Of Media Shifts and Crises: Mapping Digital Journalism and Online News Deserts in the Philippines
Image 1: Preliminary mapping of the vetted Philippine News Sites.
To cope with disruptions and challenges to Philippine journalism, the Asian Center for Journalism and Internews collaborated on Ads For News, a pilot research seeking to create a nationwide index of credible Philippine News Sites (PNS) potentially ripe for advertising support. The project manually vetted over 100 PNS and found that PNS are mostly based in urbanized areas. The vetted PNS were then mapped to determine regions considered as news deserts. Preliminary mapping revealed no PNS was based in the Bangsamoro Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao, and is thus identified as a major online news desert. The study also revealed existing gaps in Philippine online journalism such as content publication and sourcing, political/corporate influences, and transparency issues on editorial and advertising practices. The paper concludes with a call to localize the concept of news deserts in the context of the Global South.
The Philippine media has perennially faced targeted attacks from the government and online harassment in the past six years (Reporters Without Borders, 2022), including broadcasting giant ABS-CBN’s franchise non-renewal during the height of the global pandemic in May 2020 — greatly impacting the public’s access to information, the industry’s landscape and media workers’ welfare (Inocencio, 2020).
These unprecedented challenges rapidly forced the digital transformation of news organizations as news audiences also moved online (Cabaero, 2021), with 73.9 million internet users or 67% of the country’s total population going digital in January 2021 — a 6.1% increase in internet users from a year prior (We Are Social and Hootsuite, 2021).
To cope with this massive online media shift, the Asian Center for Journalism at the Ateneo de Manila University and Internews collaborated on Ads For News (AFN), a pilot research initiative seeking to create a nationwide index of credible and trustworthy Philippine News Sites (PNS) potentially ripe for operational sup- port via an advertising funding model.
The 10-month study manually vetted over 100 PNS and found that it is mostly present only in urbanized areas, while social media — particularly Facebook, which is vulnerable to disinformation (Article One, 2021) — has emerged as a news platform in the localities and regions (Asian Center for Journalism, 2022). The research also surfaced existing digital journalism gaps from the national to the regional and local levels such as content publication and sourcing, political and corporate influences, and transparency issues on editorial and advertising practices of various news websites around the country.
Given these baseline findings, this paper attempts to provide a preliminary mapping of PNS (see Image 1) and identify possible news desert areas that have little to no access to these digital news platforms. It also discusses conditions of the potential news desert communities, dissecting the factors, characteristics, and steps necessary to develop a more exhaustive media landscape mapping and to localize the concept of news deserts from the context, perspectives, and lived experiences of a Global South nation.
Scholars have generally defined news deserts as a specific geographical area that has limited to no access to a dedicated local newspaper or media service and lacks robust sources of news and information about its community (Ferrier et al., 2016; Ferrucci & Alaimo, 2020; Napoli et al., 2018).
Given journalism’s role in informing discourse in the public sphere, Abernathy (2020) sees news desert communities as having “significantly diminished access to important local news and information that feeds grassroots democracy” (p. 1). More concretely, other studies have dwelled on the effects of media closures in the community. Mathews’ (2022) study of Caroline County, Virginia, residents found that the closure of their 99-year-old local paper Caroline Progress had diminished the people’s sense of community and had made their life “harder” (p.1250). Matherly and Greenwood (2021) observed an increase of federal corruption cases filed in areas where a major newspaper had closed. In Brazil, almost half of the violations against local media practitioners happened in news desert communities (Artigo 19, 2018, as cited in Da Silva & Pimenta, 2020).
Identifying news deserts is inevitably a geographic and cartographic exercise (Ferrier et al., 2016). Abernathy’s U.S. News Deserts project is among the more consistent initiatives, mapping the emergence of news deserts by county based on their tracking of more than 9,000 local newspapers cross-checked from various sources. The project has produced at least four reports since 2016, the latest of which was released in 2020. In Brazil, a similar project called Atlas da Notícia, first released in 2017, identified news deserts in 4,500 municipalities, home to around 70 million people (Da Silva & Pimenta, 2020).
