Credit: Inês Leote, courtesy Mensagem de Lisboa

It is often the case that local news in capital cities goes unreported despite a large media presence. Lisbon is no different - major outlets focus on national stories and the local news scene is fragmented, with journalists often absent from the city’s poorest neighbourhoods.

Lisbon-based digital news startup Mensagem de Lisboa came up with the idea of creating pop-up newsrooms to bridge this gap and build a platform for underreported voices. The project - Projeto Narrativas – Undesert the News saw a team of journalists working with young people in Lisbon’s most marginalised neighbourhoods to tell constructive stories that mattered to their communities. The project was supported by a Journalismfund Europe grant.

There are two main reasons why their stories are not covered by traditional media, said Catarina Carvalho, director of Mensagem de Lisboa who spearheaded the project. One is that local media ignore the poorest neighbourhoods because they are not interesting to advertisers. The other is that these communities are outside the political bubble and journalists who are already overwhelmed with mainstream news do not venture outside their patch.

Read more: 'Audiences are making a rational decision not to consume news products'

To find the stories, the journalists organised meetings with local residents - a sort of think-in session - where they explored what was happening in the local area. One journalist would then partner with one resident and together they would publish the story on Mensagem’s website.

"This solves the parachute journalism problem but not the long-term problem of news deserts," reflects Carvalho, adding that the main objective of the six-month project was to help people think differently about the media and spark creative efforts in the communities.

Another objective was to show the media that many stories that go unreported because journalists are absent from local patches.

Read more: Empowering communities to tell their own stories

One concrete measure of success was that Mensagem traffic coming from the neighbourhoods they covered tripled.

"But you cannot sustain these relationships when you are there for only a few months," says Carvalho, adding that it will take much longer to tackle the issues of mistrust in media, news avoidance and lack of sustainable local news business models. This is made worse by the fact that there are very few funds dedicated to local news, which makes it much harder to launch and sustain a local newsroom.

Carvalho and her team are not giving up though and they are already thinking how to replicate this project in other neighbourhoods of Lisbon.

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