Nerves, dreams and proving the doubters wrong - our first two years of publishing The Mill
Wish us a happy birthday
Dear Millers — we’ve just turned two years old! To mark the occasion, we’ve got reflections from Joshi, who founded The Mill, Dani, our first staff member, and staff writer Jack, who has written some of our most important stories. Please wish us a happy birthday by joining up as a member if you haven’t yet, or by sharing this post to spread the word.
By Joshi Herrmann
Last week, I was sitting in a very quiet BBC studio in media city, waiting to go on Radio 4. The interview on You and Yours was thirty minutes long, and it was live, so I felt nervous. I asked Dani, sitting opposite me, if she felt nervous about our joint appearance. She said she wasn’t. Twenty minutes later she was asked to reveal her salary live on national radio, and to be fair to her, she didn’t sound nervous.
When we came out of the studio after the interview, we had hundreds more readers on our email list, and dozens of emails and messages to answer. Lots of new members had joined The Mill after hearing us on the radio, many of whom didn’t live in Manchester but said they wanted to support what we are doing.
The interview took place two years to the week from when I sent out the first Mill newsletter, in June 2020. And the contrast between those two days was kind of awe-inspiring. There were 21 people on the mailing list for that first email, and that’s if you include my sister, my mum, half a dozen friends and my next-door neighbour. Now there are more than 21,000 of you reading, and we’re being grilled about our business model (and whether I am intelligent “or just well educated”) on Radio 4.
I’m writing this from our office high up in the Royal Exchange building on St Ann’s Square, which we moved into just over a year ago, around the time Dani joined as our first staff member. I remember the day we got the key from the landlord and we both sat against the walls on opposite sides of the empty room, giddy with excitement about having somewhere to work. And probably both a little bit apprehensive about sitting across from each other in a room every day, trying to run a news organisation on our own.
Dani thought we needed some office plants, so the next time I visited my sister in Sussex I got a handful of baby Pileas (known by some as “Chinese money plants”) that she had propagated and began building what is now an impressive indoor nursery. My morning routine is to wander around the office watering the plants while the writers are updating me on their stories, and recently a woman saw our collection of plants through the open door and asked to come in and photograph them. If you’re in the market for a newly grown Pilea, please join as a member and come to our 2nd birthday event this week, where we will be giving them out.
Most of the team are on holiday this week, and Jack is out reporting at a women’s prison in Cheshire, so it’s peaceful in the office and I can try to collect my thoughts about the past two years. Earlier this year, in the first draft of one of my editor’s notes, I wrote something like “When I started The Mill, I could never have imagined it turning into what it is today”. My very astute aunt Elaine (who sometimes looks over pieces if I want a second opinion from someone outside journalism) left a note on that sentence pointing out that it isn’t true. I did imagine it. And she should know, because I spent hours on her patio in May and June 2020 telling her about the whole plan.
In fact, it probably only exists because I have this tendency to imagine something — really envisage it in my mind — and then pursue it slightly obsessively. In the year before the pandemic, I decided to help a handful of students at a comprehensive school near where my mum lives to get into universities like Oxford and Cambridge, something the school hadn’t achieved for seven years. Suddenly it became an all-consuming project, including countless hours of meetings and spreadsheets and emails sent to teachers in the middle of the night. (If you have very little planned for your Sunday afternoon, I wrote thousands of words about that experience for the Guardian).
The Mill was a similar thing. I had a lot of frustrations about the media, as I suppose anyone does about the industry they have worked in for a decade. Opinion pieces had become a much bigger part of the media, because they are fast to write and perform so well online. Even in news, lots of stories seemed reductive by design — written specifically to appeal to a particular tribe, in the hope that those people would share the story on social media. Newsdesks had been chopped down so radically that reporters were having to write more stories than they could realistically do any original work on, so re-written press releases have become much more common.
Most importantly to me, newspapers had spent two decades cutting back on the form of journalism I most enjoyed reading and writing — feature writing, cultural coverage, in-depth digging. When I joined the Evening Standard features desk in 2011, there were eight feature writers — today there is one. The weekend newspaper supplements used to be full of deeply-reported profiles and features, many of which have been replaced by material that’s cheaper to produce, like lifestyle writing and extracts from books.
Once in a while, you get a chance in life to put your ideas into practice, and that’s what The Mill has been about for me. I had this idea of offering readers the kind of stories that have been stripped out of newspapers, and focusing on one area I could really get to know and love. I wasn’t trying to save local journalism or recreate what’s been lost but just to create something new, inspired by great journalists and newspapers from the past.