Normative definitions of what constitutes a local newspaper is also a crucial determinant in projects seeking to map news deserts. For instance, Abernathy only included local newspapers that provide public service journalism. This entailed relying on industry lists, as well as analyzing several print and online editions for its coverage of local government proceedings and topics that constitute critical information needs, namely emergencies and public safety, health, education, transportation, environment and planning, economic development, civic life, and political life (Friedland et al., 2012). The aforementioned Atlas da Notícia also relied on state and industry databases to identify local media outlets that cover “civic local issues, such as policy making, public spending, law making, health, education, security, mobility and the environment” (Da Silva & Pimenta, 2020, p. 49) similar to those identified by Friedland et al. (2012). However, the project’s definition of a local news outlet — one that publishes at least two local journalistic pieces per month — was tailored to the Brazilian experience because monthlies are more common in remote areas (Da Silva & Pimenta, 2020).
Succeeding studies have sought to expand and deepen the study of news deserts. Ferrier, et al. (2016) had proposed the term “media deserts” (p. 221) to include “conduit layers” (p. 221), such as broadband internet connection, which allows access to news content. In Kenya, Owilla et al. (2021) mapped news deserts by accounting for the number of accredited journalists, television and radio stations in each county, as well as each county’s distance to the nearest news bureaus. Finneman et al. (2022) highlighted the need to consider the historical, economic and racial contexts that have hindered a community’s access to journalism.
Given this crisis of news deserts, scholars have looked into the revenue streams that support local newspapers’ viability and sustainability.
Diminishing financial support for local newspapers and journalists is seen as a major factor for the emergence of news deserts (Smethers et al., 2021). In the United States where the concept was first introduced, the decline in print advertising revenue amid the rise of digital media has led to massive layoffs and the closure of entire newsrooms, especially in small communities outside of the populous metropolitan areas (Ferucci & Alaimo, 2020; Miller, 2018). Buyouts of local newspapers by large investment companies and corporations are presumed to diminish the quality of coverage (Reader & Hatcher, 2020). These entities usually consider profitability above the public interest, which entails less investmentin hiring local journalists and in other resources needed for local news to thrive (Abernathy, 2018). According to Reader and Hatcher (2020), these “industry-wide” cuts in local news coverage are thus seen as the cause of the “local news crisis” (p. 207).
Drawing advertising revenue has been particularly challenging for local news- papers. While most local outlets in the United States are already on Facebook (Holcomb 2018, as cited in Mathews 2022), monetization using social media still proves to be a “challenge” (Cornia et al., 2018, as cited in Mathews 2022, p. 1252). Several alternative funding models have emerged to support community journalism, such as government and non-government organization (NGO) funding, memberships, sponsored content, philanthropic investment and profit-sharing schemes (Reader & Hatcher 2020).
Hyperlocal journalism — a loose term that describes “online local news and information services, normally independent from large media owners” (Barnett & Townend, 2015, p. 336) — has attempted to address the vacuum left by traditional/legacy media in news desert communities. However, hyperlocal sites “often suffer from small, inexperienced staffs, unsustainable revenue streams (many launch with one-time start-up grants), and small, niche audiences unrepresentative of the larger communities” (Reader & Hatcher, 2020, p. 207). And given their reliance on digital networks, hyperlocals are not seen as sustainable in low- income and rural communities where broadband access is lacking (Napoli et al., 2018, as cited in Reader & Hatcher, 2020).
The Philippine Situation
Data on local journalism is scarce in the Philippines (Estella & Löffelholz, 2019), much less the study of news deserts. As of 2022, the newspaper association Philippine Press Institute (PPI) has 63 members, 56 of which are based in the provinces. Not all provinces and administrative regions, however, are represented in the PPI. Most are based in provincial capitals, as Maslog (2014) had previously noted. However, newspaper readership in general is low, with only 2% of Filipino adults reading newspapers daily (Social Weather Stations, 2019). The pandemic has exacerbated this problem for local papers, also called community newspapers (Maslog, 2014). At least 12 community newspapers ceased printing at one point due to the economic crisis (Bautista, 2020).
As audiences have continually shifted towards digital sources — with Facebook as the most popular platform (Chua, 2022) — national news outlets have established their digital presence by maintaining websites and accounts across various social media platforms. The digital space, however, is not new for national dailies, having maintained presence on the internet since 1995 (Maslog, 2014). Community papers received a boost in online publishing in 1999, when PPI launched the Globalization of Island Community Newspapers (Globicom) project, which provided an online portal where provincial newspapers could post their articles (Maslog, 2014).
