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Publishers rubbish local journalism map’s ‘news deserts’ claim

Gavin Thompson 2023Regional publishers have demanded changes to a research project that wrongly branded local authority areas they cover as “news deserts”.

Newsquest and Reach plc have called for the Public Interest News Foundation to look again at a new map it has published highlighting the areas of the UK which it claims are underserved by journalists.

The first draft of the Local News Map identified 38 local authority areas described as “news deserts”, defined as an area without “a news outlet that only covers that local authority”.

However this methodology meant areas such as Newport, in South Wales, and Telford & Wrekin, where the South Wales Argus and Shropshire Star are based respectively, were classified as “news deserts” because those titles also cover neighbouring authorities.

In addition, areas such as Gateshead and North Tyneside were listed as “news deserts” despite being covered by a regional daily based based outside of their boundaries in the form of the Newcastle Chronicle.

PINF also accepted the research contained “a few errors” after HTFP pointed out that Hinckley & Bosworth, listed as one of the “news deserts”, is served by Reach weekly the Hinckley Times, while Newcastle was also listed as being covered by the Middlesbrough-based Teesside Gazette.

Newsquest Wales regional editor Gavin Thompson, pictured, who edits the Argus, told HTFP: “To describe Newport as a news desert is laughable and undermines the research carried out by the Public Interest News Foundation, which is a shame because this is an important subject.

“The South Wales Argus has been in Newport reporting on the local community for more than 130 years. Our office is right in the city centre, we cover the council, we cover the courts, we cover all life in the city.

“Just this weekend we had a content editor, reporter and a freelance photographer out in the city covering the Big Splash – a series of community activities aimed at families in Newport – helping organisers get the news out that many of the events had moved to indoor locations because of the torrential rain.

“The Newport office not only houses the Argus but is also the registered trading address for Newsquest – so we don’t just have a local daily newspaper and website based right here in the heart of the city, but also the leading local news publisher for the UK.

“I would strongly urge the PINF to look again at their methodology as, in its present form, this is misleading and hinders rather than helps any debate about action over genuine news deserts in Wales and the rest of the UK.”

Reach chief digital publisher David Higgerson has also reached out with an offer of help to PINF as the project develops.

Speaking to HTFP, he said: “We welcome the Public Interest News Foundation’s first version of the Local News Map and share their passion on local news provision, and the need for up-to-date research into coverage around the UK.

“As they say themselves, the classifications of news provision are subjective to an extent. As the report itself says, it is possible that citizens of a ‘technical news desert’ are brilliantly served by a well-staffed regional outlet. This is very much the case, as far as we can see, in many of the areas listed as news deserts.

“Gateshead, for example, has been at the heart of the Evening Chronicle’s coverage in Newcastle for generations, and continues to be so on Chronicle Live. It seems odd to classify it a news desert purely because the Chronicle is based on the other side of the River Tyne, in a different council area.

“Likewise, to suggest Hyndburn has no local news outlet at all, when the Accrington Observer is published weekly, Lancs Live publishes Hyndburn content most days and the Lancashire Telegraph, owned by Newsquest, publishes in the area every day, does point to the need to rework the classifications significantly.

“Local journalism is essential to the future of local communities, and any debate led by people committed to sustaining local journalism for those communities, is welcome, and we would be happy to work with PINF as they develop their plans for the future. This is too important a topic to be influenced by incomplete analysis.”

A number of hyperlocal news outlets are also missing from the map because they are not incorporated with Companies House, but PINF has said this could be examined again if the project gains sufficient research funding.

PINF deputy director Joe Mitchell, who led the project for the charity, told HTFP: “We’re confident that the overarching picture, given that our sample size must be close to the entire universe of outlets as we’ve defined them, tells a clear story of the worrying lack of provision across significant numbers of local authorities – home to millions of people – across the UK.”

He added: “We know that England is underserved according to its population, and we know that London is particularly underserved according to its population.

“In terms of ‘hyperlocals’, the first step in the project was to define local news outlets: would a local Facebook page count? A WhatsApp group? A community newsletter?

“In order to make the project realistic, we restricted our data collection to incorporated organisations. But that could be expanded were a mapping project like this to gain sufficient research funding.”

A report accompanying the map’s publication also highlighted well-served “news oases”, with Cornwall Council’s area topping the charts due to being served by 26 outlets.

The report said: “The Local News Map is a pilot project. It is a snapshot in time, and it relies upon [each] outlet’s claimed coverage, which was only briefly checked by researchers. The quality of the content was not investigated.

“There is thus much more that could be done, from regularly updating the map to measure trends over time, to expanding the map to include voluntary or community titles, to examining the quality and public interest nature of the content.

“Nonetheless, it is to be hoped that this first pilot effort whets the appetite of policymakers, researchers and all those who have an interest in citizens’ access to local news.

“We welcome conversations about building on and developing the map.”