Walking around the courthouse square in Macomb in west central Illinois, you can sense that this used to be a decent news town.
A sign for WGEM-TV — the NBC affiliate in Quincy — still hangs from a building on the square’s southeast corner. It came from a time when the station had a bureau reporter in Macomb and the city had two daily newspapers, three radio station newsrooms and a robust college journalism culture — in both print and broadcast. WGEM’s primary competitor, KHQA-TV, was also in town often.
That was 20 years ago. Today, WGEM’s bureau is gone and KHQA’s newscasts originate from Champaign — though there are still some local KHQA reporters, and the WGEM-branded news SUVs still make the roughly hour-long trek from Quincy.
Two locally-owned commercial radio groups merged to become one under regional ownership, and Macomb’s public radio station was forced to downsize in recent years.
Then Gannett, the nation’s largest newspaper company that owns more than a dozen daily papers in Illinois, did not renew the McDonough County Voice’s lease at the end of March 2023. A city that 20 years ago boasted two daily newspapers with physical buildings and “boots on the ground” now had none.
Macomb had become somewhat of a local news desert, a trend that has played out in other parts of Illinois too.
Gannett also owns The Daily Ledger in Canton, The Review Atlas in Monmouth and the Galesburg Register-Mail. Reviewing the local news sections of these websites shows a local reporter hasn’t provided a local story in months. In the Daily Ledger’s case, trying to access the website’s local news page results in an error message.
Even though there are far fewer news outlets in Macomb these days, many of the journalists that were around 20 or more years ago are still there.
Patrick Stout is retired from Western Illinois University, where he was an academic adviser and taught classes in the school’s broadcasting and journalism program. But starting in 1988, he was a reporter covering local government, school boards and the police beat, among other topics.
“At its peak, there were six reporters covering city hall,” Stout recalled. “It was pretty competitive. We were all trying to be the first one to get the story.”
Stout now has time to write for a growing startup that’s harnessing the journalism expertise that’s still in Macomb to fill the local news void. It’s called the Community News Brief.
“People really realize they’re getting something local,” Stout said of the Brief, which was founded by editor Lynne Campbell, a McDonough County native with a robust journalism and marketing resume including time with Gannett’s owner, GateHouse Media.
GateHouse bought Gannett, parent company of USA Today, in 2019 but kept the Gannett name. Many of its local papers, including The Voice, are now part of the USA Today Network.
Campbell served as co-publisher when GateHouse combined the Macomb Journal and Macomb Eagle to form the Voice. In 2012 she became the company’s southern Illinois regional publisher and initially oversaw 26 local papers.
“I think the initial success was, Lynne knows all these people in all these towns … and they all tell her stuff,” Stout said. “Well, this is happening, this is happening. And so if there was a new business coming to town, she’d have it in her pages because she found out from the people that it was coming.”
Campbell launched the Brief in 2017. Today, it publishes three times a week. Hard copies are mailed to about 2,000 subscribers on Tuesdays and Fridays, and a free copy is available at dozens of locations around town on Wednesdays.
“Right now we have, I believe, eight correspondents and they all cover different areas,” Campbell said. “You know, we have someone that’s covering the Industry town board. Now we have somebody covering Colchester and Blandinsville, we have somebody covering Bushnell.”
Those are communities around Macomb ranging in population from 500 to 3,000 that received little to no media attention at all.
City and county officials in Macomb and McDonough noticed the uptick in coverage and started placing required notices and other advertising in the Brief instead of the Voice.
“At the end of the day, we’ve got a nationally owned paper. It’s no longer locally owned,” Macomb Mayor Mike Inman said of the Voice.
“And we’ve got a burgeoning young startup here that seems to have a commitment to having boots on the ground, reporters in meetings, reporters interactive with staff and elected officials. I mean, why wouldn’t we want to support that?”
While reporters blanket McDonough County for stories, the Brief is set up differently from a traditional newspaper, where investigative stories, crime and government reports from meetings might be on the front page. But this paper leads with happy news: concerts in the park, Easter egg hunts and art exhibits get “above the fold” treatment.
“There’s so many good things happening in these small communities, whether it be organizations, schools, whatever,” Campbell said. “We get all this negative noise all the time through TV, internet and everything else, you know, let’s have something with a good feel.”
Old-school journalists might scoff at this — how can a startup paper that places “feel good” stories above so-called “hard news,” and takes advertising money from the city, be expected to hold people in power to account?
Mark Jacob, a long-time editor at the Chicago Tribune and Chicago Sun-Times, and now a member of Illinois’ Local Journalism Task Force, said larger news outlets have faced these same dilemmas for a long time.
“There’s a similar question of whether, even if it’s a 100-year-old commercial product, whether the editors are willing to write a bad story about the supermarket that advertises in their newspaper,” Jacob said. “So it’s just a matter of getting people to be hard-nosed journalists and to go where the news is, and to ask hard questions and to hold powerful people to account.”
The collection of bylines in the Brief is essentially a “who’s who” of Macomb print journalism. Darcie Shinberger, Patrick Stout and Helen Spencer alone, combine for more than 50 years of reporting experience in the city.
Jacob believes the Brief and similar startups in Illinois, like the Kewanee Voice, can work long-term.
“I think if you have a situation where local news outlets are run by, you know, some guy who’s got a part-time job elsewhere, and he spends, you know, 10 hours a week working on it, and then there’s another three or four people are doing the same, that’s healthy,” he said. “That’s people chipping in to make their own news environment better, and we just need to see that. America needs local news.”
Right now, the Brief is Macomb’s only professionally run local newspaper putting out local content, and it appears it may stay that way for a while.
While Gannett has an opening for one reporter at the Galesburg Register-Mail to cover the city, schools and other local news — it’s not looking for reporters in Macomb, Monmouth or Canton.
Alex Degman is an Illinois Statehouse reporter for WBEZ. Email him: firstname.lastname@example.org
This story has been updated to correct Lynne Campbell’s job title when GateHouse combined the Macomb Journal and Macomb Eagle to form the McDonough County Voice. She was co-publisher. The story also has been updated to state that WGEM-TV still covers stories in Macomb, sending reporters from Quincy.