But traditional news outlets face stiff competition in social media, which has become fertile ground for massive and effective political disinformation campaigns focusing on historical denialism and the discrediting of independent journalism (Ong & Cabañes, 2018; Ong et al., 2019; Ong et al., 2022).
Despite the Philippines’ growing online economy (Google et al., 2021), it is still difficult to ascertain how much news outlets receive in revenue as the public continues to redefine and expand their trustworthy sources of information (Asian Center for Journalism, 2022). As for community newspapers, Opiniano et al. (2015) previously noted that “community-level advertising” is still their primary source of revenue, with the amount depending on the community’s “level of economic growth, […] and the aggressiveness of community newspapers’ advertising and marketing personnel” (p. 33). Alternative models to support struggling major local papers have also emerged, including digital subscription tie-ups with national dailies (Chua, 2021; Chua, 2022).
It is in this context that the AFN project was conceptualized. The project originally aimed to identify and build a database of credible news sites around the country for the perusal of advertisers who may be interested in supporting these news outlets. Incidentally, due to the salience of the collected data, the researchers have decided to use it as a starting point in mapping and understanding the characteristics of Philippine news websites. The qualitative data collected also provides preliminary insights on the existence and nature of news deserts in the country. This paper thus seeks to answer the following research questions using the vetted data from AFN:
RQ1: What is the regional distribution of online news sites in the Philippines?
RQ2: What are the common characteristics and issues of these vetted online news sites?
RQ3: Which regions may be considered as online news deserts?
With these inquiries, the study hopes to primarily define some challenges and gaps in Philippine online journalism, and to contribute to the conceptualization of news deserts in the Global South context that may have significant divergences from those in the United States and the rest of the Global North (Orwilla, et al., 2021).
Both qualitative and quantitative methods were utilized by 16 local researchers and Internews from June 2020 to April 2021, namely: the manual listing and profiling of the PNS, an automated website analysis, and the manual vetting of the PNS with the guidance of a refined and localized AFN Code Book (see Appendix A), a matrix detailing the credibility criteria, scoring and assessment instructions for the online news sites.
To initiate the research, a startup team created a database of around 180 PNS by manually listing and profiling various news websites nationwide through online and offline search methods. Some of the factors discussed and considered by the researchers in profiling these online news sites include the general information (i.e. location and ownership), evidence chain (i.e. headline accuracy, legitimacy of business, and fact-checks), reputation network (i.e. political bias, contact details, authors, online presence and reach), and the nature of content of the websites as information were available.
This baseline data was then submitted to Internews for an automated website analysis to determine which online news sites were receptive to programmatic advertisements. After the technical analysis and acquiring additional PNS, 118 online news websites passed for the human vetting phase.
In preparation for the human vetting, the researchers conducted dry runs to re- fine the AFN Code Book, and to create the research vetting process (see Image 2) and tools that will help efficiently record, check, and manage the collection of data. All the researchers (see Appendix B), which comprised college students, communication academics, and media practitioners across the four Jesuit universities nationwide, then underwent a structured training session to discuss the criteria definitions, assessment instructions, and possible issues when vetting online news sites, as well as to familiarize themselves with the research vetting process and tools. These measures, including establishing communication channels and timely feedback mechanisms, were done to ensure a common understanding on the parameters and goals of the manual vetting of the online news sites.
Image 2: PNS human vetting process.
During the human vetting proper, team pods or subgroups of the whole research team which were then grouped per university, were assigned a set of PNS for vetting based on their geographical location. After which, the team pods delegated the assigned news websites for vetting among their group members. Each PNS underwent two rounds of vetting, with each pass being conducted by a different researcher to ensure reliability of results. In a few instances wherein the scores given by the two vetters for a criteria on one news website have a large gap (e.g. zero and four), implying inconsistencies in vetting the PNS, the assigned researchers discuss their scoring process and settle a final score.
At the end of the vetting, 108 of the 118 PNS were eligible for assessment and inclusion into the final index. The news websites that did not make it to the list were due to being inaccessible at the time of the vetting or being flagged as an active purveyor of disinformation and lacking credibility as a news site.
Given the specific focus of the project, the researchers acknowledge that there may be some legitimate news websites still not included in the list due to staff limitations and the criteria bias towards PNS capable of hosting programmatic advertisements. It is possible that several online news sites plotted in this PNS mapping would not be working today too, as researchers observed that there was a quick turnover on a number of the sites’ accessibility in between rounds of vetting. For purposes of this paper, the researchers will only be sharing the qualitative findings on the 108 vetted PNS that reached the final stage of the vetting.
