The Manchester Mill is a subscription-based newsletter for the modern age. In this interview its founder Joshi Herrmann tells us why good local journalism demands having boots on the ground, how the sins of the past are impacting the journalism of today, and how he plans to expand into new cities and new revenue streams.

In the news roundup we’re joined by founder of The Business of Content Simon Owens to discuss what we’ve learned about newsletters from one year of Casey Newton’s Substack. We take a look at everything from newsletter discovery, to price anchoring, to whether the wave of new launches has already crested. It’s an unexpected Newsletters Special!

The full transcript is live here, or see below for some highlights:

The problems with ‘local’ news coverage

You’ve got stories being written about people who’ve just gone on TV and said something vaguely controversial, and you’ve got them appearing on the Manchester Evening News, the Birmingham Mail, the Liverpool Echo, the Sheffield Star, I’ve even seen some of that sort of stuff on the Yorkshire Post. That is reducing trust in media, because it means that your local newspaper is way less distinctive.

Local publications should be reporting on their areas and stories that have a bearing on their areas. And those stories should be unique to their areas. If those stories are suddenly popping up on loads of other sites in a slightly rewritten form, inevitably, the next time you turn up on the website and see that, you’re going to be a little bit less interested in, a little bit less connected to that publication.

Branching out from newsletters

We’ve just done a long-form podcast with Tortoise in London about an investigation we did in Oldham. We’re just starting to do our own weekly podcast in the next month in which we summarise news in Greater Manchester. We’re actually hoping to do an annual print edition, which is just going to be all the best bits. We’ve recently done an eight minute video about a story we’re doing, a mini documentary about Deliveroo drivers and Uber Eats drivers in Greater Manchester.

So we’re doing different things in different media now. Newsletters are our core, they’re our sort of pivot point. People know if they subscribe to The Mill that they’re going to get good journalism in newsletters, but we’re trying to do other things to complement that, and increase the richness of our offering.

We’re at I think 1,030 paying subscribers so far. We’re coming up to our first year anniversary of starting as a proper venture with subscriptions. So in the first year, we’ve picked up just over 1,000, which is really promising – probably slightly more than I expected given the notorious difficulty of building up subscriptions in the first place. So I’m really delighted with that.

Keeping the audience in focus

The [audience] relationship is key, because I think in the digital era, the relationship between newspapers and their readers grew further apart, it became less of a relationship.

The more that online ads and display advertising became the main business model for local and regional media, the less you needed to care about the readers, because you just have to pile them up.

Expanding The Mill’s model elsewhere

We’re trying [the model] in a couple of other places because Substack, which we use to publish, gave us a bit of funding to do that – they have a local journalism programme and offered us some funding to try what we’re doing in a couple of other cities. So that’s why we’re doing The Tribune in Sheffield, Dan [Hayes] is doing that. We’re trying a newsletter called The Post in Liverpool, which is going to kick off in about a month’s time.

I really believe it can work in other cities. The longer this decline in quality regional and local media carries on, the more there’ll be a demand for new outlets that focus on quality as their main priority.

Even if it’s not us doing it, other people will do it – I think you’ll have this in towns and cities everywhere. You’ll have people coming along with new ideas about how to do journalism that isn’t the Liverpool Echo, the Manchester Evening News, and the way that they’re doing it at the moment.

Main story:

Casey Newton: What I learned from a year on Substack

A year after quitting his job at The Verge to go solo with his own newsletter, Platformer’s Casey Newton has written about what he’s learned about converting subscribers and running his own publication over the past year.

He now has almost 50,000 people subscribed to the free version of the Substack newsletter, and between 5-10% of those pay at least $9 a month (so back of the envelope, he’s probably making at least $300-$400k a year on his own)

Key lessons:

  • Churn is very real – Newton says every month about 3-4% of his subscribers drop off, and have to be replaced (and ideally in greater number)
  • Fewer people convert from free to paid subscribers than he had expected. 10% was the goal, but he’s averaging less than that. The figure hovered around 5% for a while but has grown since
  • He notes that it’s a “hits business”: the regular columns he publishes barely move the needle but any deep analytical pieces or inside scoops typically outperform the rest and generate some subscriptions
  • “The only way a Substack grows is through tweets”. That speaks well to Twitter’s recent acquisition of Revue, anyway…
  • Discord has been amazing for him – he’s called it a ‘superpower’ for journalists. It’s been the biggest thing for conversions for him over the past year (community idea) and he also now gets tips through it
  • “You hate interviews”. Casey has done interviews with people like Mark Zuckerberg, Snap CEO Evan Spiegel, Twitch COO Sara Clemens and more, but “almost no one becomes a paid subscriber because they liked an interview”. 

He also thinks the wave of writers leaving mainstream publications for Substack has ‘mostly crested’ because a lot of people have realised it’s really hard. “But for the right reporter and the right product, the economics of independent life can be phenomenal”, he concludes.

News in brief:

  • Google’s internal R&D division has a new project called ‘Museletter’, which allows anyone to publish a Google Drive file as a blog or newsletter to their Museletter public profile, or to an email list. This would apparently allow Google’s existing document creation tools to compete with other newsletter platforms.
  • The Guardian has decided to make its print circulation figures private and put more focus on metrics that reflect its ‘diversity of journalism, readership and business strategy’. The papers will continue to be audited by ABC but the figures will be kept private.
  • Minute Media has raised ‘tens of millions of dollars’ in a previously unreported funding round, in a partnership with sports betting giant FanDuel. Minute Media is looking to invest more in sports betting, and FanDuel wants more content, so that looks like a good match.
  • Skift has undergone a ‘debranding’ according to cofounder Rafat Ali. Their new design is focused on the reader experience, which has involved getting rid of most of the colours, all the adornments, logos and other ‘crap’ according to Jason Clampet.
  • Fortune has appointed the first female editor-in-chief in its 92-year history. Alyson Shontell joins from Business Insider (where she was employee number 6 apparently!) and will oversee all the content on Fortune’s multimedia platforms
  • The Washington Post is launching its own digital advertising network. It’s had Zeus Prime for two years now, for a select group of advertisers – but this is first time it’s opening it up to other publishers
  • Finally, happy birthday to The Big Issue! The magazine aimed at providing a route out of poverty has turned 30, and while so much of the publishing industry has changed we at Media Voices are amazed at how quickly and effectively the team at The Big Issue has adapted to match

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