in recent years. Daily newspapers provide more limited coverage. Some weekly newspapers have closed. Television and radio – including NPR Illinois – are also operating with fewer reporters.

“We’re not unique in that respect. I think it’s more acute in smaller communities, communities our size and smaller, where you see diminishing newsrooms,” Stremsterfer said. “I don’t know if we’re in what they call a news desert, but it has gotten awfully dry.”

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