News deserts

Fertilising news deserts in Europe

Forty-two small media initiatives from across the EU are taking part in a capacity-building programme, aiming to counter “news deserts” around Europe – areas or communities where local outlets, for different reasons, are no longer capable of providing citizens with the information necessary to make informed decisions about issues that affect their communities and quality of life.

Forty-two small media initiatives from across most EU countries are taking part in a capacity-building programme, aiming to counter “news deserts” around Europe – areas or communities where local outlets, for different reasons, are no longer capable of providing citizens with the information necessary to make informed decisions about the issues that affect their communities and quality of life

This work is part of a larger programme called Local Media for Democracy known in short as the LM4D program.

Business Viability Advisor Iryna Vidanava explains the methodology and the lessons learned of organising numerous media outlets involved in improving their own growth and learning.

What is the aim of this project?

Iryna Vidanava: “Since IMS started 20 years ago, we’ve been all about supporting free speech and keeping journalists safe in places where there’s armed conflict, political changes, weak democracies, or authoritarian leaders. That’s meant most of our work has been outside the EU. But lately, we’ve seen threats to journalists, attacks on freedom of speech by government laws, and the decline of local media are happening in EU countries too. This is the first project where IMS is working with media inside the EU. The aim is to address news deserts inside EU countries. And mind you, a news desert may just as well be in a city as in rural regions – or a particular community for that matter. All it requires is an underserved audience.”

News deserts have been extensively researched in the US and identified across the globe, so while it is not a new concept, news deserts haven’t received much attention in the EU. Another big issue is media outlets struggling with their business models and media freedoms being restricted – even distorted – by internal or external actors. News deserts are interwoven with the fact that big tech platforms maintain a stranglehold on the media’s distribution and data, and revenue shares of media continue to fall. Wherever you look, you see problems and this project wants to address those issues. Why? Well, news deserts creates a fertile ground for an increase in disinformation and threats to democratic processes, and this project wants to urgently mitigate these consequences.”

The process

– The LM4D consortium issued two rounds of calls for applicants, aimed at local media across the EU, and asked applicant to explain why they thought their area was a news desert and how their project would alleviate it.
– Another requirement is that the project has a public interest value.
– The call attracted more than 200 applications from 17 countries – far more than expected.
– An independent jury reviewed and selected a total of 42 projects. As of April 2024, all 42 selected projects already received grants.
– Seventeen projects supported in the first round have completed project implementation. Twenty-five projects from the second round will finish by 31 May 2024.


What is your role?  

Iryna Vidanava: “IMS colleagues and I assist the participating media in implementing their projects and developing strategies for longer term media sustainability and impact. We planned for taking on 30 projects but have managed 42. They have gotten between 5,000-60,000 euro to work with.

In essence the funding should allow applicants to do something they have not done before. Most participants look to find ways to increase public reach and participation, to diversify content production and distribution or to create new platforms for underserved audiences. Some look to build new revenue streams or start an electronic newsletter. The diversity and richness of ideas are amazing.

 In addition to funding, IMS offers capacity building workshops on the topics of the most common needs, identified by the participating media in their project applications and needs assessment process, such as audience understanding and engagement, digital analytics, content distribution and promotion, business innovation and sustainability. All work happens online with an aim to learn fast and fail fast so that the media have time to correct their approach.

We offer thematic workshops on the most common needs identified by the participants, the main areas being audience understanding and engagement, automation of content production, crowd sourcing, community building online and offline, business and revenue models, inclusivity and gender and equality.”

All work happens online – how does that work out?

Iryna Vidanava: “Working online is still in our blood since Covid-19, but of course it is a challenge. However, it is also the only way to make a project like this work. We have 42 media projects and they consist of fairly small teams with no more than five-15 people. In such small teams you cannot drag people out for day-long training sessions. Working online allows us to do more with more people and spend the money on grants rather than on travel and meetings. Also, participants are not obliged to attend. It is not like a course with modules you must pass. This approach allows for flexibility. So far it seems to be working for everyone as it respects the limited time and capacity of small media teams and allows for discussions and sharing on their terms. I know the resource pains they navigate as I have been a publisher myself.”

What have you learned that you wish you had known earlier?

Iryna Vidanava: “LM4D is a pilot and lasts only eighteen months! With the development phase and the call for applicants, partners end up with only six-seven months for implementation – and this isn’t enough time. Also, with the demand being so high, it is heart-breaking not to be able to support more applicants because the interest and the need is great.”

If funding was not a consideration, what would you like to do?

Iryna Vidanava: “More time and more money for one-to-one mentoring. I also really want to keep the network together. It will be a pity if we leave and walk our separate ways after this.”

Map of Local Media for Democracy grantees.
Via Local Media for Democracy.

How are media people responding to this project management approach to journalism?

Iryna Vidanava: “Surprisingly well! They are new to this lingo, but this is exactly what is needed. As a journalist you may focus on the content, not how it is picked up and used by the audience. Some have strong management who immediately get it. But for others we have developed a simple way of nudging them to describe and plan their project, set clear objectives and measure impact. I think of it as a pivot from journalist centric to user centric. Without this understanding it is harder to pitch your case to funders and to the public. And then you cannot survive.”

Can you give an example of a project?

Iryna Vidanava: “There is such diversity of partners and ideas, it is hard to choose. Lika, alocal media in Croatia noticed that most of its readers accessed their website from mobile devices, so they decided to build from scratch the first local news mobile app in the country. They built it in less than four months and it took off amazingly well!

They designed it based on what they knew of their audience from the website. A team of young tech-savy people organised meetings in their region inviting the participants to download and test the app’s betta version. They sent 200 emails and 100 people came, an amazing turnout rate! They then took the feedback and improved the app.  Moreover, they also developed a partnership with a local radio station and would stream the radio on the app. The radio station in turn will promote the app. Such partnership is also a new thing in Croatia and a positive development in the local media landscape.

I also notice many examples of the important role that local media play in a community. With LM4D support, a Lithuanian local radio station did a story about an urban development plan that would destroy a historic area. The plan had been approved, but media raised public awareness alerted local prosecutor’s office. It was later abolished – that is great impact and emphasises how local media cater to local interests.”

What has been a surprise?

Iryna Vidanava: “I am really happy with the willingness of partners to share experiences and learn from each other. Sometimes it takes courage to share not only what worked, but also what did not.

One participant said to me: “We sit in our small town and what we hear about media development is coming from big media. It is indeed amazing what The Guardian (UK newspaper) can do with their subscription platform, but such initiatives are not relevant for us. We will never be in a position to replicate anything similar. This network is an opportunity for local and regional media with similar challenges.”

According to Iryna Vidanava, the most common feedback she gets is “thank you for inspiring us”.

The Local Media for Democracy project is an 18-month project co-funded by the European Commission and launched by a consortium of partners: the Journalismfund Europe, the Centre for Media Pluralism and Media Freedom (CMPF), International Media Support (IMS), and the European Federation of Journalists (EFJ).

For more stories about the LM4D project:

Understanding audiences is crucial in an ever-changing digital environment – European Federation of Journalists (

LM4D: How to make local reporting impactful? – European Federation of Journalists (