In our office we have books by writers who tried to paint portraits of the world around them in rich colour and memorable prose — Ben Hecht chronicling 1920s Chicago in his column for the Chicago Daily News; Joseph Roth’s vivid, literary interwar writing for the Frankfurter Zeitung; Gitta Sereny’s meticulous stories for the Telegraph Magazine about Germany’s reckoning with its Nazi past. I always saw The Mill as essentially a project of renaissance rather than invention: taking forms of journalism that have largely fallen away, building an audience for those stories with tools that have only just become viable (email newsletters funded by easy online payments) and hoping people would like the outcome.
The key test was not just whether people would read The Mill, but whether they would pay for it. That’s the bit we need to get back if we want to see a journalistic renaissance after twenty years of sharp economic decline in the industry. This week, The Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism found that just 5% of people pay for local news in the UK, compared to 35% in Germany and 53% in Norway. So far we’ve got just over 1,350 paying members on The Mill, and each one allows us to get closer to the kind of newsroom I originally envisaged: lots of writers and lots of editors, all of whom have the time to really dig into stories that they care about. Now that vision includes lots of plants, too.
Our model is all about publishing a small number of stories each week, and trying to do them really well. That approach has allowed us to punch far above our weight journalistically, exposing companies like Mana for mistreating their staff and lifting the lid on the problems at the Royal Exchange; examining important dynamics in public life, like the city’s relationship with China and the conspiratorial politics in Oldham; conducting dozens of interviews with un-famous people whose estates and neighbourhoods tend to only get media coverage in the context of violence and criminality; and publishing a lot of really lovely writing that you might not read anywhere else.
Perhaps some of you won’t consider this an admirable trait, but one of the things that motivates me every day is that we are proving a lot of people wrong — including people who told me that readers won’t pay for small numbers of stories, or who said long-form feature writing was too niche to build a newspaper around. I’m thinking about the veteran local news figure who dismissed us early on because he thought no one would subscribe to a site that didn’t have investors and a big operation (“Many have gone through the numbers. No one has made them add up,” he wrote on Twitter). Or a senior executive at the MEN’s owner Reach Plc who predicted on Reddit that if we didn’t bow to the commercial pressures that have turned his own websites into clickbait swamps, after a few years we would have to “pack it in”.
When Winifred Robinson asked me on Radio 4 last week what my biggest success had been, the first thing I thought about was the people who I have found along the way. Well, really they have found me, like when Dani first got in touch asking to join as an intern or when Jack sent his first piece in. You never know when you start something new whether anyone else will get it or share your enthusiasm for it.
Dan Hayes messaged me on Twitter weeks after I started up The Mill — he was working for the local newspaper in Sheffield but we both had similar ideas about the industry and we chatted for two hours on the phone. He’s now (brilliantly) running our sister publication on the other side of the Peaks, The Tribune, which has published some stunning journalism and now has 750 members and a 9,000-strong email list. Sophie Atkinson, who grew up in Hale but at that point was still living in the slightly more bohemian setting of Berlin, got in touch a few months later and made the sensible decision to take some time out from freelancing for the New York Times and the Washington Post to write for us. She’s now our Senior Editor, working three days a week.
Perhaps the greatest feeling about this whole ride has been finding writers like Dani and Jack, and — thanks to our paying members — being able to give them full-time jobs. The same goes for Mollie Simpson, who wrote some brilliant long reads for us this time last year before going to Liverpool to run our sister publication The Post, and Jack Walton, who is joining on staff in Liverpool next month. They’re all in their twenties and the success of this project has given them their first jobs in journalism. Not jobs in London, where they would have gone after graduating, but in the North. And not just any journalism, but this kind of journalism. Nothing could make me happier than that.
By Dani Cole
It was a day a few years ago, a day spent in Derby Crown Court in fact, that finally convinced me that I wanted to be a journalist. I was in my early twenties and I was shadowing the Derby Telegraph’s veteran court reporter, a man called Martin Naylor, who used to be a door-to-door salesman but decided to pack it in and become a reporter. He knew all the court ushers by name, knew which judges were soft touches (“He’s called ‘Set ‘Em Free Smith’”), wore a suit and wrote everything down in shorthand. As we shuffled along the benches inside the courtroom, he quietly and patiently explained the ins and outs of the job, and I was enthralled.
I spent a week at the Derby Telegraph, with about twenty reporters and editors. I was in awe of digital editor Carl Slater who fielded everyone’s copy and reminded me of a captain at the helm of a ship. On my last day, he sat me down and gave me some advice: practice shorthand for 15 minutes every day, and watch the news on TV. Since then, the newspaper’s owner Reach Plc — which also owns the MEN and national titles like the Mirror and the Express — has announced a plan to close the newsroom in Derby, along with newsrooms in Cambridge, Huddersfield, Leicester, Stoke and dozens of other places.
