NEWS NOW: News deserts and what it means for communicators

Sometime in 2006, a fed-up former Financial Times journalist egged on by a bottle of red wine wrote a seminal blog post about how things were stuffed up.

The post ‘Die Press Release! Die! Die! Die!’ by journalist Tom Foremski bitterly complained about being sent words from press officers when links, pictures and video were what he needed.

Reading it, articulated a powerful sense that the the old model was broken. The mudslide of the internet was here and was about to bury everything in its path and there has to be a better way.

The newspaper I used to work for, the Express & Star was once the largest regional paper in the UK. An executive told the paper’s first website manager that the internet was ‘a fad, like CB radio’ and would soon be over. Today, that newspaper employs half a dozen journalists where once it employed 50 and both its printing presses are closed. Printing now takes place 30 miles away.

So, to the research piece Local News Deserts in the UK: What Effect is the Decline in the Provision of Local News and information having on community carried out by the Charitable Journalism Project is welcome.

This 40-page document drills into seven areas of England and Wales where a once dominant title has declined in influence. It ran focus groups and interviews to gauge directly what people think. It’s findings are fascinating reading for those interested in journalism but also for communications people, too.     

Here are 5 of the findings

Local news is social media and Facebook groups

People don’t head to the news stand the next day when something happens. They head to social media that minute and in particular Facebook groups.

I’ve spent the last five years researching Facebook groups and this finding is strongly echoed in my research. This may well chime with your own experience, too. Local to me, the planning application to build homes in the nearby nature reserve led to a Facebook group with 10,000 members in six weeks. It ended with the application being thrown out and the offending parcel of land being bought back.

Even when the click is through to a local news site the eyeballs that makes the click are in local Facebook groups.

But local social media can be divisive

Different opinions can play out harshly online in local groups, the report found. Disinformation is present online leaving less trust in the Facebook groups that exist. Interestingly, new contender Nextdoor emerges as being a more trusted platform as there is a higher bar for people have to verify their identity.

This is certainly the case in my own experience. Some Facebook groups are well run and don’t tolerate abuse and others aren’t. That’s even before the debate starts.

A lack of local news is damaging to the community and democracy

Without the third party oversight of a journalist, the cut and pasted corporate message is reprinted without examination. The feedback of the report is that this can be identified. In two of the seven areas there was an imminent re-organisation in local government boundaries that hadn’t reached several people who took part in the study. But this lack of scrutiny of all parts of the public sector doesn’t leave people with an untarnished view. Their starting point is that if they think the council is crap, one respondent said, and they hear nothing to the contrary their opinion won’t change.   

The report found evidence of democratic disenchantment where there is no reporting on what the council is doing.

What local news there is is often obscured by clickbait

The local issue is often not covered and what is, the report says, is often sensational with clickbait headlines. That’s certainly my experience. A title often will post at least 20 times a day online but a minority will be news stories from that area.  

What people want is to be local

Newspapers have closed, newsrooms have either closed or moved out of town. What’s wanted, the report says, is a locally-based trusted professional news service. This is a thorny subject. Without the local newspaper there will be a note of scepticism at what gets sent out.

This underlines the importance of something like a Facebook Live with a guest being provided for a broadcast by a newspaper.


The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place. The statement misapplied to George Bernard Shaw defines the issue of every age. It’s especially relevant today.

If the local news landscape is a thinly stretched journalist scouring Facebook groups for stories to write before reposting the finished work into Facebook groups then that’s the landscape we have to work with.

In Stafford in the 1990s, a reporter from each of the Stafford Newsletter, Stafford Post, Express & Star and Sentinel would gather in the police station for the daily briefing before sloping off to a nearby café for an off-diary cup of coffee. Three of the four don’t have a presence in the town now.

As communicators we have to respond to the reality rather than the past.  

Having your own channels is essential as is knowing where people are congregating online. The arrows and the data point to creating content and sharing it in those groups. But you’ve heard me say this before.

Local News Deserts in the UK: What Effect is the Decline in the Provision of Local News and information having on community carried out by the Charitable Journalism Project.

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