A surreal headline - and why we need your help
An editor's note
Dear Millers — once in a while I write an editor’s note to all our readers and members, and this feels like an important moment to send one.
When I started The Mill in the strange summer of 2020, I wrote a piece that made the case for a new newspaper in Manchester. This venture was brand new — we had only published a few newsletters, all by me. There were no staff, no office and not many readers. And the very warm reception for that piece was a big reason that I felt confident enough to stop my other journalistic work and focus my energies on making a go of this project.
In that piece, I tried to point out that the big companies who own most of the country’s local newspapers are pursuing a business model that is antithetical to good quality journalism. Instead of earning their money from reader subscriptions, they prioritise online ads — a model that involves blanketing web pages with low-grade advertising and reaching audiences vastly bigger than the population of Greater Manchester.
“That means publishing a lot of stories and making sure a lot of those stories are about viral popular topics that anyone on the internet might share or find on Google — whether they are in Manchester or not,” I wrote. “That’s how we ended up with local newspaper websites running stories about soap storylines and endless inane internet controversies involving Piers Morgan.”
The company that owns the MEN (as well as the Liverpool Echo, the Birmingham Mail, the Daily Mirror and the Daily Express) is called Reach Plc — a name that perfectly captures its editorial and business strategy: to reach as many eyeballs as possible. It’s a giant, stock market-listed corporation led by the former CEO of Ladbrokes, and its 4,000 employees generate more than £600 million in annual revenue. By any measure, it is one of the biggest media companies in the country — up there with News UK and the group that owns the Daily Mail.
So you can imagine how I felt last weekend when one of The Mill’s members sent me a link to a story in the trade magazine Press Gazette. Headline: “Reach takes on The Mill with 12-strong email newsletter team backed by Google cash”.
Reach takes on The Mill… Google cash… I was suddenly getting emails and texts from everyone in my life who is nerdy enough to read Press Gazette on their weekends. And I have to admit, it felt unnerving. A massive listed media company and one of the most powerful corporations on earth were getting together to challenge… us?
Apparently Reach has received funding from a programme called the Google News Initiative to create a series of newsletters that mimic some of the formatting and structure of our own. Who knows what that really means? Maybe it means newsletters that won’t be absolutely slathered in pop-ups and ads. Certainly, it seems to mean that Reach has identified that thousands of readers are turning to new sources of local information like The Mill and it wants to neutralise that threat.
Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, some people have said to me — and certainly it’s good to know we are doing something that a big company wants to copy. But given the enormous mismatch in resources, it’s also a threat. The Daily Mirror’s former political editor Vincent Moss responded by saying that Reach is “More focussed on trying to crush competition from Indy media than proper journalism”. Why is Google helping them to do that with a massive grant? Who knows. “It's hard to understand why Reach can't reinvest some of their operating profits of £146million if they want to launch new products,” as one journalist tweeted.
After I shared the story on Twitter, I got dozens of replies from people who can see that one of the biggest companies in the British media is trying to wipe out a tiny competitor. A Miller in Wales bought a membership for us to give out to a reader in Manchester, saying that it “feels important to support and share your work right now”. Several others tweeted that they had become members after reading the story. Competition is healthy of course, and good for this city — but as one member put it when he called me this week, we will need a bit more financial muscle going forward.
Since we started out, we have published some important stories, including exposing how conspiracy theories are impacting politics in Oldham and calling attention to the treatment of hospitality workers in Manchester via months of investigative reporting. Mill journalism has told the stories of people who live on the margins of society and hopefully also strengthened the ties between different communities in Greater Manchester by showing our fellow citizens in their full humanity.
But, as most of you know, we are still operating The Mill on a shoestring and with a very small team of staff. It was less than a year ago that Dani became our first full-time hire, and now we have a team of three in our office in the Royal Exchange building. I have personally invested tens of thousands of pounds in The Mill, and we need hundreds more members to break even on our current costs, and thousands more to grow into the kind of newsroom that can provide a wide range of high-quality journalism for years to come.
Unlike Reach Plc, we do not have thousands of investors on the London Stock Exchange or a huge cash injection from Google. We just have you — our readers. To our brilliant 1,200 members who have backed us financially (and in so many other ways) to this point: thanks so much for your brilliant support. And to everyone else on our list who believes in the kind of independent, high-quality journalism we publish and wants it to continue: this would be a brilliant time to jump on board.