European Federation of Journalists

News deserts on the rise: public support is crucial for local media to survive

Credits : EFJ

The European Federation of Journalists (EFJ) launched on 5 March 2024 the report “Uncovering news deserts in Europe. Risks and opportunities for local and community media in the EU” at the European Parliament, hosted by MEP Dace Melbarde. Over 100 participants, including policymakers, local journalists and members of European media organisations, attended the roundtable discussion in Brussels and online.

Published by the Centre for Media Pluralism and Media Freedom (CMPF) as part of the Local Media for Democracy (LM4D) project, the study explores challenges and opportunities for local and community media in the 27 EU Member States, analysing the news deserts phenomenon from a holistic perspective. 

CMPF Head of Research Sofia Verza delved into the findings of this first-ever comparative exercise and presented in-depth insights on the existing situation in Europe as well as recommendations for European and national policymakers.

“It has been great to see many different stakeholders interested in the launch of the “Uncovering news deserts” report, ranging from journalists and editors to distributors, journalists’ unions, politicians and policymakers. This proves a high interest around the situation for local and community media in the EU, recognising them as key actors for democratic participation”

The report measures the emergence of news deserts through multiple factors grouped into five categories: local media market conditions, local journalists’ safety and working conditions, local outlets’ editorial independence and social inclusiveness. The discussion focused on the issues of decline in revenues, journalists’ low salaries, poor working conditions and increasing physical and online threats. These were identified as the result of an increasingly concentrated local media landscape, while ownership, political and commercial interference are concerns across the EU. 

Need for a new viable business model 

Discussions focused on the crucial need for financial support to keep the local media sector efficient and sustainable. Local and community newsrooms as well as journalists face huge financial challenges with the print media sector being the most at risk, as people are usually unwilling to pay for local news. The phenomenon of ageing rural areas, where people do not have good access to digital local news, is another hurdle. The research also showed a clear lack of news for minority groups and marginalised communities and a deterioration of the information quality (click baiting tactics). Economic viability is the main solution to tackle the issues of the declining number of local journalists, the decreasing revenues and the biased distribution of state advertising and subsidies to local media. 

Good practices in the EU

Cooperation is key when it comes to bringing local and regional media together, the event participants emphasised. Unified communities are essential to fortify local media and some EU Member States, such as the Netherlands and Ireland, are interesting examples to follow. 

In Belgium, the Belgian local investigative media Apache relies on a collaborative model in which readers own the media with their financial contributions. The shareholders do not make editorial decisions, thus favouring a more democratic scheme while also protecting editorial independence. Such philanthropy-based media however tend to struggle to survive as they do not benefit from sufficient financial support at national and institutional levels. 

“There is a lack of awareness of the issues we are facing. We expect policymakers to invest in good journalism to stimulate a more diverse media landscape” said Steven Vanden Bussche, journalist at Apache.

Organisations like Journalismfund Europe, a LM4D partner, are providing funding and coaching to local media. Journalismfund Communications Officer Paola Condemayta gave examples of media outlets which benefited from the funding scheme and highlighted Contexte (Romania) and the Dublin Inquirer (Ireland) as innovative models when it comes to networking and audience engagement.

The roundtable discussion stressed the need for financial support and more investment programmes, especially in terms of innovative funding. Providing strong support to local media is urgent and should be a priority for European and national policymakers for an independent local media ecosystem that serves public interest. 

The event was organised as part of the Local Media for Democracy (LM4D) project, run in collaboration with the European Federation of Journalists, Journalismfund Europe and International Media Support, with the financial support of the European Commission.