Some big news about The Mill
A special editor's note from Joshi about our fundraise
Dear Millers — I probably should have sent this editor’s note earlier in the day, given that quite a joyous bit of news about our company appeared in the Guardian this morning. But in amongst tweeting about it and speaking to other journalists about it, I’ve been trying to work out exactly what I wanted to say to you, the readers and members with whom I have been on this journey for the past few years.
Let’s start with the facts and then — if you’ll indulge me for a few minutes — we can move on to the feelings. The news is something I’ve been working hard to achieve for almost a year now: a round of funding for the company that will allow us to hire journalists around the country and give them the chance to do the very special thing we have developed here in Manchester.
We have raised money — £350,000 in total — from a group of longtime Millers and supporters, including Sir Mark Thompson, the former director general of the BBC and ex-CEO of the New York Times, who was today named as the new chief executive of CNN. When I met Mark for coffee and talked about The Mill earlier this year, I knew from the questions he asked me that there was literally no one else on the planet with better experience to help us as we take on the challenges ahead, and I’m thrilled he has joined us as an investor.
Here’s what Mark says about why he has invested in our company Mill Media Co:
"I'm backing The Mill because of the exceptional quality of its journalism and because it's such an interesting and encouraging initiative. Britain's cities need great commercially-sustainable journalism to inform the public and hold powerful institutions to account. That's what The Mill and its sister publications were founded to do, and what they are consistently achieving."
But it’s not just Mark — we’ve assembled a little group of brilliant people who I think can offer us wise counsel in the coming years, including Professor Diane Coyle, one of the country’s leading economists and a professor of public policy at Cambridge. Diane grew up in Ramsbottom and has been a paying member — and a very public supporter of ours on Twitter — ever since. She’s also one of the leading researchers on economic disparities in this country, an interest you can probably sense from her quote below:
"High quality, deep local reporting is the bedrock of a democratic society, and an essential antidote to the maelstrom of misinformation online. Investing in The Mill’s future growth is my commitment to the vital role of news and local knowledge in shaping confidence and pride in the UK’s cities. If they are not thriving, our country will not thrive. I've been a paying Mill member from very early on, and I'm excited by how it — and its sister publications in Sheffield and Liverpool — have grown since then. I hope the company can make a similar impact in other cities across the country."
Joining Mark and Diane we have other great Millers who have huge reserves of experience in the media. They won’t have any influence over our editorial decisions, but they will be great advisors from the sidelines. They include our longtime member Turi Munthe (who I will talk about in a minute); the leading US journalist Nicholas Johnston, the former editor-in-chief and now publisher of the newsletter-based media company Axios; and David Rosenberg, who alongside being extremely encouraging to us from the beginning is also the director of strategy at the social media giant Snap Inc. I like this line from David’s press quote today: “Saving local journalism was supposed to be impossible but the Mill team are defying the odds at every turn.”
The decision to raise
If you’ve spoken to me in the past six months, you will know that this funding has been in the works for a while. In fact, it was around this time last year that I decided to raise money, prompted by a couple of developments.
The first thing was the messages I often get from journalists asking if we will expand to their cities. When this happened in the early days of the company — when Dan got in touch from Sheffield, for example — we were able to get an injection of just over £100,000 from our publishing platform Substack in 2021 in order to create The Tribune and The Post. Both have been huge successes, publishing wonderful local journalism that wouldn’t have existed without them; and we’ve become a great team between the three cities, sharing editing duties, supporting each other’s stories and lending each other a hand when people go on holiday.
So last year, when a few reporters contacted me via Twitter DMs and said they would prefer to be doing our kind of journalism rather than what they were doing at their local newspapers, I decided that we needed to get some investment. We wanted to be able to expand further and back journalists in other places when they came along. The big thing is this: we all want the model we’ve built here in Manchester to thrive across the country, spreading a genuine renaissance in high-quality local journalism.
The other significant development was that headline in Press Gazette last year, “Reach takes on The Mill with 12-strong email newsletter team backed by Google cash”. After reading it I remember thinking: hang on, a stock market-listed company is diverting a dozen of its staff — backed by money from Google, no less — to copy our newsletters and our approach?
