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Are there news deserts in the UK? We’re trying to find out

Over the next few months, thanks to support from JRSST-CT, we’re capturing a snapshot of all the UK’s local news outlets, where they are and the areas they serve. We plan to publish the database, an interactive map, and analysis, in the spring next year.


What’s the project?


We want to find out how well (or poorly) every community in the UK is provided with news, so that we can encourage philanthropists and policymakers to target their resources to local areas of greatest need. We’re pleased to announce our local news mapping project, supported by JRSST.


We plan to map the location and geographical coverage of every active local news provider in the UK, including independent and chain or ‘legacy’ newspapers, local TV, radio and independent providers.


In addition to the data and an interactive map coming in the spring, we also plan to publish some analysis – including overlaying other datasets to explore correlations between levels of local news provision and other measures of democratic, economic and social wellbeing. We also plan to produce a league table of coverage-by-authority. Other analysis ideas are welcome.


How will it happen?


Our working definition of a local news outlet is taken from the definition of a recognised news publisher in s.50 of the Online Safety Bill, with the additional caveat that the provider must focus on a specific geographic area. We’ll be double-checking this definition with our advisory group – more on which below.


We can use existing lists of local newspaper titles provided by the owners such as Reach PLC. Lists of independent news titles can be gathered from sources like Impress and the Independent Media Association. And we can use Ofcom’s lists of community radio stations and local TV stations.


Then there’s likely to be additional research necessary to find titles not appearing in the above lists: we could, for example, call round local authority press officers to ask who typically covers their council meetings.


We are not the first to attempt to map local news provision in the UK, but this will be the first to map all the UK’s local outlets, whether legacy or independent, whether print, online, radio or TV, and using the criteria mentioned above. We’re building on the work of previous efforts from academics Martin Moore, Gordon Ramsay and Agnes Gulyas, as well as Plum Consulting, and the trade magazine Press Gazette. We’re also inspired by the US News Deserts project and the Australian Newsroom Mapping Project.


The tricky bits


We know that mapping is not a straightforward task – there will be grey areas around what constitutes an outlet and its coverage – but we look forward to learning and discussing the tough cases too, and we hope this project can help galvanise relevant actors to put together a plan for open, ongoing mapping of the state of UK local news.


For example, there is the question of whether a title does truly cover an area, whatever its brand name suggests. Should we, given limited resources, check that a title does provide a certain amount of content across all parts of the claimed-area – or that it does so with a certain regularity? For this first map, we might have to rely on the claimed-area, but by making the database open, this could be revisited in future.


Further, how deeply ‘local’ do we go? For now, we think that we will look no further than local-authority area (there are about 400 in the UK) – and again, this can be improved upon later. Local news outlets, of course, do not neatly match up with official areas – so we’ll need to decide on the extent to which some overlap of secondary local authority here or there should be recorded.


To help us with these questions, we’re lucky that several people with expertise in news media mapping – including from those projects named above - have agreed to be on an informal advisory group for the project.


When will it be ready?


Work on the map is already underway. We’ve been joined by a freelance researcher, Max Roche, to help crunch through the 1500+ local news titles we think are out there. We’re already spotting the tricky cases – and are looking forward to tapping the wisdom of our advisory group throughout the project.


What we publish in the spring will be a first version of the map. We plan to be able to complete one round of corrections before a final version is published.


This one-off mapping project will give us a snapshot of the provision of local news across the UK as we find it in Winter 2022/2023. In the longer term, we hope to see the map, perhaps with a broader range of data fields being collected, become a regularly maintained open resource for policymakers, researchers and anyone interested in the state of – or rate of change in - local news.


Towards the end of this project, we aim to bring together a group of people who share an interest in the data and mapping to discuss what we can collectively do to build a longer-term project.


Get updates on the project


For the first chance to see when the map is launched, sign up to PINF’s mailing list and watch out for further announcements.

For any specific questions or interest in this project, please contact the author: joe@publicinterestnews.org.uk. You might also like…


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