Local papers lose out to Facebook as UK towns become 'news … – The Guardian

Report says people often find online groups more informative than underfunded traditional media
Local Facebook groups have supplanted local newspapers as the default source of information in many British towns, according to a report into so-called “news deserts”.
The catastrophic financial collapse of the local news industry over the last two decades has destroyed the business model of local newspapers, according to the Charitable Journalism Project. Although consumers sometimes described these Facebook groups using terms such as “toxic” and “racist”, many said they provided more up-to-the-minute information than their local newspaper.
Dr Steven Barclay of City, University of London, who conducted the research, said local audiences increasingly turned to online community groups, with few of the people he interviewed directly visiting their local newspaper website for the latest updates. In one example, the town of Trowbridge in Wiltshire has 44,000 residents – and more than 30,000 of them are in a single Facebook group.
Barclay said a common complaint in “news deserts” was that local journalists on mainstream outlets were no longer based in the towns they covered. In the case of the Whitby Gazette, the newspaper used to have a prominent office in the Yorkshire seaside town that has now closed. “Whitby was a really classic example of a newspaper that was very widely read within the town and was part of its identity. People identified with the Gazette – they said they knew the editor of the Gazette and drank with him in the pub,” Barclay said.
He said many of the people interviewed for the study were acutely aware of – and saddened by – the decline of their local news outlets. “What I found in my research is people wanted a trusted source of local news and information that’s both professional and authentically local.”
In addition to Trowbridge and Whitby, the study also held focus groups in Barrow-in-Furness in Cumbria, Corby in Northamptonshire, Pembrokeshire in Wales, Lewisham in south London, and Tiverton in Devon. The authors found many of those interviewed missed the traditional bread-and-butter reporting about what was going on in their towns. “The new style of local journalism which had replaced it was felt to be commercialised and, on occasion, damaging and divisive,” the report said.
Many for-profit local news outlets now set click targets for their reporters – with financial incentives for journalists who can maximise the number of people who are tempted by a headline.
Local newspapers have also attempted to make money by posting increasingly provocative headlines on social media, which have further contributed to their declining status, while Barclay said the “flashing adverts and reams of clickbait” on some local sites undermined quality pieces of journalism.
The research was backed by the Charitable Journalism Project, which aims to help local not-for-profit news outlets gain charitable status. Many of those interviewed also said local Facebook groups were incredibly efficient places for information on Covid testing or as a venue to buy or sell goods.
There was also praise for the contribution of the BBC’s Local Democracy Reporter scheme for increasing coverage of local councils.
Barclay said local newspapers acted as community glue. “People don’t necessarily want their local news to be big stories – they want scrutiny of local government but they also want stories about the local fete and the primary school reopened and make them feel happy about the place where they live.”


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