Statewide magazine struggles to cover Illinois politics
What a great time for a magazine dedicated to Illinois politics. The Democrats own Illinois again. Its leader, Governor Rod Blagojevich, is the son-in-law of a Chicago ward boss. Its head law enforcer, Attorney General Lisa Madigan, is the daughter of Illinois House Speaker and Democratic Party Chairman Mike Madigan. Not that the other party deserves much sympathy. A licenses-for-bribes scandal continues to haunt former Republican Governor George Ryan and friends. For the past 29 years Illinois Issues has offered in-depth and thoughtful coverage of Illinois' complex political scene, such as the one before us now. It often pays journalists from other Illinois papers to write longer and more analytically than their own publications would ever allow. But nearly halfway into an amazing political year, the monthly is struggling to maintain the resources to do it justice.
Since February Illinois Issues has trimmed its page count from 44 pages per issue down to 36, according to editor Peggy Boyer Long, who says the standard page count has been 40. A smaller page count has meant fewer features, she says. "We're saving in writing and art and squeezing blood from a turnip. We're not traveling anywhere." Long mailed a fund-raising letter out to supporters this week asking for contributions, threatening even more cutbacks if the magazine doesn't pick up more private money. She hopes to raise at least $6,000 this spring, though she is really aiming for $10,000. "Are you planning to contribute?" she asks over the phone.
It takes nearly $400,000 to run the magazine, says Boyer. Half of that comes from the University of Illinois at Springfield, half from private support and subscriptions. Unlike UIS's public radio station, which is facing its own budget shortfall and is asking listeners for $100,000 this spring, Illinois Issues does not receive federal matching funds. It has two full-time editorial staff members, a circulation of 6,000, and an estimated readership of 24,000. Public university budgets are threatened this year due to Illinois' poor fiscal condition. Long says she won't know until "the shoe drops" how Illinois Issues will be affected by the state's new budget, but since the publication is a non-academic project it will likely be one of the first places UIS will look to cut. "Everyone's holding their breath," she says.
In some ways, the threat of a shortfall has been good for the magazine, Long says. It forces the publication to find more stable, outside support rather than relying, as Long wrote in her letter, on the university to shield it "from the commercial pressures that have steadily diminished much of the media over the past three decades." But she continued: "Now we face a challenge. The state's budget crisis means university funding is being cut to the bone."
Long would rather concentrate on pages than money. In June, Illinois Issues will "hold the legislative session to account." The next month's issue will be dedicated to the environment. "Fewer media outlets cover state politics," Long says. "We're more valuable now than ever."
Illinois Issues can be read on the Web at http://illinoisissues.uis.edu/index.html.