There’s no shortage of news in Springfield, Ill., but they are running low on reporters.

SPRINGFIELD, Illinois -- The daily newspaper in this capital city of 115,000 is one of the go-to places for political coverage in a state where consecutive governors went to federal prison, the state’s finances are precarious and the longtime speaker of the Illinois House may be in the crosshairs of a federal investigation.

The paper also prides itself on coverage of local governments and hard-fought races for city council, county board and Congress. And SJ-R reporters don’t shy away from stories about racial tension and economic inequality in a Midwestern city where Abraham Lincoln launched his political career, a 1908 race riot fueled the creation of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, and many good-paying manufacturing jobs left decades ago.

Maintaining that vigilance and breadth of coverage has become much more difficult, however, as the paper’s newsroom has been cut approximately in half in just the past two years.

Throw in now-daily coverage of the COVID-19 pandemic and the state and local response, and the staff of the SJ-R might never have been busier, or smaller.

“I think a lot of people worry about the impact of cuts to the newspaper because they know that we’re the watchdogs,” SJ-R reporter Brenden Moore said. “We’re the ones providing that important daily coverage and going a layer deeper, often, than other media outlets.”

The low staffing has made it difficult to adequately cover the COVID-19 pandemic in Springfield, a medical hub for the region -- especially earlier this year when Gannett, the newspaper’s parent owner, imposed furloughs that meant three of the four news reporters each had to take one unpaid day off every week through early July,  he said.

And many days, Moore, 25, sees the paper’s stripped-down staff struggle to compete with the local broadcast media. 

“We’re doing a lot of the things that the other news outlets do, and we’re not always able to do the things that made us stand out in the past -- peeling the onion an additional layer, if you will,” he said. “Many times now, we don’t have the luxury of time because there are so few of us, and we have a big community to cover.” 

The daily paper, one of 261 titles nationwide owned by Gannett, the largest newspaper chain in the country, serves a metropolitan area of 208,000 people with just four news reporters, including a political columnist and a reporter based in the state Capitol complex. 

The total newsroom staff of 13 is about half the size it was when Moore, 25, was hired in June 2018, and one-fourth the size from when copy editor Marilyn Lynch was hired in 2000.

With the current staffing, Lynch said, “It is significantly harder to  do in-depth, multi-day reporting on local issues -- which is what everybody wants to do. It’s like every day is an emergency.”

Moore, who covers Springfield city hall and the business community, added, “The journalists we have are really good, and we’re making it work, but obviously, when you have less people, there are less stories, and there are holes that become apparent.”

Lynch, 52, said she hasn’t followed details in Congress of legislation that would expand the Paycheck Protection Program to Gannett and other newspaper chains, but she said she would welcome federal assistance to the news industry as the pandemic hammers newspapers’ already sagging advertising revenues.

“We are one of the few kinds of businesses that are specifically mentioned in the Constitution,” she said. “Our function is to keep the information channel open. That’s absolutely worthy of any kind of bailout that the nation can provide right now.” 

Staff reductions among the Journal-Register’s reporters, who are represented by the NewsGuild’s United Media Guild local, have happened when journalists who left weren’t replaced during and after a pay freeze that lasted more than 10 years.

Several nonunion editors, including the sports editor and two managers with decades at the paper, the photo editor and metro editor, were walked out the door without warning; they weren’t replaced.

Former top editor Angie Muhs walked out of the SJ-R building to applause from her staff last spring, telling her small staff she hoped her unprompted resignation might spare them additional staff reductions. Gannett eventually replaced Muhs, but has left open several other slots after reporters and an editor resigned.

Moore said the public officials and business leaders he interacts with every day worry about the impact of cuts at the paper.

“They know that we’re the watchdogs,” he said. “Even in its reduced capacity, the paper still provides that journalism that Springfield needs,” he said.

Despite all the hardships, the skill and sophistication of the staff continues to shine through in stories big and small, Moore said. He praised reporter Steven Spearie’s story about a Springfield man devastated by the death of his mother in the Aug. 4 explosion in Beirut, Lebanon, and reporter Bernard Schoenburg’s profile of a local woman who died from COVID-19.

In comments on social media, the public showed appreciation for the comprehensive and sensitive way the staff covered a workplace shooting at a Springfield factory that left three people and the shooter dead. The compliments continued for coverage of a plane crash that killed a former Springfield mayor, his wife, who was the county coroner, and a family friend.

“Even with our reduced ranks, we can still punch above our weight class,” Moore said. “We just put our heads down and keep working.”

        

Brenden Moore and Marilyn Lynch, reporters for the Journal-Register

Dean Olsen can be reached at (217) 836-1068 or [email protected].