Chris Sutcliffe

Chris Sutcliffe: Where did the problems in local journalism start?

Josh Hermann: Yeah, that’s a good question. I think the problems go back a few decades. But like with a lot of structural changes in industries, they’ve only really started showing up in a really extreme way that the consumer, the reader might notice. And probably in the past five or six years or so, I mean, the problem is that there has been a haemorrhaging of resources and of journalists in local and regional media.

I mean, the same thing has happened in national media to a slightly less extreme extent. But there are national newsrooms that have fewer, what you would call, real frontline journalists operating now than they had a decade ago. And that is very, very noticeably the case in local and regional media, I doubt that there is a single newsroom that was around 25 years ago that has more journalists now than it had 25 years ago.

And that’s if you make sure you’re defining journalists a people who actually have time to do journalism rather than churning loads and loads of things out. But I think anyone who lives in a city or a town or a community in this country that isn’t in London, will have noticed the trend of their local newspaper getting much thinner, having way more stories sourced from social media, sourced from the wires, having a lot more stories from another area, because their paper has been merged into some sort of corporate thing with another paper. That paper doesn’t exist anymore.

And that has all come about because of a huge decline in the revenue being generated by local newspapers. I mean, effectively, these companies used to have almost a monopoly on local advertising. Not quite, there were other ways to advertise if you were a local hairdresser, or your local garage, or a local stage, but the local newspaper was by far the dominant one.

That meant local newspapers in a town like Wigan or a town like Bolton, or at a place like Manchester or even in the tiny town where I grew up in Sussex, they actually were making really good money, they had healthy profit margins, they had loads of journalists, they had editors, they had feature writers, they had theatre critics.

There has just been an absolutely enormous collapse in the revenue those businesses make. And therefore there has been a totally understandable decrease in the number of people they’re employing to do journalism, that is a huge, and very, I think, noticeable problem.

So how much of that is because of the kind of historic structure of the newspaper industry where there were those huge owners. We’re looking at Reach, we’re looking at what used to be Trinity. They were forced to cut their way back when that advertising, as you mentioned, did disappear.

Yeah, I think some of it’s got to do with that corporate structure. But I don’t think this wouldn’t have happened if these companies hadn’t merged those newspapers together, and massively consolidated regional, local news. Part of the consolidation actually started to take place when the declines in revenue started to happen.

Perfectly profitable companies, family-owned local newspaper companies, started selling to the big corporates, because they could see their profit margins disappearing or thinning out. If everything had still been independently owned, it could have even been worse in some ways, because some of the efficiencies that exist for these big chains wouldn’t have been there.

On the other hand, there might have been more pride in the product. I think the more corporate layers you add, the more executives, the more middle managers, the more pressure you have from people who own your stock on the stock market, the more things like that you have in big companies, the further you are from your content, from your stories.

There might have been more pride in the stories if they had been owned by family companies. And that pride might have translated into a different business model. Maybe this disastrous decision that this industry took 25, 30 years ago to give away everything online for free.

Maybe that wouldn’t have happened, maybe loads of people would have taken the route that we’ve taken and said, No, actually, if you want to do high quality local journalism, you need to get five quid a month or 10 quid a month from your readers. Otherwise, it’s not sustainable. So who knows? It’s interesting. I would say the massive revenue declines would have happened either way.

And I think that’s been happening in Germany. It’s been happening in America. It has been happening in the UK. All these sorts of economies have had the same collapse in the local newspaper market. So I don’t think slightly different corporate ownership would have changed things. But yeah, maybe there would have been some examples of people going for subscriptions earlier, and I think that would have massively helped.

So is the problem that, as a result of these cuts that we’re seeing, kind of an anodyne, undifferentiated local news provision where there is very little that separates it and actually makes these outlets unique?

That is definitely a big part of the fact that you’ve got stories being written about social media crazes. You’ve got stuff 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 mean, I’ve even seen some of that sort of stuff on the Octopus, I think that is reducing trusted media.

Because it means that your local newspaper is way less distinctive, when 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. Those stories are suddenly popping up from those of other sites in a slightly rewritten form. I think, inevitably, the next time you turn up on the website, you see that you’re going to be a little bit less interested and a little bit less connected to that publication.

Well, that is a perfect segue then, which is what is the Mill’s identity? What is it proposing to be that relationship between it and its audience?

Yeah, the relationship with the audience is actually really key. So the Mill started as a newsletter, doing high quality journalism about Greater Manchester, very small volumes of story, low volumes of stories, one deeply reported story per day, but really trying to put lots of effort into them so that each one has multiple sources in it, or it has proper document research, or it has like a real thoughtful take on whatever that issue is.

And now we’re slowly branching out from just being a newsletter, like we’ve just done a long form podcast with Tortoise in London, about a bit of investigation we did in Oldham. We’ve just started doing our own weekly podcast in the next month in which we summarise news in Greater Manchester. I don’t think I’ve announced this anywhere, but we’re actually going to do an annual print edition,

Wow, fantastic. That’s amazing.

