It started as a one-person operation, funded by personal savings and based in a bedroom, with a mission to provide a new format for local news in Manchester, and now The Mill is attracting £350,000 of funding from some big names in journalism including the former BBC director general Sir Mark Thompson.
The sums involved aren’t huge, but the significance for local journalism in the UK should not be underestimated. The Mill is expanding as local newspapers around the UK, and the world, are closing down or shedding staff, creating news deserts where local issues go unreported. So what is the Mill doing right and could it be a model for a new type of local journalism?
As someone who has worked in local journalism, including the much-missed Liverpool Daily Post, I have watched as newspapers have shut their local offices, contracted newsrooms and in some cases stopped printing and turned to web-only operations, so the success of The Mill as part of this climate is worth noting.
The Mill was founded by journalist Joshi Herrmann in 2020, beginning as a local news newsletter for Manchester before expanding into Liverpool with The Post and The Tribune in Sheffield. It has plans to add Birmingham coverage soon.
I have been interested in The Mill from the beginning. When it first launched I invited Herrmann to talk to my journalism students about the project, then very much in its infancy. We spoke on Zoom during the height of the pandemic, my students at home and Herrmann from a motorway service station where he had stopped on his travels.
He outlined the inspiration, the plans he had, the style of journalism he wanted to revive. He was clearly driven and committed.
He also explained the beginnings of The Mill when interviewed on BBC Radio 4’s You and Yours, and why he thought there was a gap in the market. He had found himself back in his hometown of Manchester during lockdown and noticed that his local newspaper, the Manchester Evening News, owned by the UK’s largest commercial news publisher Reach, had shifted away from the “traditional” news and features he remembered from when he was growing up.
He wondered if there was a market for the type of news and features that the UK’s regional press were once so famous for and which they did so well.
So he created a daily newsletter paid for by subscribers who might get only one story a day but it would be detailed, and well researched and something they weren’t reading elsewhere, and worth – he hoped – their time and money.
Latest pieces in The Post include an article on Liverpool’s litter problem approached from the perspective of a volunteer litter picker, while another article explains why the city isn’t in the middle of a knife-crime epidemic despite “nine stabbings in five days”.
What started as a one-man operation is now a team of nine and it is advertising three new staff positions at the moment. The Mill has 5,000 paying subscribers and thousands more who read the open-access stories.
The list of investors attracted to The Mill’s model of local journalism is impressive: Nicholas Johnston of Axios, which operates local news sites in the US, Turi Munthe, founder of photojournalism network Demotix, and David Rosenberg of Snap Inc.
The backer who really stands out is Thompson, former CEO of Channel 4 and CEO of the New York Times and former director general of the BBC. It is a big win for The Mill.
Change or die
In the rush to digital and to find an alternative to advertising revenues and physical sales, local newspapers had to adapt or die.
Five years ago, the UK government – with Theresa May as prime minister – commissioned an independent review into UK journalism and in 2019 published The Cairncross Review: a sustainable future for journalism, expressing concerns about the future of national and local newsgathering.
It made for difficult reading. Print sales had halved between 2007 and 2017; print advertising revenues had fallen by 69% and only one in ten people was reading a regional or local printed paper each week.
It also made a number of recommendations, including that online platforms should have a “news quality obligation” to improve trust in the news.
Recently, the Reuters Digital News Report 2023 found that trust in news has fallen, reversing gains made at the height of the pandemic, suggesting this is a continuing problem, but that increasing numbers of people, of all ages, were taking steps to actively find “reliable news”, rather than content sent to them by an algorithm.
The Reuters research also found that only a fifth of respondents said they started their “news journeys” with a website or app, down from 2018, preferring social media as a route.
So, here is the opportunity for news innovators. If apps or websites aren’t working, what can? Once it was a paper boy –- or girl –- now local news can be delivered straight into the inbox, reliably and efficiently, via a newsletter, as The Mill does. Other news operations have since decided the newsletter model is one that has an audience, and followed Herrmann down that route.
Investment into companies such as The Mill could be the start of a new financial model for wider local journalism. So far, it seems to show that there are still people who want to find out what is going on where they live, and some are prepared to pay for it.
If new players like The Mill continue to grow and thrive, demonstrating that vital online “news quality obligation”, they could help to rebuild trust in local news.
It’s good news for people like me who believe in local journalism, however it is delivered.
This article was originally published in The Conversation on 1 September 2023. It can be accessed here: https://theconversation.com/local-journalism-why-a-tiny-news-operation-could-inspire-a-different-approach-and-is-attracting-big-name-support-212640
About the Author
Kate Heathman began her career in weekly and daily regional newspapers where she was a writer, copy editor and columnist. She has been teaching Journalism since 2000 and her research interests include community reporting, simulated newsrooms in the classroom and political communication on Twitter.