The case for a new newspaper in Manchester
What's happened to local news, and how we can build something better
This story is about local news, and what’s happened to it over the past 20 years. I’m making the argument for why Greater Manchester needs new quality media outlets like The Mill (please sign up to our email list if you haven’t yet), but the point is applicable to so many cities and communities across the country.
We all know what many local news websites are like now - with their jungle of ads and their endless stories about topics that have nothing to do with local issues - but not everyone understands how we got here, and how we can reverse some of the trends that have depleted the quality of our journalism. I hope this story offers some insight into the problem - and also offers some hope.
If you find it interesting, please do tell a few friends about The Mill and what we are doing.
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Next week it will be two months since I sent out the first story to Mill readers - at that point there were 49 of them. Now there are almost 2,500 of you on the email list - far more than I expected or could have hoped for at this stage (Update, February 2021: It’s now just over 11,000!). But let’s wind back for a minute.
I started The Mill because I wanted to try something new in journalism - a media company built around readers rather than advertisers. There are two main arguments for starting a new newspaper in Manchester (or in any of a number of other big cities). Let’s call the first argument “the lack of journalism” problem, and the second one “the role of journalism” problem. Both relate to massive changes that have happened in the media and society in the past twenty years.
A picture of The Mill’s newsroom in 2022
The lack of journalism
Until about the turn of the millennium, newspapers made a lot of money. They were one of the only places businesses could advertise their goods, services and job vacancies, and because printing a newspaper was so expensive, that ad revenue was only shared among small numbers of news companies. And then the internet came along and many advertisers deserted newspapers in favour of sites like Google and Facebook, where they could target consumers much better. And to make matters worse, lots of the readers left too, because the web offered masses of choice in what to read, mostly for free.
The result has been a colossal recession in the news business, resulting in year after year of cost-cutting. Billions of pounds of revenue have disappeared from the balance sheets of news companies. In 2006, a very old newspaper company called Johnston Press bought The Scotsman (and a few sister titles) for £160 million. By 2018 shares in Johnston Press were worth nothing, and it went into administration with debts of £200 million. The Scotsman and the company’s other titles like the Yorkshire Post are now owned by the company’s former creditors.
Pretty much every year, the five big companies who own most of the country’s local newspapers lay off more staff. Reach plc, the owner of the MEN, The Liverpool Echo and lots more regional titles, is in the process of making dozens of its journalists redundant. Sometimes it is columnists and cartoonists and photographers who lose their jobs. Sometimes it is experienced reporters and editors - the people who held all the institutional memory in the newsroom but who are now considered too expensive. Arts desks have more or less disappeared, and investigations teams are mostly gone too. And lots and lots of regular beat reporters have been laid off. The newspapers still have the same names and logos, but in terms of their staff and their content they are unrecognisable.
Tim Luckhurst, who edited The Scotsman and ran Kent University’s journalism school, told me this week that in recent years when his journalism students went to work for local newspapers, they quickly realised they weren’t really doing journalism at all. “It's now about getting press releases sent to you, probably by your former colleagues who are working as PRs,” he says. “On the whole they were simply turning round copy - not doing original journalism.” Instead of going out to meet sources and interview people, many local journalists are now tied to their desks, often writing stories without the time to check them out.
Luckhurst says his former students are writing four or five stories a day, partly in order to fill print newspapers but also because of the need to drive online traffic. Local newspaper owners have tried to replace declining print revenue with online ad revenue. But online ads pay peanuts. If 10,000 people read a story on the MEN website, that’s going to make the company about £50, even with ugly ads littered all over the page, ruining the experience for the reader. So, the only way to make the economics work is to make sure millions of people are reading your website every month. And 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. That’s how we ended up with local newspaper websites running stories about soap storylines and endless inane internet controversies involving Piers Morgan.
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There are writers at MEN who have to write more than 10 stories a day. I saw one who published 13 on Friday, and 16 on Thursday. That’s a story every half an hour. This isn’t the fault of the writer - at all. It’s the result of media companies trying to make a living from the meagre earnings of online ads, an approach which just doesn’t fit with local journalism. The MEN does some great reporting on important social issues, and I often link to good MEN stories in my weekly news briefings. I loved their feature this morning about the disappearing neighbourhood of Chorlton-on-Medlock. The problem is the business model - one that forces readers to wade through dozens of stories about Corrie and Celebrity Gogglebox every month, and look at thousands of irritating ads, in order to find the good stuff. That brings us to the second argument for a new newspaper, which has to do with the role of journalism.
