No News is Bad News

It is time for cities to take information inequality seriously.
April 10, 2024

Humankind is a majority-urban species and getting more so. It is in the “midst of a city-building boom”, reports The Economist, with 91 new cities announced or planned worldwide, from California to Iraq, from Honduras to Bhutan, from Egypt to India. 

Much of this wave is being fueled by countless billions from oil revenues, bonds, debtventure capital, and technology billionaires, from the 170 kilometer-long city of NEOM in the Saudi Arabian desert and Egypt’s New Administrative Capital to the forests being cleared to make way for Nusantara, Indonesia’s planned new capital. 

The incentives for building many of these new cities may be primarily economic, but in a few cases they relate to other drivers, such as worsening environmental effects on existing cities and a desire for more equitable ways of holding land. And while such megaprojects do get their fair share of breathless media coverage, there are also many civil-society and media groups digging into the often-murky financing, contracting, and greenwashing that fuel them. 

Given that these vast cities will one day house millions of people, the urban developers and the financiers receive much evidence-based advice about preventing a repetition of past mistakes—from trying to avoid worsening socioeconomic inequality to designing cities for gender equality. But what about information inequality?

Information inequality is a phenomenon that leaves certain urban communities in the shadows, their voices ignored or marginalized, their concerns seen as secondary, their access to relevant media limited or substandard. Policymakers worldwide are starting to frame their responses to democracy-threatening phenomena, such as misinformation and disinformation, as efforts to defend “information integrity”, but their impact will be limited unless they include measures to reduce information inequality. 

There are many aspects to addressing this specific form of inequality, including the role of civic information, the need for universal connectivity, and the importance of education and literacy. But my particular interest is the answer to this question: What can city authorities do to help local media and journalism address, rather than worsen, information inequality?

It is widely known that the old business model for much of the media sector is collapsing worldwide. Declining advertising revenues, falling sales, increased competition from other forms of content, insufficient public and philanthropic funding, and attacks on media freedom are all taking a toll. As a result, many outlets, from local to global, can no longer afford to produce the work that society most needs, public-interest journalism. This is especially true at the local level, including in cities, as my colleague and GMF Fellow Philip Napoli explains in his recent piece

People can tend to think of cities as monolithic entities, but they are, of course, much more of a patchwork. Some city areas enjoy a glut of media and connectivity, whereas other areas suffer from news and information deserts, leaving large swathes of municipal populations unrepresented. Information inequality does not just relate to the ability to access or be covered by local media. It diminishes political, economic, and cultural diversity. It entrenches socioeconomic disparities. It creates the conditions for some to foment or exacerbate divisions within and among communities. And it undermines the principles of equal representation and participation. Ethnographer Danny Parker’s work on “radical disengagement”, summarized in this excellent audio interview, offers compelling insight into this.

Carolyn Cartier, Manuel Castells, and Jack Linchian Qiu identified nearly two decades ago the phenomenon of the “information-have-less” in Chinese cities. This concept, unfortunately, now applies in a far wider range of urban environments worldwide. In many societies, the fabric of local media that might once have covered communities equally and equitably is now threadbare. Unless philanthropic or public funding steps in, only more affluent or economically productive neighborhoods can sustain local publications. This is compounding racial and economic injustices within cities and eroding communities’ trust in news media

I have seen the decline in local media worldwide firsthand, even, perhaps surprisingly, in cities in the United Kingdom, my home country. Before the pandemic, the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism at Oxford University was already raising the alarm about social inequalities in access to and consumption of news in an increasingly digital environment. The 2023 UK Local News Map from the Public Interest News Foundation (PINF) shows worrying growth in urban and rural news deserts, though a few places, such as Bristol, with its many independent news outlets, seem to be relative “news oases”. 

Dig a little deeper, though, and, as another PINF project (which I run) supporting communities to develop their own Local News Plans and Local News Funds shows, those oases do not look as welcoming. A community consultation my project conducted in 2022 revealed that “[w]hile Bristol has a surface diversity of independent media outlets, and seems like a ‘news oasis’, they are all struggling to grow or survive.” These outlets range from an independent media cooperative owned and governed by local members to a commercial digital news operation that is part of a powerful national group.

The consultation report concluded that the impact of local media’s financial struggles on different parts of the city is profound and unjust: “Although Bristol has a ‘One City’ agenda, it is much harder to launch and sustain local news covering poorer districts of the city. In wealthier areas, outlets can access more revenue, [due to locals’] higher willingness and ability to pay, and advertising [generated] from local businesses, than in poorer or more deprived areas, meaning that the poorer areas are unable to sustain local outlets catering to their citizens’ needs.” This is information inequality in a nutshell.

As part of my GMF Cities visiting fellowship, I will look in the coming months at how information inequality—the presence or absence of local public interest journalism—manifests itself in different cities, how it impacts affected communities and the wider city, and what city administrations and civic and media leaders can do about it. Policy responses—funding schemes, local earmarked taxes and tax relief, media clusters, skills development, and business development support—are already at hand. Napoli explains in a 2023 book chapter how public policy in the United States can tackle information inequality, and The New Deal for Journalism is a compendium of policy options already being deployed by governments and other authorities worldwide. 

These policy options look extremely cost-effective compared to the costs of inaction, which already manifest themselves in cities worldwide as rampant misinformationcivil disturbances, and even ethno-religious conflictJust as cities have mobilized efforts to tackle pressing global challenges such as climate change and migration, they must now confront the looming threat of information inequality. The good news is that, by doing so, city authorities, policymakers, and civic leaders can support the vital role played by local journalism in fostering informed, engaged, and inclusive communities. The future of our cities—and the cities of the future—depend on it.