We’ve just recently done an eight-minute video about a story. We’re doing a sort of mini-documentary about delivery drivers, and Uber Eats drivers in the Greater Manchester, featuring loads of interviews with them. Actually, the video was done by a rider himself, out and about.

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

Nice. That’s fantastic. It seems like right place, right time in terms of being a newsletter based proposition, if you look at where a lot of the investments coming in, is around that direct, one-to-one relationship between an audience who was elected effectively to receive this content directly?

Yeah, exactly. I mean, the 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. And I think the more that online ads 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.

Yeah, absolutely. That move away from scale is something, particularly outside of London, that we’ve seen a couple of times. The Overtake as well, unfortunately closed last year. I remember Robyn Vinter said much the same. She was saying that it wasn’t an experiment that failed. She thinks that there is a real case to be made that you can do this and do really well.

So what is the Mill’s current structure, then? How many writers have you got, how many people are you bringing in on a freelance basis?

I hired our first staff writer in March, that was Danny, and she had been on a sort of internship placement, doing one day a week alongside our journalism course for six months. So she was one of our first freelance contributors, and then became our first staff member.

Then we hired Molly in, I think, June or July. So she’s our second staff writer on the Mill. And we’ve got a guy called Jack, who is doing a couple of months for us on shifts, and he’s also writing so there’s kind of four of us in the office most days at the moment.

And then in Sheffield, running the Tribune, which is our sister newsletter, and that’s Dan, and he is full time. He moved over from the Sheffield Star and he’s doing a brilliant job. And then in addition to staff, we’ve also got Sophie, who is doing editing for us and a bit of writing as well.

Then we’ve got loads of freelancers. I think we’ve published probably like 35 or 40 different freelance contributors over the past year, so lots of really good freelancers, including experienced people who’ve been in Manchester forever and students and people who have just left the army and all that kind of thing. So yeah, a huge range of contributors, and they really enrich what we’re doing because they’ve bring loads of new perspectives. It feels like a real, real good gang.

Nice, good. And then I suppose I know the answer to this question already, based on what you previously said. But to what extent is it important that you do have people who are embedded in Manchester, not just as residents, but as people who understand the media landscape as a whole?

You know, it definitely is, I think, maybe like experience and contacts can be overstated in importance. I think there are certain types of journalism roles where contacts are really important. I think the type of feature writing we do, where we try to dip into a community, go and speak to a few people, try and have impromptu conversations with non-famous regular people on the street, sometimes.

I mean, this afternoon, our newsroom is a tiny, tiny newsroom and it’s empty, because Jack, Molly, and Danny have all gone out. They’ve gone out into different bits of north Greater Manchester through this piece, with this series we’re doing, and they’re just going to go and find people to write pieces. They have nothing organised, they’ve just gone off to do it, because that’s where some of our best reporting comes from.

We don’t have people who are really deeply embedded in the media culture here, because they tend to be younger, because they’re the people I’ve found, they’re the people I can afford, they’re the people who really understand the vision of what we’re doing.

But what they do have is they have this sort of energy and this perspective of, let’s go and chat to people. Let’s not just speak to the PR on the phone, let’s not just wait for the wire copies to drop, let’s not just go and speak to contacts of mine. Let’s go out and have original conversations and create fresh contacts. So now in a few years time, I think these young reporters will be incredibly, deeply embedded and will have great contacts.

Yeah, absolutely. I think it’s interesting, in light of what I’ve heard that the rungs of the journalism ladder have almost been kicked out as a result of that cutting back of provision within local newsrooms. So the idea that you can provide these young writers, these young journalists with an opportunity to go out and do this kind of old school type shoe leather journalism is fantastic. So one thing I did want to ask about is your revenue model. So exactly how are you monetising your audience? And what are the plans for the future in terms of that? Are there events on the calendar?

So there are no events in the calendar at the moment, we’re all subscriptions. They’re actually like memberships, but people pay seven pounds a month to get effectively more of our journalism than you’d get for free. So a lot of it is free. We do a big weekend read, which tends to be for a long piece on the weekends for free. We do a big Monday briefing.

On Mondays, it brings you up to date on stuff that’s going on in the city, bits of journalism here and there, nice pictures, recommended reads, that kind of thing. It tends to have one story in it with a bit of reporting. And that’s all free.

And then if you want more of that, if you want to get it on Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, as well, then you pay seven pounds a month. So we’ve got about 1025 or 1030 paying subscribers so far.

We’re coming up to our first year anniversary of starting as a proper venture with subscriptions, it was at the end of September. So in the first year, we’ve picked up just over 1000, which is really promising, probably slightly more than I expected given the notorious difficulty of building up subscriptions in the first place for massive content and stuff. So I’m really delighted with that.

We will try and bring in money in other ways. I’m sure we’ll do events, I’m sure we’ll do some ads here and there. We’ll never blanket our stories in ads. But we will definitely take the odd sponsorship or ad because it will allow us to do more journalism.