Since that day with Martin, it was like someone had lit a fire somewhere inside of me: I wanted to become a journalist. And what I wanted to be most of all, was a features writer. But how to get there? The type of journalism I wanted to do — the kind of in-depth features you read in the Atlantic or in 1843 Magazine — didn't seem possible in local papers, and as exciting as reporting was, I wanted to write.
In many ways, I have been very lucky — finding the Mill was serendipitous. In September 2020 I was doing my journalism course in Manchester, and we had to find a work placement. I sent emails to two places, one of which was The Mill: a publication that did exactly the type of writing I wanted to do. One of the pieces which stuck out to me was “I miss the old place”, a piece Joshi wrote after wandering around Miles Platting.
I sent Joshi an agonisingly earnest email (“I understand that The Mill is only a few months old and you have no office, but in these present circumstances that isn’t an issue”) with a list of bullet points outlining why he should hire me as an intern. One of them said, “green but keen” and another contained the line, “yay for Zillennials”. Looking back to that email makes me cringe — I was a 23-year-old woman who hadn’t quite found her place in the world, was very naive, but was putting herself out there anyway.
I owe a lot to the generosity and trust of the people I've met early in my career: the reporters at the Derby Telegraph who answered my questions; the interview panel that granted me full bursary funding for my NCTJ course, despite my lack of bylines. I wrote for The Mill throughout my course, and Joshi offered me a staff job a few weeks after I graduated. When I first joined The Mill, I was inexperienced, had a passionate dislike of phoning people, and took an age to “file” my copy, but my editors (Joshi and Sophie, usually) must have had some degree of faith in my ability. Since that first email, I’ve written about people from all walks of life across Greater Manchester and was highly commended for the NCTJ’s 2021 Trainee Feature Writer of the Year Award.
Like me in September 2020, The Mill was also new to the world of journalism. We've been able to grow thanks to the encouragement and trust of our readers. Being a features writer here has only been made possible by the community of people who believed in our mission. My development as a young writer has been fostered by our readers, who email me ideas and take the time to comment under my pieces. Thank you for your support.
By Jack Dulhanty
My first writing was on my phone’s notes app, just after I had finished (flopped) my A-levels. I was working the reception at the Brain and Spinal Injury Centre, in Salford, trying to write those god-awful “listicles” that used to swamp sites like Buzzfeed — “Top five songs to pretend you’re in a film to” — and then instantly deleting them. Then, I started writing food reviews about anything I ate, normally composed as long text messages to my sister with accompanying pictures.
I applied to study journalism at university with the principal goal of becoming a food critic. I read Jonathan Gold, AA Gill and Jay Rayner, but was entranced by the New Yorker’s Hannah Goldfield, and her lovely pared-back style, which got me into the magazine’s other writers, ones who weren’t writing about food. I found narrative pieces by Sheelah Kolhatkar and David Grann, and spent a whole week reading Hiroshima by John Hersey.
I was taken aback by stories that read like stories. Not just news reports. At university, we were taught the “inverted pyramid” structure which teaches you to put all the most important details at the top. In that kind of journalism, there’s no suspense or narrative, just information. I hated that, so to discover journalism where you could spend a sentence or even a paragraph describing a landscape — or something as infinitesimal as an interviewee’s twitch — was exciting.
The problem was that the kind of journalism I was reading in American magazines isn’t published much on this side of the Atlantic Ocean. Perhaps I needed to move to London, spend months interning in a newsroom and try to wangle myself one of the last remaining spots on a national features desk.
And then The Mill came along. I joined as a paying member in November 2020, when the newsletter was about six months old. I read quietly until the end of my journalism course, at which point I pitched my final piece of university work. It was a feature about a man trying to save a small bird from extinction in Wigan, and I remember being all but too excited to see it published — and with the colourful descriptions left in.
In the year since, I’ve been able to spend up to six months investigating and writing a single story about the working conditions at Manchester’s only Michelin star restaurant, something a journalist of my age and experience would scarcely be able to imagine doing on another paper. I’ve written across a range of topics and about a plethora of people, from world-renowned illustrators to virtual reality addicts. I even got to profile Wendy Edge, the pioneering CEO of the Brain and Spinal Injury Centre where I worked on reception. And I have been able to report each piece with insight and care.
That last part — the ability to scrutinise, take time, sit down with an interviewee and spend an hour or two hours or sometimes three separate interviews with them, fully understanding their story — is a rare privilege, afforded to us by our members and their support. So it’s with much gratitude that I report and write about the topics that matter to them, and aim to give them a sharper insight and broader understanding of the place they live and the people they share it with.