The following section presents the geographical distribution of the vetted PNS, and some qualitative observations regarding audience, content and ethics. From the data, the researchers are able to identify an administrative region that can be considered an online news desert.
RQ1: What is the regional distribution of online news sites in the Philippines?[Embed interactive PNS mapping – link to live map]
The pilot research found that 62 PNS, a great majority of the identified online news websites, were based in administrative regions within Luzon. Out of this number, 34 PNS or almost one-third came from Metro Manila — the country’s capital and where national media outlets have more resources and the widest reach.
This displays a large gap in terms of the PNS geographical distribution across the Philippine regions, with the Visayas having 24 PNS and Mindanao having 17 PNS. Despite the presence of PNS in Mindanao, no single news website was based in the Bangsamoro Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao or BARMM. Meanwhile, five other news websites’ locations could not be identified.
From these data, most PNS are city-based or are from urbanized areas. Re- searchers, however, noted that regional and local media organizations — such as in the provinces of Bicol and Zamboanga — use social media, particularly Facebook, as a news platform more than websites.
RQ2: What are the common characteristics and issues of these vetted online news sites?
Image 3: Map of the vetted Philippines News Sites in Metro Manila.
The 108 PNS also appear to have multiple target audiences based on their location and the content they publish. Majority of the PNS, especially in Metro Manila (see Image 3), published articles catering to national (43) and global (20) audiences. Visayas and Mindanao news websites largely focused on regional (44) and local (37) reporting.
While the researchers have identified the target audiences of the PNS, data on the news websites’ overall online and social media reach is yet to be gathered to further understand the viability of these digital media outlets.
The vetted PNS from Metro Manila, with well-known national outlets like ABS-CBN News, GMA News, Philippine Daily Inquirer, The Philippine Star (PhilStar), and Rappler, have been found to do more original reporting with diverse sourcing for stories. This included having clear authorship on various reports that mainly covered national issues, showing greater accountability for the news websites’ published works.
Some of the PNS in the area are also subsidiary outlets of legacy newspapers such as Agriculture Monthly, published by The Manila Bulletin; Wheels.PH, powered by PhilStar; and Nolisoli, published by Hinge Inquirer Publications, Inc., which is a part of the Inquirer Group of Companies. Other PNS, particularly Bombo Radyo Philippines and SunStar Philippines, serve as an amalgamation of a news outlet’s different stations and coverages across the country.
In Luzon provinces, researchers noted that topics tackled by news reportage have been unique and responsive to the community’s needs, tackling issues on local crimes, business and politics. The PNS in the Ilocos region, specifically Bombo Radyo in Baguio and Vigan, had niche reporting — having its stories delivered solely in the communities’ vernacular and focusing on local issues.
Researchers have observed, too, that some PNS within the whole of Luzon seem to publish highly-targeted and political stories, suggesting bias for certain political entities or personalities like in the case of The Manila Times and Barako where many reports leaned towards former president Rodrigo Duterte and his ally and close confidant Senator Bong Go.
Image 4: Screenshot of SunStar Cebu’s Opinion Section Disclaimer and Comments Section.
In Mindanao, emerging or startup digital news websites that have gained some local following seem to have strong dependence on social media pages, espe- cially Facebook, for sourcing of information. Some of these PNS also still struggle in establishing their identities, as there are lifestyle websites doubling as a news outlet.
Questions on ownership, politics and conflict of interest arise on some news websites, too, such as the Northern Mindanao Daily Source and South Cotabato News, which both feature a handful of government-related content from local tourism to positive stories on specific politicians. Additionally, researchers ob- served that some PNS in the Zamboanga Peninsula framed stories in a sensa- tional manner and relied on crime reports or police blotter for their articles, and the Davao region-based PNS had news heavily linked to national personalities and entertainment figures.
An example of this is the Sonshine Media Network International (SMNI) website that is assumed to be owned by Apollo C. Quiboloy, a controversial pastor who is close to Duterte and is facing labor and sex trafficking charges in the United States (Federal Bureau of Investigation, n.d.). SMNI, which had been taken off by the research team in the PNS list after the rigorous vetting, is now considered to be part of the propaganda machinery of President Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos Jr. (Center for Media Freedom and Responsibility, 2022).