Our main revenue model would be from our readers, from our members. And I think that will keep us focused on the most important thing, which is giving them really good quality stuff. And then everything else I think can be supplementary.

So to what extent are you reaching out to them, talking to them about other things to do with the Mill beyond just the news?

Yeah, we definitely are. So in the preambles to most of our stories every day we have a little update about us or a comment that someone left or we talked about, some feedback we got. We talked about how Danny’s working on this new thing. We like to give a little community update at the beginning. Not always but so people get a sense of who we are as people and what we’re up to and what we’re planning to do and how many new members we’ve got and stuff.

Also in our little Facebook group, about 200 of our biggest fans, but also just the ones who are on Facebook, chat away a little bit and we give them a little update. I do a little poll sometimes, like would you be most interested in this topic, this topic, or this topic, or little bits of feedback.

So I think there’s more going on than just sending people quality journalism. It’s not supposed to be a highly professional, highly glossy, almost corporate thing because I think we wouldn’t be able to pull that off and that’s not really what we’re about. We’re a little bit DIY, maybe, we’re a little bit homespun. I think people like that and it probably makes it feel more authentic and like they’re part of it – and they are part of it because they send us ideas.

Today, we even ran like a 400-word story by one of our members because he went on this memorial hike the other day for this big event that happened 125 years ago in Bolton and he sent us a little report, so we included it. So, in a way, they’re doing a bit of our reporting for us. I love how much contact we have with them. And a lot of it goes beyond just sending people stories.

Yeah. So that’s really interesting as well, actually bringing the community into the newsroom. I think you mentioned Tortoise before, and they do something very similar there. So I think that’s definitely a model, too, that other people need to be aspiring to. You had a little wee profile in Private Eye, I think it was a week or two weeks ago. You were talking about babe.net.

So when you were talking about your community, was there ever a concern that people would look at that and think that it wasn’t suitable, that there were no lessons you could have taken from that to the Mill? Was that something you’re worried about?

I don’t know. I mean, when I started the Mill, it was a bit of an experiment for me, like a totally new thing in local journalism, which I’ve never really done before. I mean, I’ve done city journalism at the Evening Standard. Maybe, I’m sure, I did worry a little bit, that people might think, oh, things didn’t work out in New York, and he made these mistakes, and that means that we should support the Mill.

I don’t know, you have all sorts of doubts and worries, it’s human worries and that sort of thing. But I think that people are willing to accept that people can make mistakes in life, and they can learn from them. And that, if you give your best, and you try, and you work hard to try and build something that reflects their city well, and you put your heart into it, then I think people are people are receptive with that. So I haven’t had people ask me about it, but in the back of your head, of course, you have doubts.

That’s fair enough. And then there’s a penultimate question, you’ve talked about the sister title and what the Mill has planned for the future. Is there space, do you think, for more outlets like the Mill, extending into other cities beyond Manchester, and then across. The Northwest is my priority, because that’s where I’m from. But can you do that model elsewhere in the country as well?

Yeah, so we are trying it in a couple of other places, because Substack, which we used to publish, gave us a bit of funding to do that. So they have a local journalism programme. They offered us some funding to try what we’re doing in a couple of other cities. And so that’s why we’re doing the Tribune in Sheffield, Dan’s doing that.

We’re trying a newsletter called the Post in Liverpool, which is due to kick off in about a month’s time. So I really believe it can work in other cities. The longer this sort of decline in quality original local media carries on, the more there’ll be a demand for new outlets that focus on quality as their main priority, as their main focus.

And even if it’s not us doing it, other people will do. 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.

So I think it will definitely happen in cities everywhere, whether it’s us doing it or whether it’s you doing it, whether it’s anyone else, and I think that’d be a great thing, because we need plurality back in local media markets, instead of having one big dominant monopoly paper that dictates how the world is covered.

Absolutely, couldn’t agree with you more on that last point. And you mentioned, it sounds like a lot of responsibility, but it also sounds like an awful lot of fun as well. It harkens back to what made local journalism so impactful, and so attractive to people in the first place.

Yeah, I think that’s right. It’s a lot of fun. And it’s nice to be able to hire a young reporter and say, you don’t have to write five stories today. You can spend a few days on a story, or you can spend a week on a story because it’s particularly important to us. And you can speak to multiple people and you can go to the local archive, and you can dig out some documents.

It’s just liberating because that’s how you get the best out of journalists. That’s what journalism is. It’s so crazy that we’ve come to a point where that’s highly unusual, a highly unusual experience for a young reporter in this country. Everyone we hire, that’s the instructions.

We spend proper time on stories, deepen contacts with people, really empathise with the people you’re speaking to, think about the history and the culture of the places you write about. Be thoughtful about it, get books out of the library about it, and then you’ll make something better that’s actually worth paying for. And I think, so far, readers are responding well to that. So hopefully that can continue.

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