The use of AI to produce news content threatens to “drive a further wedge” between local news outlets and their readers, according to the boss of the Public Interest News Foundation.
Our investigation also raised questions about whether AI is being used to produce its copy after police failed to find any record of two incidents reported by the site.
Today in a first-person piece for HTFP, PINF executive director Jonathan Heawood, left, questions why the publishing industry is investing in AI and cites the Bournemouth Observer story as presenting a “dystopian” vision of the future.
This week, Hold the Front Page told the strange story of the Bournemouth Observer – an online newspaper produced by make-believe journalists. The title bills itself as an independent publication written by a crack team of reporters.
But, according to HTFP, none of these journalists has any online presence, their portraits are stock photos and their copy reads suspiciously like the output of ChatGPT. Surely, no-one could get away with using Artificial Intelligence to create local news… could they?
Local journalists have reacted with outrage to the story of the Bournemouth Observer, but the sad truth is that if so-called ‘local’ news is dominated by stories repackaged from national media and press releases, then how can we tell whether it’s produced by AI or human beings? And why should we care?
Chronic underinvestment in local news – whether through big media conglomerates buying and gutting local outlets or through the absence of any meaningful infrastructure for public interest journalism in the UK – will inevitably lead news publishers to cost-cutting measures that harm the British public and erode their trust in the fourth estate.
At the Public Interest News Foundation (PINF), we think things can and should be very different. Over the last year, we’ve been travelling around the UK, talking to local people – from Bangor, Bristol and Folkestone to Glasgow, Manchester and Newry – about what they want from local news.
Through our Local News Plans project (with the generous support of NewsNow), we’ve worked with each of these communities to set out their visions for local news.
Everywhere we go, we hear the same message: local news should be genuinely local. People want to see reporters on the ground. They want to feel that local journalists are on their side, that they live and work in the communities they serve. People don’t want sites with a ‘veneer’ of local news, as one participant complained of one leading regional title.
We know from our previous research that people are much more supportive of local news that’s locally produced than local news that’s produced outside the area. There’s a net positive trust rating of +27% for the former, and a net negative trust rating of -24% for the latter. People are also more willing to pay for this kind of truly local news.
So, why on earth are local news publishers investing in AI content, which only drives a further wedge between local news and the people it’s supposed to serve?
Of course, local publishers could use AI to cover routine stories or trawl big datasets, freeing up journalists’ time to dig deeper into the human angle. Eliz Mizon of the Bristol Cable has said that AI could help local journalists carry out important ‘institutional accountability and community cohesion’ roles.
That’s a positive vision of the future, where publishers use AI to reaffirm the central role of human beings in local news. Properly labelled – as recommended by the independent press regulator, IMPRESS – AI content could be a legitimate part of the local news mix.
The tale of the Bournemouth Observer suggests a dystopian alternative, where local news becomes a hot mess of automated content. After the investigation by HFTP, the journalists’ bios and pics were quietly removed from the site, and their bylines now simply say ‘finance news’, ‘motoring news’ and so on. It’s hard to know whether any human beings are actually involved in the creation of this content.
I don’t know what’s really going on with the Bournemouth Observer, but I do know that the news industry – and those of us who care about the future of local news – should be doing much more to show that this is not the path we want to take.
At PINF, we are calling on policymakers and philanthropists to invest in local news that is truly local, and which speaks to, for and with the communities it serves.
Through the News for All campaign, we want to make sure that truly local news providers get a priority share of revenue and data from the tech giants through the Digital Markets, Competition and Consumers bill and the newly established Digital Markets Unit. We will soon be expanding this campaign to include other recommendations to ensure a sustainable, human-centred, future for local news.
The threat of AI only serves to highlight the importance – and the fragility – of truly local journalism, made by humans for humans.
* Jonathan Heawood is executive director of the Public Interest News Foundation.