“News deserts” threaten survival chances of local media

Local media across the European Union is “in real trouble” with the emergence of what is called 'news deserts'.

Local media across the European Union  is “in real trouble” with the emergence of what is called ‘news deserts’. 

That is, according to an alarming new study which looks extensively at the media landscape throughout Europe.

Its most worrying conclusion is growing evidence of “news deserts” in most of the 27 EU member states.

The concept of news deserts was first mooted in the U.S some years ago to explain the crisis of traditional news media and the vanishing of local news outlets.

It has been defined as “a community, either rural or urban, where residents have very limited access to the sort of credible and comprehensive news and information that feed democracy at the grassroots level.”

In other words, news deserts can emerge not only in rural areas but also in inner cities, neighbourhoods, and suburban towns.

Residents in more than half of America’s counties are now said to have little to no local news coverage, and the situation is worsening because so many newspapers are failing.

The gloomy outlook now appears to have spread to much of Europe, according to the study, called “Uncovering news deserts in Europe. Risks and opportunities for local and community media in the EU”.

The survey was conducted by the Centre for Media Pluralism and Media Freedom (CMPF) and supported by the European Federation of Journalists (EFJ), Europe’s largest journalist organisation.

It sought to identify the challenges and also opportunities for local and community media in the 27 EU Member States.

Researchers assessed risks based on factors that they claim relate to the local media market conditions.

These include local journalists’ safety and working conditions, local outlets’ editorial independence and social inclusiveness.

The study also highlights examples of best practices in the local and community media sector that could benefit “a vibrant and open local public sphere.”

 The data gathered from local and community media was used to create “interactive maps” covering roughly half of the EU-27.

 According to the study one of the most pressing issues concerns the “intertwining” of decreasing revenues and biased distribution of state advertising and subsidies to local media.

Another urgent concern is the political control exerted via direct and/or indirect ownership of local media, a matter particularly prevalent in Central and Southern European member states.

One example cited is Bulgaria  where the study says there is a “high risk” of editorial interference (75 percent).

“In Bulgaria, political parties and party leaders can legally own the media,” it points out, adding that “the distribution of state advertising, including funds for information campaigns under EU programmes, has long been a disturbing issue.”

The decline in the number of local journalists – which the study says is widespread across the EU – largely stems from the growing tendency of centralising newsrooms in the main cities and the prevalence of “desk” journalism.

Unsatisfactory working conditions for local journalists are highlighted, especially for freelancers and self-employed journalists, and online attacks against them are on the rise.

In Italy, for example, it is not uncommon for freelancers to be offered a paltry 3 euros for an article.

It says it is “still unclear” what the role of social media is in mitigating or contributing to news deserts. 

“More research is certainly needed,” it states.

Commenting on the findings, Pier Luigi Parcu, CMPF Director, said the study “underscores the urgent need” for European policymakers to prioritise the support and sustainability of regional, local and community outlets.

“The findings are clear: without adequate financial backing, a supportive regulatory environment, and safeguards for journalists in remote areas, the very foundation of democracy is at risk.”

Further reaction comes from Dafydd ab Iago, President of the foreign correspondents’ association Api-Ipa and Vice-president of the Brussels press club, who said, “Local news is in a catastrophic situation.”

He told this website, “We know so much more about Donald Trump’s hair growth treatment than we do about why a bus line, local swimming pool or library is shutting down.

“Living in a small Flemish town outside Brussels, ab Iago has even started a voluntary community online news service called Tervuren+.

 “We’re hoping for more people to help out with promotion, reader engagement and growth. You begin to realize that people are so badly informed about the most basic things in their towns. It’s as if the media shareholders and politicians want it that way,” he says.

Particularly sensitive for Tervuren, he says, is communicating in other languages than the official Dutch. “With very little local news in Dutch, let alone French, we’re reliant on boring town hall communications. That excludes the vast majority of people,” he says.

Denis MacShane is a former senior journalist and ex Europe Minister in the UK under Tony Blair.

He told this site, “I was the youngest president of the British National Union of Journalists in 1978 and even then the future of news media seemed uncertain.

“Yes there are more journalists working uncovering government, political and business scandals than ever before but it’s not the local media.”

“There are 1,500 local newspaper published most weeks in UK. OK they are not Le Monde or New York Times but nor do they print the lies of the offshore owned papers in Britain.”

He added, “Most good stories start in a local or even a community paper. I receive papers produced to promote the local municipality.It would be better if that taxpayers’ money were used to support and pay properly independent journalists and ensure professional journalism at local level.”

Martin Banks
Martin Banks
Martin Banks, aged 63, is an experienced British-born journalist who has been covering the EU beat (and much else besides) in Brussels since 2001.Previously, he had worked for many years in regional journalism in the UK, including as chief reporter at his last paper there, and freelanced for national titles for several years, notably the Daily Telegraph. He has a keen interest in foreign affairs/geo-politics and has closely followed the workings of the European Parliament and MEPs in particular for many years. He has built up, since arriving in Brussels in 2001, a wide and reliable network of contacts, not just in politics but across the spectrum. He's also experienced in subbing, proofing, commissioning and editing and has also had stints on news desks.