Amid these challenges, long-standing and credible news outlets like Mindanao Gold Star Daily and MindaNews have established their online presence to cover issues across the region, including the Muslim-majority BARMM, which did not have a PNS based in the area after the final vetting.
Overall, the local and regional PNS have tended to generally publish more lifestyle content, press releases and political propaganda than “hard” news. Although these news websites have been observed to not necessarily contain original reporting, these PNS reported on the communities’ daily stories — especially on local crimes, business and politics — while using a variety of languages understood by the general community and in the people’s vernacular like English, Filipino, Bikolano, Waray and Bisaya. These sporadically published reports have appeared to be usually single-sourced, lifted from social media or other websites, and have unclear, repetitive or general publication bylines across its articles. National stories reported on these province-based PNS are also either aggregated or are grounded on the local and regional affairs of the area.
Throughout the rounds of vetting, researchers recognized three main issues across the PNS: the lack of transparency on media ownership, the absence or inadequacy of code of ethics and privacy policies, and the difficulty in identification of advertising and sponsorship content.
Most of the news websites often have sections stating the names of editorial board and staff members of the media outlets. However, many of the vetted PNS lacked transparency on ownership details, especially the local and regional PNS. The online news sites that declared ownership largely only had the names of the companies and corporations that run or own the media outlet. This reflects the state of media ownership in the country wherein majority are commercially-owned (Vera Files & Reporters Without Borders, 2016), especially the PNS situated in Metro Manila. Researchers have noted that gathering this ownership information from the news websites was also a challenging task, as these details were not easily accessible and could only be found through other online sources and verifiable documents.
The vetted PNS also exhibited insufficient (or non-existent) code of ethics, privacy terms and policies in its websites. This pattern was most apparent with the regional PNS which, at times, had clickable links for these sections that only led to empty or error pages. But it is worth noting that several national news websites such as CNN Philippines, News 5 and The Manila Times were also found to be lacking code of conduct sections relaying the outlet’s editorial standards and practices.
In terms of advertising and paid content, the vetted PNS from the national to the regional levels have adopted the use of advertorials, wherein a product or a brand information is shared in a style of a journalistic report. Researchers observed, however, that such content and other similar sponsored stories are generally confusing and challenging to identify in the news websites — especially in the lifestyle and business sections. This is due to most of the PNS having no to little dedicated pages for advertisements and some articles having unclear or small labels for paid content. There were even instances where some reports that seemed like a press release or a brand story were “packaged” as news and lacked advertisement labels.
Additionally, researchers observed that some PNS appear to have been established primarily for profit, like an advertising platform, suggesting that these led the news websites to have poorly written articles or that the news items exist “to create an illusion of legitimacy” as a media outlet.
RQ3: Which regions may be considered as online news deserts?
Based on this PNS mapping, the most significant online news desert in the Philippines can be found in the Bangsamoro Region or BARMM, the lone administrative region among the country’s 17 with no recorded PNS in the final database. At the time the study was conducted, the region covers the provinces of Lanao del Sur, Maguindanao (split into the provinces of Maguindanao del Norte and Maguindanao del Sur after a plebiscite in September 2022), Basilan, Sulu and Tawi-tawi, as well as the capital Cotabato City and six other municipalities in Cotabato province that opted to join the region after a series of plebiscites in 2019. The region has a population of about 4.4 million as of 2020 and covers an area of more than 12,700 square kilometers.
BARMM was officially established in 2019 following nearly two decades of peace talks and the signing of a 2014 peace agreement between the Philippine government and the secessionist Moro Islamic Liberation Front. Its establishment aims to end almost 50 years of armed conflict within the region, which had become a hotbed for violent extremism due to state-sanctioned atrocities, warring factions and historical neglect, among others (Abuza & Lischin, 2020). Such troubled history continuously affects the region’s human and socioeconomic development. While the region has made significant strides in reducing poverty, BARMM is still the poorest region in the Philippines as of 2021, with a poverty incidence of 37.2% (Mercado, 2022). This context hews closely to previous studies linking the presence of news deserts in poorer, more rural areas away from the nation’s political and economic centers (Da Silva & Pimenta, 2020; Owilla et al., 2020). The region’s lack of visibility and representation in the online news space underscores the Bangsamoro region’s marginalization in the national news.
