Urbano Reviglio, CMPF Research Associate
News desertification is an increasingly common and concerning phenomenon worldwide. This refers to a phenomenon in geographic or administrative areas, or even social communities, where it is progressively difficult or impossible to access “sufficient, reliable, diverse and independent local, regional and community media and information” (Centre for Media Pluralism and Media Freedom, 2023). The original concept of “news desert” has been developed firstly by US scholars and then by policymakers to explain the crisis of traditional news media and the vanishing of local news outlets as a consequence of the digital transformation and the 2008 global economic crisis (LM4D, 2023). And yet, we still know quite little about this phenomenon, especially in Europe. This is why the European Union has funded the project “Local Media for Democracy” (LM4D), led by the European Federation of Journalists (EFJ) and a consortium of partners, including the Centre for Media Pluralism and Media Freedom (CMPF), the International Media Support (IMS), and the Journalismfund.eu. LM4D is a multidisciplinary research project that aims to map news deserts in Europe and to help struggling local, regional, and community media in the identified areas by providing financial support and organisational capacity building. One of the final goals of this study is outlining which are the relevant dimensions for studying the phenomenon of news deserts in a European context, while informing about local and community media outlets and journalists in the EU countries, and offering examples of best practices in the management and innovation of local newsrooms throughout Europe.
One of the dimensions that can prove interesting for further research is social media and their role in providing local information and support, or posing a potential threat to local news media. There are good reasons for this. Academic literature on the role of social media in news deserts is still rather scarce (Toff and Mathews, 2021; Barnidge and Xenos, 2021; Weber et al., 2019). Most importantly, the opacity of mainstream social media does not allow the access to valuable data for this kind of research. As such, it is extremely challenging and costly to provide evidence for different areas in different countries. And yet, there are certainly innovative initiatives in social media and, more broadly, online, but these often elude the definitions of local and community media (see a glossary of definitions here). Similarly, there is not even a shared understanding among audience members about what local news is in the digital environment (Gulyas et al., 2019). So far, we can only speculate on what the role of social media news consumption could be in mitigating or contributing to news desertification.
In theory, online local news media could replace local newspapers, partly mitigating news desertification (Collier and Graham, 2022; Project Oasis, 2023; Husock, 2023). Social media have indeed become central in the local news distribution systems, not only for the distribution of news produced by local media but also for information produced by communities within social groups (such as bloggers, journalists, influencers, Facebook’s pages and groups, Telegram and Youtube channels, who disseminate local news directly to their own followers). Moreover, many organisations —especially national— also cover some local news stories, particularly during times when events transcend their local context. By receiving personalised recommendations from various sources on social media, users could cultivate, albeit in a more fragmented and serendipitous way, a local news diet. Even those that are less interested in local media could still be incidentally exposed to that and become more interested. This phenomenon is usually referred to as “incidental exposure to online news”. This occurs when “people encounter current affairs information when they had not been actively seeking it” and has the capacity to engage disinterested individuals and play an important role in informing citizens and engaging them in democratic processes (Yadamursen and Erdelez, 2016). Consider, for example, that the main reason why Facebook users consume news on the platform is indeed incidental: 32% see news while they are there for other reasons (Andi, 2021). Through social media, local media can indeed reach new audiences — especially young people as well as underserved and disillusioned communities — and explore new (often low-cost) ways to engage communities (see Park, 2021).
