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  • Writer's pictureJoe Mitchell

Reflections on the Local News Map, and next steps

In July 2023, PINF launched the first comprehensive map of local news outlets across the UK. The map has generated an important debate about the state of local news and how to measure this. PINF’s Deputy Director, Joe Mitchell, reflects on lessons learned and sets out our plans for the map.


Last month, we launched our Local News Map, an ambitious attempt to map every local news outlet in the UK. We also published a report, ‘Deserts, Oases and Drylands’, with an analysis of the data and some preliminary findings about the relationship between news deserts and deprivation.


We wanted to get people talking about the state of local news – and I think we’ve succeeded. Some experts in the field have told us that the map is ‘brilliant’ or ‘terrific’, which is of course nice to hear after the work we’ve put in. We’ve also had some constructive criticism from others who don’t agree with our methodology or have found flaws in our data.

We want to build on the positives and address the challenges. We think it’s important to have a comprehensive map of local news in the UK, and we’re grateful to our funders at the JRSST Charitable Trust for making this possible. We also think it’s important to build consensus around this map, so that everyone who cares about local news can use it as the basis for future plans.


So, we’re now doing two things:


(1) We are reopening the map for feedback, so that anyone can tell us about news outlets that we’ve missed; and

(2) We are going to review our methodology, through a conversation with interested parties in the autumn.


Read on for more about how you can get involved and some more detailed reflections on the work so far.


Our reflections


First, let’s look at the methodology.


Our definition of local news outlet required there to be an incorporated owner of each outlet, thus excluding sole traders and purely voluntary outfits (such as community newspapers or Facebook pages, WhatsApp groups and so on). We do understand that many such outlets will be doing great work and ideally would be included in mapping. But this was a decision made with the help of our advisory group, which included news mapping experts from the UK, Australia and USA, to limit the universe of outlets we had to collect data on, due to limited research time.


This definition could of course be revisited in future iterations of the map – assuming both the necessary research resource *and* access to evidence as to these outlets' existence and their content (for example, it’s not easy to research Facebook groups or WhatsApp groups).


Our definition of ‘news desert’, for the report and the areas in white on the map, was ‘a local authority area that has no dedicated local news outlet’. So, this included areas that were covered by outlets covering more than one local authority area. For example, it is possible for there to be news deserts in London even though there are several London-wide news outlets – the point is that there is significant power vested in each local authority area that makes up London, so with limited research time, we chose to analyse whether there was a dedicated outlet for each local authority.


According to our analysis, Newport in South Wales is labelled as a news desert because the research showed that no individual outlet was exclusively dedicated to that local authority. However, as quite reasonably pointed out by the South Wales Argus team, they are based in Newport, and are seen as Newport’s local paper. There are likely to be other examples of this in the map and in our list of news deserts.


In an ideal world, then, we would be able to research each news outlet and manually draw the shape of the area actually covered, based on a review of each outlet’s content. But given that we've found at least 1,600 active incorporated local news outlets in the UK (let alone unincorporated outlets) this presents a vast research resource requirement. Alternatively, we could try to map layers of coverage, perhaps grouping outlets into ‘community’ (an area smaller than a local authority district), ‘local’ (an area roughly coterminous with a local authority district), ‘regional’ (an area covering several districts) and ‘national’. Not forgetting the 21 areas of England that have *two* significant levels of local government: a district and a county council... Mapping is hard.


Second, let’s look at the execution of that methodology and those definitions.

There are around 20,000 pieces of data that make up the map. Those pieces were manually collected. Where there’s human work, there’s human error, and so we acknowledge that the map contains errors.


There seems to be a particular group of errors around missing outlets that exist only in print. There are a group of print outlets whose online presence has been subsumed into a regional outlet’s website. For example, we missed the Hinckley Times (and so wrongly labelled Hinckley a news desert, rather than a dryland) because it has no website of its own, being part of Leicester Mercury/Leicestershire Live. Without being on the ground in all 380 or so local authorities, it’s hard to know. We did make efforts to use PressReader and other digital tools, but a better version of the map could expand on this.


To try to catch at least some of these errors, we allowed for a period of corrections and comments: we published a first version of the map in mid-June and invited corrections for a month before the launch in mid-July. But this may not have been long enough – or we simply weren’t able to reach enough people with that first version.


Next steps


With all that in mind, and as we mentioned above, there are two commitments we want to make. And we’ll need your help.


1) We’re going to reopen the map to corrections, or changes in the data, such as a newsroom opening or closing or changing address; and,

2) We’re going to hold a conversation about the future of the map, incorporating discussions around definitions, methodology, scope and resourcing.


On #1, we’re going to do quarterly updates over the next nine months. We invite you to submit corrections or comments here by the end of August for a September update, then it’ll be end-November for December, and end-February 2024 for March 2024.


By that point, we will have published the original map and three quarterly updates. We won’t produce a full report each time, but we might produce brief summaries of any significant changes. We can’t guarantee to be able to keep doing this forever without more funding, and in any case, we do want to look more deeply at building on and improving the map, which will certainly require new resources.


On #2, there's a lot to talk about, so let’s have a chat:


A) There’s more we’d love to do with the existing dataset. We heard some excellent questions at the launch event about outlet closures and we’d love to take another look at the data to try to map those (done very well in Australia) and see if there are themes or patterns in closures. We also have an idea around ‘News Miles’ – looking at the distance between news ownership, news production and news consumption.


B) And we’d love to expand the dataset too: for example, is the number of journalists a good proxy for the amount and quality of content – and could it be more quickly collected than having researchers review every news outlet?


C) What is the long-term future of the map? It will get more useful the longer it exists and the more we can see change over time – so how can we keep it alive?


We know there are more ideas out there, and lots of appetite, so we want to bring together everyone with an interest in the map for discussion after the summer break. Do get in touch if you’re keen to keep the conversation going and we’ll reach out proactively too.


We all want to see the state of local news in the UK improve, because we believe it strengthens communities, strengthens governance and improves lives. Better mapping allows us to know whether that is happening. Let's get organised to make it happen.


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