Some journalists in the age when newspapers made a lot of money.
The role of journalism
For most of their history, newspapers were the only source of up to date information people could get. In the 1820s, Mancunians only found out what the government was doing by reading The Manchester Guardian or one of its handful of competitors, and only after an overnight mail coach brought Whitehall papers up from London. In the 1960s, if you wanted the latest news in this city, you needed to get the MEN, and ideally the very latest of its many editions. And because the newspaper was the only place you got information about your area, it had to give you a lot of it - hundreds of stories - to make sure it was covering the stuff you were interested in.
Now we have the opposite problem: most of us get way too much information. We have moved from information scarcity to massive information abundance. We are assaulted by information - via social media, texts from friends, emails from companies and pop-up news alerts on our phones. Local Facebook pages and groups are constantly firing with updates and gossip about what’s going on in our neighbourhood and our city. Local councils and police forces have their own social media channels. Our problem now isn’t getting hold of information - it’s figuring out which bits of it are important, and which bits of it are true.
When media companies force their journalists to crank out five or six (or 16) stories a day in the pursuit of online ad money, they are adding to the online noise. And they are preventing their journalists from providing the service readers really need in an era of information super-abundance: sifting through the mess, checking out stories, speaking to experts, and providing the context people need to understand what is really going on.
From the perspective of a media company trying to get millions of readers every month, publishing endless stories based on TV, viral social media posts and press releases makes sense - those stories take very little time to write and they will drive ad revenue. But from the perspective of the reader, they don’t make sense at all. The stories about TV and viral internet stuff are covering things that we could easily find on social media or from sites that have no journalistic or local remit. And the ones based on press releases are giving us the messages the council or police or businesses want us to know, but not the context that might show them in a less flattering light, or the other stories they aren’t sending us press releases about. That’s the bit we need journalists for - but the journalists don’t have time to provide it.
The Guardian’s Cross Street office in the 1970s. It was The Manchester Guardian until 1959.
Enter The Mill
Which is a long way of saying:
The Mill is primarily funded by readers not by advertisers.
We don’t publish many stories, so we can focus on quality rather than quantity.
And everything we do is based on the principle of building trust rather than building web traffic.
I started the newsletter in early June as an experiment - to see if people would like a different type of news coverage in Manchester, and the response has blown me away. Lots of you have sent me emails and messages of encouragement and shared The Mill with friends. People seem to like the idea of a slowed-down, thoughtful news - reporting that looks at topics in depth and tells the human stories behind events like the Rochdale grooming prosecutions or the funding crisis at the Royal Exchange.
In September I’m going to launch The Mill as a fully-fledged online newspaper, making it my full-time project and asking you to support it by becoming paying members for £7 a month, or £70 a year. [Update: The membership is now launched and you can join using the button below or clicking here].
Become of a member of The Mill today - using the button below
Non-members who are on our email list will still get journalism from The Mill every week - for free. This is important because it allows The Mill’s stories to have a wider public impact, and means we have a large pool of readers who can become members in future, when the time is right for them to join.
Those who do join the membership will get a filling diet of great journalism from The Mill, receiving stories in their inboxes daily (five days a week). Even when The Mill has enough paying members to hire a couple of staff, we will still focus on high standards rather than high volumes.
The members-only stories will be varied and unpredictable. One week members will get a report from a crime scene and a fact-check delving into claims about a new Chinese property investment. The next week we will send them a podcast interview with the artistic director of a local theatre, and an update on an investigation we did into local children’s homes. Interviews will range from prominent people to Mancunians you have never heard of. Features will sometimes be investigative projects that took me weeks, and other times they will be the product of an afternoon. We will make sure that some of our stories are joyful and uplifting, and that many of them offer solutions rather than just pointing to problems. And there will be reporting from all over the area and the region, not just the city.
Members will also be the ones who are allowed to comment on stories and will be invited to join our members-only Facebook group and our members’ discussion threads. We will also have member meet-ups (once that is allowed) where we can discuss issues and get to know each other. Most importantly, they will be founding members of a great new media organisation in Manchester - one that is dedicated to this area and committed to good journalism and getting to the truth.
This is all coming up. If you agree with these arguments about local news, please share this email with your friends, and think about whether you would like to become a Mill member next month. I hope many of you do. It’s a total leap of faith for me - but I think it’s one worth taking.