Mirror and Express owner publishes first articles written using AI

The owner of the Daily Mirror and the Express has published its first articles written using artificial intelligence – but its boss says journalists should not fear it means being replaced by machines.

Jim Mullen, the chief executive of Reach, said that after a working group explored the possibilities for the use of AI, the company let a bot produce three articles last week.

The articles were published on the local news site InYourArea.co.uk, one of which was “Seven Things to do in Newport”, with Mullen spying an opportunity to automate content based primarily on data and lists.

However, sources at the publisher said that news of the successful AI test had put some journalists “on edge” as Reach continues to focus on heavy cost-cutting – including the loss of 200 roles announced in January – to control the impact of soaring inflation and newsprint prices reaching a 15-year high.

However, Mullen said the development of AI was not part of a “hidden agenda” to ultimately make big savings by being able to cut human staff; the company’s 4,000 employees represent its biggest cost.

“We produced our first AI content in the last 10 days but this is led by editorial,” he said. “It was all AI-produced but the data was obviously put together by a journalist, and whether it was good enough to publish was decided by an editor.”

Mullen said that in areas based on data, such as “things to do”, weather and “what’s local traffic like?” pieces, AI might be reliable enough to take on the production of content.

“There are loads of ethics around AI and journalistic content,” Mullen said. “The way I look at it, we produce lots of content based on actual data. It can be put together in a well-read [piece] that I think AI can do. We are trying to apply it to areas we already get traffic to allow journalists to focus on content that editors want written.”

The rapid rise of ChatGPT, and Google’s hurriedly released potential challenger Bard, has resulted in publishers focusing on the potential and limitations of using machine learning in the journalism production process.

Last month, BuzzFeed said it would start working with OpenAI, which created ChatGPT, to help produce its quizzes.

Associated Press has said it first published AI-written articles in 2014, while Thomson Reuters has used an in-house program, Lynx Insight, since 2018 to examine information such as market data to find patterns that might make stories for reporters to pursue.

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Reach is also investing heavily in breaking the US market, where Mullen said it trails sites such as MailOnline, the Guardian and the Sun in traffic. It expects to have 100 journalists working in the US by the end of the year.

The publisher reported a 27% slump in operating profit to £106m in 2022 and continues to struggle with a fall in digital income, which is down 12% in the year to date, after the wider slump in the global ad market.

Shares in Reach fell by almost 13% on Tuesday as investors expressed concern over the tough trading conditions despite Reach promising a 5%-6% cut in its £498m cost base this year.

“The current trading environment remains challenging and we expect this to continue in 2023, with sustained inflation and suppressed market demand for digital advertising,” the company said.

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Mark Sweney