The researchers reiterate, however, that this mapping only pertains to online news sites that successfully passed both the automated and human vetting process. As mentioned, there are some news sites considered to be legitimate outlets, such as Bulatlat in Metro Manila, The Freeman in Visayas, and Davao Today in Mindanao. They were not included in the final list because they did not meet the standard for automatic vetting partly based on programmatic ads.
While this Philippine news website mapping is only preliminary, the gathered qualitative observations may potentially contribute to expanding and even challenging assumptions on the concept of news deserts. For instance, project researchers found that Facebook pages, sites and groups run by either journalists, local media outlets or other non-news media personalities have figured prominently in the provinces as sources of news and information. Some traditional news outlets post on Facebook rather than maintaining a website. These are usually not included in news or media desert mapping projects but are considered forms of hyperlocal journalism (Turner, 2021). While social media-based channels may be difficult to monitor due to factors such as volume and frequency of posts, high turnover or challenges in traceability, the researchers see that including these channels will be important in accounting for a more comprehensive mapping of both online news and media deserts, given the growing popularity of these platforms over traditional channels. The code book and vetting process should be modified if it will be used for purposes specific to the mapping of news deserts. Other media platforms such as print, television and radio are also not accounted for, given the limitations of the project’s scope. Including these platforms is crucial because of their reach and popularity in the Philippines, and it would provide a more complete picture of the country’s current news media landscape.
It is also noteworthy that a few legacy news outlets and a majority of provincial outlets did not meet certain crucial components of the AFN credibility criteria, including ethical and transparency practices disclosing ownership and revenue generation. As demonstrated in previous studies on news deserts, ownership is an important factor that contributes to the quality of local reporting (Abernathy, 2016; Wahl-Jorgensen, 2019). The preliminary qualitative data seem to reveal potential conflicts of interest arising from ownership by an influential political and business clan or corporate entity — whether on the local or national level — obscured by the absence of corporate information. In addition, the small number of PNS, which clearly distinguish paid content/advertorials, show that normative ethical practices ascribed to journalism elsewhere are not necessarily adopted universally. What are seen as conflicts of interest regarding advertising are nothing new to the Philippines at the national and local levels. For example, radio and television anchors of national and top-rated newscasts regularly advertise products ranging from detergent soap to fast food, with little uproar from the public (save for a few media observers). Do these ethical issues affect quality of reporting, contributing to the emergence of news deserts? The often-blurry dynamics between the newsroom and the business office in Philippine journalism need to be reflected in, and articulated further in, succeeding studies explicating the qualitative characteristics of news deserts.
The identification of BARMM as a significant online news desert tracks closer with Owilla et al.’s (2021) study characterizing the lack of media resources as the main concern of news and information deserts, rather than an industry-wide trend of limiting local coverage as observed in the Global North. While mapping and analysis of other platforms are still needed to get a fuller understanding of the Philippines’ news deserts, the qualitative data points to possible lines of inquiry regarding current discourse on news deserts. This includes examining the increasing role of hyperlocal journalism — observed in this study as Facebook groups, for example — in delivering a news desert community’s basic information needs. And while the mapping of news deserts is important in identifying possible gaps in the delivery of critical information to community life, the unique realities of journalism in the Global South require an expansion and interrogation of the very concept of news deserts. For instance, given news desert scholarship’s emphasis on traditional and digital news platforms, how can indigenous forms of community news and information dissemination figure in the wider discourse about news deserts, prominently featured during climate-induced disasters such as typhoons (Ponce de Leon, 2020)? How do the varied and often lax ethical practices in local journalism affect the delivery of news and information in the community? To what extent can these communities also be considered “news deserts?”
Given the research’s rich baseline findings, the researchers recommend three main projects to further map and understand the Philippines’ diverse news media landscape, especially the dynamics of the digital media space and local communities or the lack thereof, and to define the concept of news deserts in the context of a country from the Global South.
First, the researchers suggest an extensive mapping of various platforms of news media, including print, radio, television and online, be explored to more accurately determine the possible news desert hotspots nationwide. While the AFN project has produced pivotal initial findings on this subject, its methods have been limited to only identifying digital news websites and, in the process, may have excluded legitimate PNS due to the study’s scope. A main suggestion, however, to improve the PNS mapping involves significantly developing the vetting process and tools towards adapting the contexts and needs of the Philippine media, especially those residing in the local and regional communities where news outlets and journalists have meager resources (Shafer, 1990) yet face greater dangers for their reporting (Aguilar Jr., et al., 2014). The online news websites may also be informed and invited to participate in this study in order to gather more substantial qualitative and quantitative data that can sharpen the characteristic findings on the Philippine digital journalism space.
