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An update about The Mill
'Many have gone through the numbers — nobody has made them add up'
Dear Millers — on Thursday night, a few hours after we sent out an eyebrow-raising edition about serious problems at a fancy apartment block in New Islington, The Mill reached a milestone we have been hunting down like wild beasts for months now: 1,500 paying members.
It’s a great number, and it comes almost exactly two years after we launched our paid subscriptions for the first time, which was the moment when this transitioned from being an experimental project to something more substantial — a new organisation; a going concern.
Crucially, it means we have now reached break-even, a huge moment for us. This will be the first month since I started growing a team of journalists at The Mill that we will generate money rather than losing it. The subscriptions we get from you now cover the costs of our staff in Manchester, our freelancers, our administrative costs and our marketing.
The question I always get asked when I give interviews to journalists or appear on podcasts is a version of: OK, The Mill is doing great stuff, but can it ever be sustainable? Or, as the presenter on Radio 4’s The World at One asked doubtfully about us last year, “but can it ever turn a profit?”.
I remember seeing an industry bigwig tweeting about The Mill right at the beginning: “Many have gone through the numbers — nobody has made them add up,” he tweeted. In the same vein, a senior executive at the MEN’s London-based owner Reach Plc said on LinkedIn that lots of people have tried ventures like The Mill — but he had “yet to see” a sustainable model.
Well, now he has. Together we have built a new media company, totally from scratch and with new ideas about what local journalism should look like, and it is sustainable. It is sustaining itself financially. And, to the great disappointment of our unfortunate detractors, it is here to stay.
Most importantly, it means we can now embark on the next phase of The Mill’s life: instead of surviving day to day, we can now start growing into the mature, well-staffed local newspaper that this city needs. As one of the team put it on Friday, “Now the real work begins”.
A lot of new media projects rely on massive charitable grants in order to cover their costs, but I felt from the beginning that The Mill would only have proved its right to exist, and proved that there is an appetite for this kind of journalism, if it could become self-sustaining. That way, there is no cliff edge approaching when the grants run out, and no kidding yourself about how popular your work really is.
I’m not going to pretend that getting here has been easy. The tiny team here often works long hours, and things can get a bit hand-to-mouth when anyone takes time off. In terms of workload, there’s no doubt that the whole enterprise will feel much more sustainable when we have a few more staff.
I’m earning about what I did when I was in my early twenties, and I want to be able to pay the team more in the new year, especially as prices rise. At times, the process of building this company has been stressful and emotionally draining, and I’ve personally poured tens of thousands of my own money into it, which has also sometimes felt a bit — you know — scary slash full-on insane.
But I feel a real sense of achievement writing this editor’s note, and it’s only because of you, our members, that we’ve managed to get here. I’m incredibly grateful. It has been a joint project and it will continue to be one. Two years ago, I wrote about wanting to create “a media company built around readers” and that’s what we’ve done.
If you’re not a member yet, I would ask you to join up now. Not just because our journalism is getting better and better by the month, and being a member gets you access to brilliant writing in our members-only editions twice a week, not to mention our vast back catalogue of pieces. But because this new phase of The Mill is about building on the foundation we have established so far. Every new member we get now takes us another step down the road. From now, it’s all about strengthening and expanding this exciting venture by hiring more local journalists and sending them out to report on the stories you tell us about. If you join up, you will be a part of that story.
A lot of the exciting things we want to do rely on having much more revenue than we have right now. People often mention their favourite Mill stories — like Jack’s Mana piece or our big investigation into homelessness — but some don’t realise just how time-consuming those ones are. Months and months of reporting; huge amounts of editing; hundreds of pounds on lawyers’ fees. We want to do more of those stories, but we need more reporters in order to do that. There’s a reason why other media companies in Manchester haven’t deployed our formula before — there are no shortcuts in producing thoughtful, well-researched long-form journalism.
We’re now in a position where we get way, way more tips than we are able to work on. This week alone, readers have written in with tips and ideas about roughly a dozen stories, including ones about brilliant community projects, dodgy landlords, business discrepancies and a man killed by police — unhappily, when it comes to most of them we simply won’t have time to do initial calls about these topics, let alone dedicate the proper reporting time they require.
Our mission now is to take the type of journalism we’ve developed as a tiny team and apply it to more and more important stories. What you’ve been reading this year is the “minimum viable” version of The Mill — and it’s fantastic that it is now breaking even. But imagine how good it will be with 3,000 members and twice the staff, when we are able to write more about miscarriages of justice, the nitty-gritty of how this city is run, culture, business and other topics you ask about. Imagine what a powerhouse we will be when we have 5,000, and we can have a dedicated investigative unit and specialist reporters for key areas like education and health.
Trust me people — that is where we are heading. This project seemed like a massive long shot when we started out — when some of you joined the email list when it numbered in the hundreds — but I believed in it and so did you. A lot can be achieved by a group of people who believe in something and are stubbornly determined to achieve it. As Henry V says to the Earl of Salisbury at (Shakespeare’s version of) Agincourt: “All things are ready, if our minds be so.”
So off we go. Thanks to our members. And welcome to the ones who are about to jump aboard and make my Sunday afternoon. I will be on a walk with my mum when you read this, and she will be telling me to stop looking at my phone to check for the “New Member” emails we get. But let’s have them. If you think Greater Manchester requires a paper that can speak truth to power, entertain and shine a light on council decisions, we hope you’ll put your money where your mouth is. There’s never a better moment than today.
Joshi (Founder and Editor of The Mill)