The most precious commodity in journalism

Some thoughts on my trade on the third day of our launch week

Good morning Millers and welcome to the third day of our glorious launch week. The aim of the week is to take the first big step towards making The Mill sustainable as a journalistic outfit, and we’ve made an amazing start. My goal for the week was to hit 200 members and we’ve sailed past 150 after two days.

Once we hit 200 I’m going to give free memberships to 20 Manchester journalism students and local school kids who aspire to be journalists, so that the future reporters in this city can be inspired by what we are doing and publishing. When we hit 250 I’ll give out another 10, and then at 300 another 10. So let’s do this!

Our 20% early-bird discount will disappear in a few days, so lock in this price *forever* by joining now. In 20 years, when The Mill is publishing the best journalism in the country under the editorship of one of those journalism students and inflation has dragged the price of Netflix up to £50-a-month, you will be grateful for the enormous saving you’ve made by joining today. Hit the button below to join.

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Ok, today’s post is a very short reflection on why time is the most important asset in journalism. But first of all, I want to share this lovely post from one of our first members, David Boyle, who is a barrister in Manchester. David was one of the first people I spoke to about launching The Mill when I had the idea in May, and he’s been a great source of encouragement (as have so many of you with whom I’ve exchanged emails or spoken on the phone). He posted this message on LinkedIn yesterday, and I’ll reproduce it in full because David is better at marketing The Mill than I am:

Back in early Lockdown, I met Joshi Herrmann on here. We spoke. As in real life. Well, over the phone. Anyway, we actually had direct-ish contact, and we discussed his vision for a new online broadsheet, based in my home city of Manchester. It's all his idea - I just asked him a couple of prompting questions and gave him some encouragement. Enough other people did too, so he wrote some articles, and built up a bit of a following on a free email basis.

I say 'a bit' but actually, he's managed about 4,000 signups during Lockdown and now he's making it real. He's actually employed people, and to do that, without advertising, he'll need people to pay, either a modest monthly sub, or an annual one.

He's gone for it this week, and he's offering a 20% discount for those who sign up early doors. Not just 20% on this payment, but a lifetime of 20% discounts. So for £1.08pw, you can crowdfund some ad-free quality journalism about Greater Manchester and all who sail* in her (*not Sale, he's better than that) and her environs.

I'm really chuffed to be one of the first fully-paid-up #Millers.

The importance of time

Sometimes good journalism takes an hour or two. Sometimes the ball comes loose at the back of a scrum and you just need to grab it and carry it over the line. Every journalist has had those stories.

But let me tell you: most of the time it doesn’t work that way. Usually, when you read a really important story, that reporter has spent days or weeks or months digging into it, including lots of time disappearing down blind alleys before things came together.

Sometimes, you have to wait years. In 2015 I wrote a long cover story for The Independent’s Saturday magazine about the murder of a 15-year-old boy called Sofyen Belamouadden at Victoria Station in London. It was a strange killing and it stood out against the daily reports of stabbings in the capital. 20 teenagers were initially charged with murder under the laws of joint enterprise, and they barely had a past criminal conviction between them - both highly unusual. But to write the piece I wanted to write I needed to speak to Sofyen’s mother and one of the young people in the group who killed him. And that meant waiting two and a half years.

Gitta Sereny interviewing Franz Stangl, former commandant of the Treblinka extermination camp

Last year I published an investigation in The Times about a spate of disappearances of Vietnamese teenagers from private schools which took a couple of months to stand up. And this kind of time investment isn’t just required for hard news stories. I once wrote a profile of the then-Business Secretary Sajid Javid for the Guardian that required tracking down a handful of his former banking colleagues. But they were scattered around the world working for Argentine banks or enjoying their retirement in the South of France, so it took a while.

My point is: These things often do. They take a while. You will notice I’m not listing lots of stories that I had to turn around in two hours, because most of them aren’t very good. It might not be immediately obvious from the outside, but time is the most precious commodity in journalism. It’s the thing that allows writers and reporters to go and interview the people who will make a story come alive. It’s the thing that allows us hacks to throw the first few fish back in the river because we sense there is something better coming.

And it’s the commodity that has become shockingly scarce in the past decade or two as newsrooms have shrunk and the remaining reporters have had to do more stories to feed the web. I wrote about the economic forces that have devastated the news industry in my “Case for a new newspaper in Manchester” in July. In that piece I quoted Tim Luckhurst, who edited The Scotsman and has taught thousands of students as a journalism professor, who noticed in recent years that his students were going to local newsrooms and being asked to churn out four or five stories a day. “It's now about getting press releases sent to you, probably by your former colleagues who are working as PRs,” he said. “On the whole they were simply turning round copy - not doing original journalism.”

Ten years ago, when you picked up the newspapers, particularly on the weekend, they were full of long, rich pieces of journalism that had taken a lot of time to prepare. One of my favourite journalists, Gitta Sereny, who sadly died in 2012, spent seven months figuring out the strange story behind the forged Hitler diaries. Everyone by then knew they were a forgery - but no one could have imagined the sinister world of Nazi relic collectors and Third Reich obsesseives from which they had emerged, and which she uncovered in her work for the Sunday Times.

Seven months is an extreme example. What most reporters need to do a story justice is a extra few hours or an extra day or two. My sense is that most journalists employed in this country do not get given the kind of time they need to get to the bottom of stories - to dig below the surface. So many stories now are based on a press release about a newly released report or a new initiative or a new product release. These stories aren’t necessarily bad - but in a healthy democracy and society they should represent a much smaller proportion of what we read.

Time is what we need to get back. We need news organisations that are funded by readers, so their incentive is to deliver a small number of high quality stories rather than the dozens of low quality ones required by the online advertising model. And a news culture that gives talented journalists the time and resources to hang around at the river bank long enough to pull in the stories that matter - the ones that have real human depth and meaning.

I make no apology for how few stories we publish on The Mill. We will always publish a very small number of stories compared to most newspapers and websites and online magazines, even when we have more staff and bigger freelance budgets. Because we’re committed to a type of journalism that takes time. Sometimes a day or two. Sometimes a week or two, or longer.

That’s what you are supporting when you join The Mill. That’s what you are helping to build. A news organisation committed not just to accuracy and balanced reporting and good writing, but one that believes in building up enough income to give talented reporters and writers the things they most need to have: time.

To become a member with our early-bird discount, join now!

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