This redirection requires hiring local researchers representative of all the regions to better capture the nuances of the journalism practices and landscapes across the localities. In terms of the criteria restructuring, accounting for factors such as the news outlet’s language use, overall online and social media reach, and other forms of advertisement — apart from programmatic advertisements — is necessary to become more inclusive of the digital news media spectrum, considering that province-based PNS may be built and functioning dependent on its immediately available resources and/or access to its primary audience or community.
Besides acquiring online advertising revenue as envisioned by the AFN initiative, developing alternative and transparent funding support for community journalism is timely and vital, too. As the preliminary research findings show, some media outlets are owned by political entities and business organizations, a setup that may compromise independent reporting and merits a study on its own. This contributes to existing inquiry on the role of ownership in the emergence of news deserts (Abernathy, 2016). To address these financial challenges perennially faced by the local news media, hybrid and multi-layered funding models can be experimented. This may mean sourcing grants, spearheading crowdfunding campaigns, reviewing policies and innovating subscription-based news products and services tailor-fit to the communities’ interests and needs.
Second, the researchers recommend using a more expansive media desert approach in mapping the Philippines’ critical news and information gaps. This includes mapping not just the location of traditional media, but also the conduit layers such as fixed broadband and mobile data internet access, as well as related telecommunications infrastructure that are crucial to communities’ access to their critical news and information needs (cf. Da Silva & Pimenta, 2020). Through this method, external factors such as the available technology are also examined in characterizing news desert areas.
Lastly, the researchers propose conducting a study that would provide an in- depth profile of supposed news desert communities in the Philippines. This would help in localizing and nuancing the prevailing news and information ecosystems, including the presence of various hyperlocal and indigenous sources. Such a study could also re-articulate what the critical news and information needs and behaviors of a community are, similar to the U.S. FCC’s study, and whether these are aligned with the perception of those in the news industry.
With these developing research insights and potential future work in mind, it is vital to constantly challenge the gaps in Philippine digital journalism — especially in relation to local communities — so that the media can adapt and evolve amid the growing public distrust and volatility in the practice. As journalists and newsrooms navigate the ever-changing media space, these initial findings may act as a springboard for creating audience-based solutions that would not only respond to the media’s existing work perils, but also to the needs of the transforming public that journalism intends to serve.
The research sought to map Philippine news sites and identify potential online news deserts using data from the AFN project, which aimed to create an index of credible PNS for advertisers’ perusal. Quantitative and qualitative observations of the vetted sites revealed prevalent trends in Philippine online news sites, including the lack of transparency in editorial leadership and ownership, absence of a publicly-accessible code of ethics, insufficient or questionable sourcing in stories, and local/regional PNS’ preference in publishing lifestyle features, press releases or even propaganda over hard news. These trends add further depth to articulating and localizing the conditions, which allow for the emergence of news deserts in the Philippines.
Researchers also observed the diversity of online news sources besides websites — most prominently, those that are based on Facebook. While some of these social media-based pages may be earnest in providing accurate, timely and relevant information to their communities as hyperlocal sources of news, some inevitably are primarily partisan, profit-oriented and even active purveyors of disinformation. This mirage of a seemingly abundant source of stimulating information online deceptively masks the reality of communities that are severely lacking sources of reliable and well-vetted information.
Through this PNS mapping, BARMM — a special administrative region of 4.4 million people borne out of peace negotiations between the Philippine government and the secessionist MILF — has been found to be a significant online news desert. In contrast, the greatest concentration of online news can be found in Metro Manila, almost 900 kilometers away by air to Cotabato City, the Bangsamoro region’s capital.
This preliminary identification of Philippine online news deserts, as well as the contemporary challenges and characteristics of digital journalism, seeks to serve as baseline data for future efforts to determine the extent of news and media deserts in the country, which could help address critical gaps in communities’ news and information ecosystems.
This activity is organized under the Initiative for Media Freedom (IMF), a five-year program implemented by Internews and funded by the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) with the support of the American people. The content of this document is the sole responsibility of the authors. It does not necessarily reflect the views of Internews, USAID, or the United States government.
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