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Let's just do it ourselves
An end-of-year editor's note from Joshi - and our favourite stories of 2022
Dear Millers — I’m writing this final editor’s note of the year from a train that is slowly picking its way up the spine of Romania, from Bucharest in the south to Transylvania, where I’m spending New Year. Most Romanians I’ve spoken to (ok, two Romanians: my girlfriend and her dad) have laughed at my plan to catch this train, such is the reputation of the ageing rail network. But so far, so good. Three hours in and we're passing through the Southern Carpathians, a land of walkable peaks and medieval castles.
On the platform in Bucharest, the train looked exactly as you would imagine it might — a hulking, boxy Eastern European locomotive that evokes communism and long journeys through bleak winter landscapes. At the back of the train is a sleeper carriage whose lucky passengers will wake up in Budapest. Around me, the strip lighting is dim and my table-mates are eating homemade sandwiches out of tin foil and chattering quietly in Romanian, a trilling, hurried language that sounds like a version of Italian in which someone has turned up the speed and ratcheted down the emotional stakes. The train's short, grey-haired conductor is dressed in a blue uniform with a red tie and a peaked cap. Every half an hour he disappears into the bathroom for a smoke.
The year is winding down and I'm trying to work out how to summarise it for me, or for us. It's been only The Mill's second full year in existence and yet the early days, in which I was the only writer and the only... anything, now seem so remote they could have been a decade ago. Lots has happened. Lots of water has gone under the proverbial bridge. I can't quite put my finger on how we've grown to where we are now — to having a brilliant staff and a growing reputation and almost 30,000 of you reading us every week — because it's not one thing that made those things happen but lots of elements coming together at just the right moment.
When I wrote for the Evening Standard in London in my early twenties, my bus home used to pass a building in Shoreditch daubed in graffiti with a Victor Hugo quote that was popular among activists in the #Occupy movement. "You can’t stop an idea whose time has come." Maybe it's something like that. I had a vague sense when I started The Mill that people were waking up to the depressing slide in the quality of newspapers around this country — the clickbait; the partisan predictability; the lack of time given to reporters to do any reporting. I thought people might be open to a new kind of reporting — a slower journalism with different values and a different kind of storytelling, and so it has proved.
Over the Christmas break, someone wrote on Twitter: "2022 was the year Manchester looked at the sorry state of local commercial news reporting & said ‘let’s just do it ourselves’. If you want journalists employed to hold power to account & uncover amazing human stories from our region, then pay for it by subscribing to The Mill." I can't improve on that tweet and I should have asked its author (with whom I have no family or financial ties) to write this end-of-year message in my place. I like his characterisation of what has happened here — not just a group of journalists creating a new venture but Manchester doing so. It takes a village to raise a child and it takes a city to create a new model for local journalism in the 21st century. Without the funding and ideas and regular encouragement provided by our members, little would have been achieved.
So of course, thank you to all of you who are paying members — there are now almost 1,700 of you, and we already have plans for 2023 that will allow more of you to meet in person and attend interesting events. If you're not a member yet and you've been enjoying our stories, please do jump on board now so you can join our amazing community next year and support our growth. There's a nice logic to this reader-funded business model: the more subscribers we get, the more we are able to do. That was the case right at the beginning and it will be true when we have 10,000 members in a few years' time. It is the city that is growing this venture, after all.
Recently, I had to decline when a journalist asked me to make some predictions for the media in 2023. I find it difficult to be objective — everything I could think of sounded self-serving or like I was predicting that the industry will inexorably bend towards things that look like The Mill. But I do think about the future a lot because I think an important change is under way. For more than a century, most of the best journalism in this country has been done in London, as the capital's big media organisations sucked in talent from every corner of the land. In the world of print and analogue communications, only very large companies could set up newspapers and everyone had to sit in the same offices together. But the game has changed. Now those companies are struggling to re-invent broken business models and have been laying off staff for a decade while tiny startups like The Mill can appear and publish great stories directly to you without cutting down innumerable trees or spending millions of pounds on printing facilities and delivery vans in order to do so. Not only have we built up a vibrant audience and a profitable publication here in Greater Manchester, but our sister newsletters in Liverpool and Sheffield have done the same, publishing sensational long reads and attracting thousands of paying members.
What 2022 has shown us is the first stirrings of a remarkable media renaissance in Britain. It's becoming clear that before long, the best writing in this country will not be done in London but in Manchester, Leeds and Newcastle. New reader-funded publications will produce news reporting, long-form journalism, cultural criticism and fiction that is not shaped by the always-very-noticeable sensibilities and blind spots of the capital. The next great northern talents will not feel the need to move south in order to advance their careers but will be able to focus their gaze on the places they know best. The entire country will be enriched by this shift, and you are now part of it.
So thanks to all of you who have subscribed this year and everyone who has spread the word and sent us ideas and tipped us off about important stories. It's been hard work, but it's an incredible privilege to edit a publication that has this unique energy behind it. Happy near year for later this evening and see you in 2023!
We asked the staff to pick out some of their favourite Mill stories of 2023. Here’s what they chose.
Simon Martin is Manchester’s best chef. Is he its worst boss?
One of our most read — and most stress-inducing — stories, this investigation into the working practices of Manchester’s only Michelin star restaurant took five months of reporting and drew on almost 20 sources. It allowed us to paint a picture of what it took to bring culinary acclaim to Manchester, and for some of the staff, what it cost. Read the story.
In search of the secret garden
Our senior editor Sophie Atkinson set off to find the garden in Salford that supposedly inspired Frances Hodgson Burnett’s The Secret Garden. What she wound up finding wasn’t quite what she set out for. Read the piece.
