Digital deficit = democratic deficit?

In an article on the CNN Money website last year, ten ‘sages’ were asked to predict the future of the newsprint industry. Eight of them said tablet devices would play a key role; all of them foresaw news would migrate online.

But new figures released by KPMG this week suggest that there are significant areas of the world where this vision of the future will not welcomed. In KPMG’s Media and Entertainment Barometer, which surveys around 2,000 people in the UK every six months, 70 per cent of Welsh people said they would prefer to receive their news offline, in hard copy formats, rather than online or on mobile devices.

The figure is much higher than elsewhere in the UK, and may well be tied to issues of technological infrastructure – which have yet to deliver in many parts of Wales – as well as to wealth, with many towns and villages suffering from the demise of manufacturing and heavy industry, and take-up of expensive technologies therefore low.

Last summer, along with colleagues from Port Talbot MagNet, I carried out research in Port Talbot, and found that 25 per cent of people had never used the Internet. A further 10 per cent only used it ‘rarely’. What was striking was that, for many people in the town, the Internet was not only absent from their infrastructure – it was also absent from their culture. It just didn’t factor in their lives.

For people living in digitally rich environments, where bandwidths are high and your smartphone is never out of range, this might sound rather trivial. Ah well, you might think, these ‘backward’ types will catch up with the rest of us eventually.

But it is a real and immediate problem for many people for the simple reason that places where digital inclusion is low are also finding their media inclusion is becoming impoverished. This has serious implications for local democracy and the health of communities.

In Port Talbot, for example, a town with a population of 35,000 and a fairly healthy local economy (thanks to the surviving Tata Steel plant and a couple of power stations), the local people have witnessed the closure of their weekly newspaper.

The Port Talbot Guardian had served the area for 85 years, but was closed down by owners Trinity Mirror in 2009 as a loss-making title.

Trinity Mirror promised that the town would continue to be served by the Western Mail, and indeed a quick search of the Port Talbot section reveals fourteen stories mentioning the town have been written since the beginning of June – though many mention the town as an incidental fact, and all are written for a Welsh audience, not a local one.

There is also a Northcliffe-owned newspaper covering the town. The South Wales Evening Post publishes a Port Talbot edition of its newspaper every day, offering several pages of local news.

But these do not rival the community feel of the Guardian, the quantity of coverage that was supplied by the Guardian, nor do they address some of the critical functions carried out by the Guardian – namely council reports and court reports. And the diversity of voices and angles in Port Talbot is now severely reduced.

Two local news websites have sprung up in an attempt to fill the void. is run by Peter Knowles, a veteran photographer from Port Talbot. He has recently claimed to have received more than 100,000 visits to his site since he began in 2009. A co-operative of journalists has also established a news site there,, which launched in April this year. They are reporting around 100 new visitors to the site every day.

But market research carried out by suggested a significant proportion of local people never accessed the Internet, and do not want to read their news online.

In a sense, Port Talbot is one of the lucky places. It has some dedicated content in a hard copy newspaper. It has famous alumni like Anthony Hopkins and Michael Sheen, who return to the town and help to put it on the media map, bringing prosperity and uniting the community.

But go back to CNN’s ten sages and this picture begins to look bleak again. The experts all seem to agree that printed news is unlikely to survive beyond the middle of this century; that online news is the future.

If so, we need to ask ourselves how the 25 per cent of Port Talbot residents who do not use the Internet will access news in future. And if they do not access news, how will politicians communicate with them, and how will the electorate make their voices heard in return? How will they know who to vote for? How will people know what’s going on in their street or suburb or town? How will they know who’s broken the law, or what danger they might be in if a disaster occurs? How will they find jobs? How will they know which businesses are operating in their town? How will they write letters to complain about the latest controversy? How will they have rational, informed debate? How will they participate in civic life? How will they keep themselves informed? How will they maintain their community and society?

I hope to answer some of these questions as part of my research at Cardiff University. It’s important we find answers, because developments across the media industry seem to be paving the way for the dominance of online news and the demise of print media in the coming decades.

It’s already happened in Port Talbot – now we must face the reality that digital exclusion is inescapably entwined with the question of democracy.

Rachel Howells is a PhD student at Cardiff University. Her PhD is funded by KESS and the Media Standards Trust.

Rachel featured on the Politics Show Wales on Sunday June 12th discussing the issues raised in this blog.