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A city that is good at writing press releases and bad at writing cheques
An editor’s note from 38,000 feet
Dear Millers — I’m writing this editor’s note from the sky. According to the digital map in front of me, my flight to the US has now crossed the Atlantic and around 38,000 feet below me is Newfoundland in Canada, specifically the excellently named Happy Valley-Goose Bay. What is a valley goose and how can they be happy in this desolate, ice-covered landscape?
I will not be wasting any of my patchy plane Wi-Fi capacity on that question because I’m about to put it under great strain by sending this newsletter to all of you. This note is the last thing on my To Do list before I take a week off Mill duties and leave you in the capable hands of Sophie, Mollie, Hannah and Jack while I drive around Texas, Mississippi and Louisiana with my girlfriend.
The break will be welcome because it’s been an incredibly hectic period recently since we announced our fundraise just over a month ago. It’s involved lots of media appearances, a few time-consuming hiring processes and a run of really excellent stories that have delivered us a record month of growth.
On Friday, I was part of a panel about journalism at the Cheltenham Literature Festival, and I was talking about the process of starting The Mill and what kind of stories we try to publish. The discussion got me thinking about a theme that has emerged from our recent reporting: the way in which good journalism can expose the inconsistencies between PR hype and reality. Or as the Sunday Times columnist and broadcaster Terri White very generously put it recently: “Manchester Mill is doing God’s work on the gap between the city’s front and its reality”.
White was sharing Mollie’s stunning, twisting-and-turning investigation into Northern Fashion Week, an event that attracted a personal endorsement from Andy Burnham but which faces multiple allegations of underpaying workers and contractors. Mill members who got to read the whole story will know about the very bizarre twist at the end, as Northern Fashion Week’s founder repeatedly misled us on the phone about how much she owed one of her former workers, contradicting documentary evidence we had in front of us and then changing her story minutes later.
But the piece actually ended by zooming out a bit and making a broader point. Mollie wrote:
I don’t really know what O’Donnell plans to do next, but I know that reporting on this story has given me a familiar sinking feeling. In the past year, The Mill has reported on a string of businesses in this city — mostly operating in the hospitality industry — who attract massive media hype only for staff and ex-staff to get in touch with us to say they are being poorly treated, or they aren’t getting paid.
The sinking feeling is about living in a city that sometimes feels like a two-bit town; an economy where young workers — people my age, who desperately need their wages to pay rent and bills — are taken advantage of while the company owners burnish their reputations and get to hang out with the mayor.
What all these stories amount to is a picture of Manchester as a place that doesn’t really look after its own. A place that is good at writing press releases and bad at writing cheques.
Just a few weeks later, we published another investigation that raised some of the same issues at the much-loved Old Courts arts venue in Wigan, which we exclusively revealed is under investigation by the Arts Council and has had much of its public funding put on hold. Again, there were allegations that people had not been paid or had been paid very late, not to mention questions about how an organisation that receives vast sums of taxpayer cash could seemingly be running out of money (we’re returning to this story soon: please email Mollie if you know more).
And then there was Jack’s moving and beautifully written story about Michaela Ali, the heavily pregnant hospital worker who has spent months living in hotels because a leading housing association has taken more than a year to repair her rat-infested flat in the city centre. The housing association, Riverside, makes a big deal of its “vision” to deliver tenants with “warm and safe, decent homes” and says its aim is to “transform lives and revitalise neighbourhoods”. And yet it took Michaela’s mum Margaret literally walking into The Mill’s office and telling us about the terrible conditions inside the flat before Riverside seemed to take the case seriously, apologising publicly for their mistakes and rapidly dealing with the issues in the flat, as they should have done a year ago.
“A place that is good at writing press releases and bad at writing cheques.” What that line in Mollie’s piece is getting at is that there is an alarming imbalance in Manchester between public relations and journalism. It used to be the case that in a city like this, PRs were massively outnumbered by journalists. Now it’s certainly the other way round, which is a national trend too, although the pace of buzzy new ventures and openings in Manchester makes it particularly noticeable and important.
When you throw in the power of social media marketing, businesses and organisations with resources behind them can generate insane amounts of hype and positive press for what they are doing, and the paucity of high-quality journalism means that there is very rarely any proper scrutiny or pushback. In fact, far from pushing back, most local news and lifestyle sites in Manchester happily lend their hand to the marketing effort. If you have nothing better to do this Sunday evening, go on your favoured ad-funded Manchester news site right now and count how many stories on the homepage feel like they are principally derived from press releases.
The trend of rewriting (and sometimes barely even rewriting) press releases is one of the most insidious forces in journalism, turning many mainstream media outlets into marketing machines for any organisation that can afford to hire a PR agency. This practice has always existed in the media but it’s astonishing how many stories you read in supposedly quality media outlets that are plainly based on press releases from government press offices, companies, police forces, charities, think tanks and councils. I said from the beginning that we would never run stories based on press releases on The Mill and we never have. I think it’s a big reason why our journalism feels distinct and fresh, and it’s why we are able to explore that “gap between the city’s front and its reality”, as Terri White puts it.
What we try to do is speak to people inside organisations to find out what is really going on and how it matches up with what the press releases and expertly crafted Instagram posts are claiming. Often the stories start with someone — a staff member speaking anonymously; a whistleblower who has some key documents or emails — approaching us and then introducing us to others. Mollie and Jack have both become very adept at this kind of reporting, knitting together and checking accounts from lots of sources until we can see what the patterns are.
If you came into our office on an average day, you would likely hear one of them on the phone with a source who works at a Manchester hospitality business or a local council, trying to tease out information and cross-check what the person is saying with what they have been told by others. It’s not always a smooth process and sometimes these stories can go cold for weeks at a time because people aren’t answering the phone or we’ve hit a dead end, so we tend to have a few of them going at once. It’s dogged, skilful work and it represents the exact opposite of rewriting a press release.
We’re able to do it because we are primarily funded by our readers so we don’t have to chase clicks like most media companies, and can instead focus on producing much lower volumes of stories but ones that we really invest time and care in. The beauty of the subscription model is that we know people are paying us to produce great in-depth journalism and therefore we want to produce more of that kind of journalism rather than chasing after millions of eyeballs via clickbaity headlines and republishing the latest hyperbole-fest from a company launching a “signature” restaurant in town.
That puts us in a very privileged position, and as I head off on holiday, I’m very thankful to our 2,554 paying members who allow us to do this kind of work. You’re all hugely appreciated by everyone on the team.
But I would also like to take this opportunity to ask the tens of thousands of Millers on our free list to consider taking out a subscription today. We have a remarkable 38,538 Millers on our total mailing list, meaning that we don’t make any direct revenue from 93.4% of our regular readers. We’re proud of the fact that we’re able to deliver important public service journalism for free every week, but if you’re one of that 93.4% and you value what we do and you can afford to pay for it, please hit that button below and join us today.
You’ll be able to read all of our members-only stories, and you will be joining a great community in our lively comments sections and at our in-person events. Crucially, you will be helping Manchester to recalibrate the balance between hype and reality.