Irrational optimism and the rebuilding of local journalism
A festive editor's note to end the year
Dear Millers, a belated Merry Christmas to all of you.
This time last year my end-of-year editor’s note was written from a train as I made my way up from Bucharest to Transylvania. This year’s message is being composed in the rather less romantic setting of West Sussex, which makes it harder to conjure an evocative opening (rugged mountains and vast icy plains) but does prompt an answer to the question people most often ask me: Why would someone who grew up in the South start The Mill?
Perhaps some of you reading this will be able to relate to the feeling that past decisions you have made can feel as alien to you as decisions made by other people. I think our minds tend to remember the big things and forget the context. Think back to a big risk you took this year: would you make that call again?
Anyway, I sometimes struggle to reconstruct in my mind what my thought process was in June 2020 when I moved to Manchester to start on this road. Yes, I wanted to create a media company that covered a great city, and I loved Manchester from my trips to watch football. Yes, the football was a thing: I imagined being able to watch United every week for the first time in my life. I recently remembered another reason, which seems extremely petty: I fancied the challenge of doing this after a media executive told me early in 2020 that “no one would ever take on the MEN, it’s too big.”
But it’s still hard to understand, in retrospect, what ultimately persuaded me to do it. It’s one of those leaps of faith that you sometimes take — leaps that you thought were a good idea at the time. That’s another thing that I imagine many of you already know: to start new things, you need to have a certain irrationality operating in the shadow of your conscious thoughts and plans.
The rational arguments for starting The Mill were obvious to me and I think they still stand today: that local journalism is a crucial facet of society that connects us to the places we live and the people who live around us and gives us a sorely needed sense of shared reality in an atomised age; that this kind of journalism has been decimated in Greater Manchester and pretty much every other community in this country because its old business models have collapsed; that people will be willing to pay for great local journalism again if inspires them and thrills them, as well as imparting useful information.
But the irrational side is also necessary: you have to have an idea of what you’re doing that is much bigger in your head than it is in the world. Particularly in the early days, I needed to believe that The Mill was a much more significant entity than any reasonable outsider would ever have judged it to be.
I remember one call with Andy Burnham’s head of press in the autumn of 2020. He explained, politely I thought, that my incessant requests for more Covid-19 data were causing him a problem: no one at the Greater Manchester Combined Authority knew what The Mill was. Why should they spend hours surfacing new pandemic metrics (the “R rate” etc) for a publication read by a few thousand people?
I also recall a comment under one of our early tweets taking me to task for describing The Mill as a newspaper. How can you call something a newspaper if you’re the only member of staff? That was a fair critique, I now realise, as was the pushback from Burnham’s press team.
Three years later, those comments have gone away. As I write this, there are just shy of 40,000 of you on the list and we have just over 2,700 paying members (up from 30,000 and 1,700 this time last year). And that’s only half of the story. If you include the sister titles we have launched in Sheffield, Liverpool and Birmingham, there are now more than 85,000 readers getting this new brand of local journalism in their inboxes, and almost 6,000 paying for it. Just this month, our Sheffield title The Tribune has added more than 120 new members following a run of brilliant stories by our team there.
That means our income from subscriptions is almost half a million pounds across the four titles, funding eleven staff jobs and dozens of freelance writers, editors and designers across the North and the Midlands. A whole new ecosystem of journalism and creativity has been created outside of London during a dire period when independent media companies are going to the wall almost every week and when the corporate giants that control local journalism are making mass redundancies.
That ecosystem can now grow further because of the investment we received a few months ago from a group of longtime Millers, including the brilliant Cambridge economist Dame Diane Coyle and CNN’s chief executive (and former BBC and New York Times boss) Sir Mark Thompson. Their backing gives us a bit of financial safety, but it’s also a welcome validation that we are on the right track.
What I think matters most is the stories that are now being told that might not have been. I loved that quote at the end of our housing investigation just before Christmas: “Thank you,” a woman said as Mollie left, “We’re so grateful somebody’s listening.” I sometimes think about Michaela Ali, whose mum Margaret came into the Mill office in September after her friend told her we might be the right people to investigate why a housing association wasn’t fixing Michaela’s rat-infested flat. I’m also proud of Jack and Mollie for showing the world that some of Manchester’s most expensive hospitality venues are inflicting misery on their workers by paying them so late they can’t make rent, or not paying them at all.
We recently recorded a podcast about our favourite Mill features of the year and as I said to Mollie, I gravitate towards the stories you couldn’t imagine being published anywhere. The thrilling, disturbing feature about the secretive flights that bring monkeys into Manchester Airport for animal testing. The amazing piece by three students about what it was like to be on campus during the pandemic, and how the Covid restrictions messed around with social norms.
What about Daniel’s wonky data piece about whether Greater Manchester’s growth is benefiting working people? Or Ophira Gottlieb’s gorgeous read about poetry on the tram line to Rochdale. I think of Sophie’s superb essay about what Aviva Studios is actually for. And the long read about Miami Crispy and Manchester’s chicken shop gold rush, now our most-read story ever. I almost missed Mollie crashing a Chanel party…
I could name so many just from this year — and dozens more similar stories being told by our sister titles. But you have probably read most of them already. If you’ve made it this far in an editor’s note on New Year’s Eve, I’m now preaching to the choir.
Two final points, if you don’t mind. The first is a note of thanks. Thousands of you have backed us this year with your hard-earned money and I deeply appreciate that. There are lots of things you could spend your cash on and you’ve spent it with us. Not only that, but many of you have sent us story tips and given us incredible encouragement via lovely tweets and comments. All of it keeps us going.
The final point is about 2024 and onwards. Since starting this company, I’ve learned that the most important dimension of leadership is getting people to believe in your vision for the future. Having a vision for what is possible is what you need at the beginning — that irrational optimism I talked about. But once you have a team, they need to see it too. They have to see how what we’re doing now is building up to something greater.
What is that thing? I think there’s an opportunity to create something very substantial here in Manchester: a company that revives local journalism across the country and connects people via storytelling, a means of human communication that goes back much longer than the history of newspapers. As the popularity of American magazine-style journalism shows, people prefer to read something when it is told as a story rather than a block of information. That insight has been behind a lot of our success.
And then there’s a question of scale. The Mill’s office shouldn’t be a room of four people, as it is now; it should be a whole floor in one of those beautiful Cross Street offices, full of people who are committed to celebrating the city, investigating its institutions and bringing readers together via amazing conversations and events (look out for our Mill Members Club lineup for the coming year). We want to devote so much more time to covering topics like education, culture, housing and the good and bad ways Manchester is changing. We want to turn our stories into little documentaries and print magazines, so they reach whole new audiences.
It’s miraculous that we already have 2,700 people paying to fund and be part of The Mill, but in time I think it will grow to more than 10,000. If you’re already in the club, many thanks. If you’re not, why not tick off a great New Year’s resolution right now and jump on board? We need another 15 subs to reach our target of 100 newbies for the month and I will not consume a single drink tonight until we get there.
Heartfelt thanks for your help this year and see you in 2024.