Mission Control: Illinois Issues Goes Digital

Jul 22, 2015

Illinois Issues is going digital.  Digital only.  Well, digital and broadcast.  Which means August will be the last printed magazine version of Illinois Issues.

So, Illinois Issues evolves. The mission started forty years ago by Paul Simon continues and strengthens in combination with public radio.

When WUIS and Illinois Issues merged last year, the retiring executive editor, Dana Heupel, had just completed a strategic plan for the magazine.  It recognized the changing environment for print and the need to develop Illinois Issues' digital delivery.  Part of the reason the merger with WUIS made sense was that the station already had invested in much of the digital infrastructure Illinois Issues would need. 

Over the past year, the two staffs have worked together to be one newsroom reporting stories through digital, broadcast, and print.  Paid print circulation has been in decline for several years as is the case in the broader magazine industry.  We felt there could still be a role for print but that we'd have to greatly increase circulation for sustainability.  We worked on a couple plans to increase print distribution and found that it would take time to see results and that as we scaled up, costs would scale up at the same time.  Increased circulation wouldn't be the solution in itself, we would need to monetize that circulation with advertising revenue.  That would take additional time.

The timeline became shorter in June when we were finalizing budgets for this fiscal year.  The state budget uncertainty raised some serious concerns.  The University of Illinois Springfield has generously subsidized much of the cost of producing Illinois Issues over its forty years.  As a cut to state funding for higher education was being proposed, we began modeling the effect.  Like all nonprofits that receive some state funding, there is no solid guidance at this point.  In the end, with our financial staff, we modeled a 20% decrease in the funding UIS passes through to Illinois Issues.  This results in a $120,000 deficit.  We have reserves we could draw down but in a year that option wouldn't exist.  In the meantime, as we began the next phase of ramping up digital distribution, we realized spending down our reserves would jeopardize our long term mission of in-depth reporting on Illinois.  If we made the decision now to focus on digital and end print we would be able to use our resources to ensure digital success.

We discussed this with our advisory board and others and there was agreement that this is a judicious path.  So today, I wanted to let you know that August will be the last printed Illinois Issues magazine.

This has been a difficult decision.  Hardest on those closest to the magazine, the staff, but they, too, recognize the reality of the media market.  I still enjoy holding printed pages but find myself more frequently reading on my smartphone or laptop.  I have heard this practice repeated by many others. 

The really good news is that we have had promising results to the first three weeks of the new Illinois Issues In-Depth digital strategy.  A story is deeply reported and digitally published Thursdays here at WUIS.org while a companion audio feature is broadcast on WUIS and other public radio stations.  The Next Pension Time Bomb, The Governor's Money, and Why are Women Poor? have been read by 500% more people than the print magazine reaches and heard by many more.  Click here to sign-up to receive email alerts for each Thursday's report.

So, Illinois Issues evolves.  The mission started forty years ago by Paul Simon continues and strengthens in combination with public radio.  Read Jamey Dunn's Editor's Note for more.

If you don't already, please consider supporting our public journalism with a recurring or one-time gift by clicking here.  If you're a subscriber, please consider allowing your balance to be used to continue our reporting.  Subscribers with balances will be sent information on how to proceed.  If you have questions, email Tracy Knox or call her at 217-206-9847.

I welcome your comments.  They may be answered publicly in a future Mission Control.  Thanks for your support.  We are thrilled to be able to bring high quality Illinois focused journalism to you.

Mission Control is my blog sharing my experiences managing public media and exploring nonprofit organizations.  A space aficionado since childhood, I couldn't resist the title's double meaning in exploring the effects management and a focused mission have toward nonprofit success.  If you'd like to share your media or nonprofit story, click here to contact me.