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This is The Outlook, IPI’s media innovation newsletter where we look at actionable advice and fresh perspectives on the pressing challenges facing independent media.

This week, we’re learning from newsrooms that have succeeded in starting up and fulfilling unmet information needs in their regions’ news deserts.

For readers who are working in local, regional, or niche media, this is the final week to apply for IPI’s Local News Accelerator. This three-month programme has been designed by IPI’s media sustainability team to give you tailored coaching to explore and implement a new idea for your business. If this sounds useful, please apply – the deadline for applications is August 27.

The challenge: News deserts become fertile ground for propaganda

News deserts are growing across the globe. The U.S. has lost more than a quarter of its newspapers in two decades according to the 2022 State of Local News Report and the numbers of local independent media outlets are declining in Europe.

A lack of independent news poses a problem for democracy. Misinformation can easily fill the gap, including conspiracy theories spread by malicious actors as well as state-sponsored propaganda. This is especially true in areas where the reason for the rise of news deserts is media capture or repression of independent media.

But one thing we know at IPI is that media can also thrive in critical moments.

Local media pioneers from Brazil, Indonesia, Romania, and Portugal spoke at the 2023 IPI World Congress about why they found it necessary to start their own outlets so that their communities were properly represented. As Izabela Moi, founder of Agência Mural in Brazil, pointed out, low-income and underprivileged groups are a majority in the country, and the news should tell their stories.

The panelists didn’t shy away from the difficulty of building their reputation and staying financially solvent, especially when governments did their best to make the job hard for them. But these publications have all managed to grow their teams and audiences, ensuring that local stories get told in a representative way.

One solution: A constructive approach

Survival for local media in news deserts requires a combination of strategies, including new revenue models, utilizing technology and collaborating with other newsrooms.

When you’re up against propaganda and polarization, one way to secure the trust of your audience is to be a constructive voice amidst the noise. It starts with language: Evi Mariani, founder of Project Multatuli in Indonesia, said the final straw that led her to leave her former publication was being asked to refer to forced evictions as “relocations”.

Now she puts local communities at the heart of storytelling, leading to stories such as one about school teachers who were not receiving pay. Project Multatuli’s audience ended up crowdfunding money for these teachers, an example of demonstrable impact.

Two Georgian newsrooms, Batumelebi in the southwest and Mtis Ambebi in the mountainous regions, also go a step beyond reporting on the problems they hear from their community, and ask “what now?”.

Batumelebi has plans to host high quality debates on YouTube, and even to bring together representatives from the government and the opposition to add nuance to public conversations. And Mtis Ambebi has campaigned successfully on behalf of its community, leading to concrete improvements in local healthcare and internet access. Read more about their approach here.

The Takeaway: Don’t let propagandists become the only ones offering ‘answers’ to your community’s problems.

“We talk to people and prepare reports based on what they tell us. But that is only half of the work we do. After covering their stories, we sit down and think of the solutions,” Mtis Ambebi’s founder and editor-in-chief, Gela Mtivlishvili, told IPI.

News from IPI’s Media Sustainability Team

Have you read the stories from newsrooms that participated in IPI’s Transition Accelerator?

Learn how Romania’s Gen, știri developed a TikTok strategy, Slovenia’s Večer Mediji embarked on a digital transformation journey, and Ukraine’s Hromadske Radio developed resilient technological solutions to reach displaced audiences.

Funding opportunities for media

IPI’s media innovation and sustainability work is made possible with support from the European Union, Friedrich Naumann Foundation and ERSTE Foundation