The misfits and mavericks of Manchester’s punk HQ
Frank Owen, who grew up in Manchester before going to write for the Village Voice in 1980s New York, remembers his time spent in The Ranch, a gay club on Dale Street that became the preserve of the city’s punk community. “A typical night at the Ranch began with a knock on the door. A slot would slide open and Jerry the doorman would inspect you and either tell you, “No, fuck off” or let you in.” Read the story.
‘We’ve got a war here’
When Russia invaded Ukraine, Ukrainians across Greater Manchester woke up to their phones alight with messages from terrified family members. One, Kateryna Tyshkul, received a message that read “Happy Birthday, we’ve got a war here.” The Mill met with her regularly over the first month of the war, as she worked to get her family to safety. Read part one and two of that story.
Manchester has a homelessness crisis. But it's not the one you thought
We spent six months working with data scientists, speaking with housing experts, council staff, and homeless people across the city, to understand what is fuelling Manchester’s rampant rise in people without a place to live. What we found was a local authority flailing in the face of one of the region’s most pressing social issues. Read the story.
Bad reviews: Has Manchester’s restaurant scene had enough of Mark Garner?
When Mark Garner, one of Manchester’s most established food critics and the boss of Manchester Confidential, tried to bully an independent restaurant into working with him, we decided to take a closer look at how he does business. Read the story.
He captured the imagination of Orwell and Auden — then he disappeared from view
Jack Hilton, a working class author born at the turn of the 20th Century, fell off the literary map not long after publishing his novel Caliban Shrieks. Nearly 100 years later, another writer — also called Jack — began to follow a paper trail in search of the copyrights to bring Hilton back into print. Twists and turns abounded. Read the story.
Brutal layoffs and a cancelled show — inside the Royal Exchange's summer of discontent
As the pandemic crushed the prospects of theatres across the country, grand old institutions like the Royal Exchange were forced to take drastic measures to keep themselves afloat. But how well did they handle that process? Read the story. And, listen to our podcast to hear why Joshi would report this story differently if he had the chance.
A death unseen
One of our most popular — and heart-wrenching — pieces. Writer Dani Cole attended the funeral of Anthony Doran, a man she had never met, and whose funeral was only attended by a scattering of local volunteers. Afterwards, she delved into Doran’s history to try and understand how he came to die alone. Read the story.
A Christmas Day murder and one family's international fight for justice
When Khuram Shaikh, a red cross worker from Rochdale, was murdered while on holiday in Sri Lanka, his family sought the help of their local MP. Matt Baker, an aide in the constituency office, looks back on what it was like to fly to Sri Lanka in the pursuit of justice. Read the story.
The paranoid style in Oldham politics
The culmination of The Mill’s long-term reporting on Oldham’s fraught political scene. This story followed the deposition of another council leader in the borough, brought about by the social media live streams and online campaigning of Raja Miah, a conspiracy theorist who convinced residents that local politicians were complicit in the sexual abuse of children. Read the story.
They wanted control of the club - but the fans weren’t about to let that happen
When a Rolls Royce pulled into the car park of the Crown Oil Arena, home to fan-owned Rochdale AFC, it wasn’t the personalised licence plates that drew people’s eyes. Its owner, a businessman named Darren Curran, was looking to have the club for himself. But a hardcore of fans set about stopping him. Read the story.
When will Moss Side get a chance to mourn?
‘Jayvon Morgan knows it will happen again,’ writes Jack Dulhanty in this insightful essay on the impact that cycles of violent crime have on communities, and the trauma they leave behind. Read the story.
The police weren't looking for a serial killer — but suddenly I was
This piece by the Sunday Times northern editor David Collins drew from his latest book The Hunt for the Silver Killer. Years after a spate of apparently unrelated murder-suicides in South Manchester and Cheshire, Collins received a confidential report linking them, raising the spectre of a possible serial killer. Read the story.
It was a high-flying school with a stellar reputation. Then the inspectors arrived
When Bacup and Rawtenstall Grammar School, one of the top schools in the North West, received an Ofsted report so scathing it left staff in tears, parents began looking for answers. Read the story.
'Can you tell me that they didn’t suffer? Please.'
‘On the 11th of January 2019, Tiffany Stevens walked into Cohen’s Chemist, in Little Lever, Bolton. She bought empty syringes.’ This harrowing story follows the final years of a mother who would go on to kill her two infant daughters, and the inquest that would try to understand why. Read the story.
Memories and regrets in the ghost pubs of Oldham Road
Once, a 300-yard stretch of Oldham Road was home to 18 pubs. Now, there is only one left. Dani Cole went on a pub crawl that doubled as a ghost tour, and met the people with memories of the halcyon days of Oldham Road. Read the story.
Bev Craig has her own ideas
We spoke to Manchester City Council’s then relatively new and now not-so-new leader, Bev Craig, about the direction she wants to take the council in. Read the story.
I’ve been spiked. What am I supposed to do next?
When The Mill’s Mollie Simpson couldn’t find the last piece of evidence in an investigation to prove a woman was spiked in the Northern Quarter, she realised that she had stumbled across a common problem. Read the story.
An undercover journalist walks into a comedy club...
One evening, a seemingly benign meeting amongst The Mill team to chat about ideas took a turn for Jack Dulhanty. He was told to enrol on a stand-up comedy course and write about it. After weeks of expert training at the Frog & Bucket, he took to the stage. Read the story.
In our end-of-year podcast, Joshi, Mollie and Jack talk about the stories that stressed them out the most this year, and the ones they would do differently if they had the chance. It’s the inside story of how some of the stories listed above were reported and what it meant to us to be able to write them. Listen here.