The reality, however, is far more challenging. To begin, local and community media may trigger less engagement and therefore receive less visibility. Toff and Mathews (2021) found that on Facebook in the U.S. particular types of content — namely national, “hard news” stories — generate relatively higher rates of online engagement compared to local, “soft news” stories, potentially disincentivising posts about local affairs covering public interest issues. Similarly, Weber et al. (2019) found that stories about local politics are relatively scarce on Facebook and the reason may be poor interaction performance. The economic incentives and logics of social media platforms may indeed influence or even drive editorial decision-making at local news outlets. Smaller independent organisations seem to have a disadvantage compared to those with resources allowing for more sophisticated audience strategies. More often, news organisations use interaction metrics (particularly popularity-driven metrics) to determine which types of stories they produce and then post on social media, potentially creating platform dependency and threatening editorial autonomy (Dodds et al., 2023). In this context, there is also the risk of “social media news deserts” (Thorson, 2019), which occur when people are not exposed to a high amount of news and political information because of their social networks and/or personalisation algorithms. And while local and community media may be key resources for the engagement and integration of minority and marginalised communities living in a given area, the algorithms driving content distribution are often biased and polarised, leading to the mis and/or underrepresentation of minorities (Sargeant et al., 2021). Finally, another risk is that disinformation can easily fill the gap caused by the lack of independent local news. Thus, rather than supporting local news media, social media could contribute to spread disinformation and cause local social division (Barclay et al, 2022).
All in all, it is still unclear what the role of social media is in mitigating or contributing to news deserts. More research is certainly needed and there are hopes that the European Digital Services Act (DSA) new regulation will provide access to precious data to corroborate the above observations (Art. 31). It is indeed fundamental to better understand social media’s algorithmic logics and their consequences for local and community media, as well as the emerging behavioral patterns of news consumption. These could be significant because social media could even have a palliative effect on news desertification, giving a false sense of thriving local news media and making less tangible the risks of a fragmented local news diet (see Collier and Graham, 2022). As a consequence, they could also lessen the perceived need for protecting local and community media. This could be accentuated by a combination of users’ attitudes: decreasing trust in news media, increasing news avoidance, and other emerging behavioral patterns (see Newman et al., 2023), including excessive trust in algorithmic personalisation and news sharing. Take the “news finds me” perception. Many people believe that they no longer have to actively seek the news to be well informed about public affairs and that important news will find them through social media or other online channels (Gil de Zúñiga et al., 2022). Users’ attitudes could indeed have serious consequences for news desertification. Indeed, the desertification is not only of local media but also of users’ attention. Questioning the role of users in news desertification is fundamental. Accordingly, media literacy remains paramount to counteracting potentially detrimental beliefs and behaviors.
Eventually, policymakers could support local and community media on social media, not only by funding independent and digital-native local media but also by supporting local and community news media discovery. It is fundamental that social media users can align their preferences for local news by design. More broadly, there is a need to allow users to choose and balance the “spatiality” of news on social media, from local to global news. As the director of the MIT Center for Civic Media Ethan Zuckerman observed a decade ago (2013), the development of a cosmopolitan culture through incidental news encounters could be limited by georeferenced algorithms, which personalise content based on one’s location. This observation fits in with other debates on the interplay between local and global, and the importance of “glocalism” (as the adagio goes, “think globally, act locally”). Social media’s interface design could be developed in order to escape algorithmic biases, including the “homophily bias”, the idea that proximity and familiar content is normally preferred to distant and unfamiliar content. Ideally, one of the most appealing ideas in this context would be to provide users with a “slider” they can use to decide the extent to which their feeds are prioritising local, regional, national and global news, with the ability to set a personal balance between them. The development of local news recommender systems and news aggregators could help to mitigate news deserts. For example, the integration of “conversational AI” in the realm of social media personalisation could eventually lead users to self-determine with simple commands that they can employ at any time such as asking directly in a bar: “i want more local news!”.
The transition to the digital era has undoubtedly contributed to the crisis of traditional as well as local media. In particular, the decline of local newspapers heavily overlaps with the growth of online advertising and social media. The hope is that digital news consumption might still sustain the informational needs of communities. Social media should support local media exposure and discovery. It is clear, however, that this form of news consumption may not assure the regularity of the news or the high standard of traditional journalism. Many initiatives that intersect with local and community media are also often short-lived. Local news consumption on social media is not – and cannot be – a replacement for traditional local and community media, and yet it has a substantial impact that needs to be better understood.
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