It was a great compliment, in a way, but also a reminder of the environment in which we are operating — up against London-based media conglomerates with access to enormous reserves of cash. I recall sitting in the office that weekend and getting a call from one of our members, who wanted to know what our response would be. I said we’d carry on doing what we’re doing — but that yes, it might be good to have a bit more funding behind us.
The first person I spoke to was Turi Munthe — who has taken a close interest in this company right from the beginning. Turi co-founded the groundbreaking photo agency Demotix, which came to prominence during the Arab Spring because it allowed freelance photographers to sell their photos around the world. I first got to know him after offering some training to one of his media companies in Beirut in 2016, and I spoke to him about The Mill around the time I started it. He's always said: if you need a bit of extra funding, give me a call. And so I’m delighted that he has led this fundraise.
What comes next
What’s going to change now that we have a somewhat healthier bank balance? Most of the money is going to be invested in expansion, so it won’t materially change what The Mill feels like. All of our costs in Manchester are now paid for by our income from our members and have been since late last year. That means The Mill is financially sustainable — something we’re all hugely proud of — and we’re going to keep it that way. That means we will only expand our local team of writers when we can afford to do so from subscription revenue. It will be like it’s always been: the more members we get, the more stories we can take on.
Being funded and powered by readers is what has brought us all of our success and is the reason people like Mark Thompson are interested in what we are doing. In a major sense, this funding round is a vindication of all those who have joined us as paying members so far: you believed in us and now some of the biggest names in media believe in us too.
The biggest use of these funds will be when journalists in other cities want to join the company and we want to launch new publications with them. But we will also be able to strengthen the company’s central operation — the central nervous system here in Manchester that makes the whole thing work. So far, everyone who works for us is a journalist by trade and we’re now looking for a commercial wizard to join us in order to beef up our business operations and grow our revenue. We’re also hiring another senior editor, because we feel we’ve become a bit writer-heavy and editor-light. We also need another staff writer in Liverpool. If you know anyone who might be a good fit for those roles, please send them links.
Now let’s end with the feelings. I didn’t expect to be emotional about announcing this news today: I’ve known about it for so long and the past few months have really just been preparing the legal documents and doing lots of admin. And yet, when I tweeted it out this morning, I felt quite moved. Without really thinking about it, the second tweet I posted was about my Dad.
As many of you know, because I wrote about it on the day we launched our subscriptions in September 2020 and a couple of times since, my Dad died just over a year before I started The Mill. I had been living in New York and his death yanked me back to life in Sussex, where my mum lives and where we together processed the grief — and the paperwork — of an unexpected loss.
I had been a journalist for all of my career, and The Mill was my first attempt to create my own thing, the kind of thing my Dad would have done. He was the one in the family who knew about business — who trained as an accountant and ran several companies — and now I was trying to muddle my way through without being able to call on his advice.
I sometimes wonder whether the way I’ve thrown myself at this insane project has to do with the loss I experienced. I’m not saying that I’ve spent three years building up a local journalism company as a very expensive and time-consuming form of therapy. But I’m not not saying that either.
Those of you who have lost a parent or a great friend might be able to relate to that fleeting feeling that you get in big moments in your life — a kind of habitual wish to tell them about something you’ve done or achieved before your rational mind catches up and you realised you can’t. Or perhaps you can, but in a rather different and more silent way. I think that’s how I felt this morning about our amazing news — I wanted to tell my Dad about it and hear what he has to say. But that’s not possible, and so I’m telling you.
Millers, I’m so proud of what we’ve managed to achieve together — it’s really one of the greatest joys of my life. I’m amazed by the wonderful staff we’ve managed to band together and the freelancers who write, design and photograph for us. And I’m just very, very grateful for the way so many of you have responded to this slightly eccentric idea I had back in June 2020 — the way you back us with your subscriptions, send us your story ideas and give us moral support. It’s quite a thing we’ve built and I’m hoping today’s funding means we can do much more.
All the best,