Taking back 'the treasure of local journalism lost to time'

Some reflections on our first six months

Good afternoon Millers - we’re celebrating a little landmark today. Exactly six months ago I sent out the first Mill story. There were 21 people on the email list that day in early June. And seven of them didn’t open it.

Amazingly, today’s newsletter goes out to 6,541 of you. More than 21 have signed up this morning alone. In half a year The Mill has gone from being a fairly esoteric journalistic experiment to a real thing - sending out stories five days a week and publishing some of the most talented writers in the North. (To join the list, enter your email below).

We have revealed important stories like the major data breach at Greater Manchester Police, sent a reporter in Hong Kong to investigate how Manchester flats are sold abroad, and published long reads about little-known pieces of our past and present, like the extraordinary story of the fugitive slave James Watkins, and our gripping feature about Burnage Garden Village.

We also have more than 550 paying members funding our work and receiving our Mill Daily news service. Their subscriptions mean we have broken even on our costs so far and can start to grow the team in the new year. When I say team, I am presently referring to me, our trainee Dani, who writes and takes beautiful photos for The Mill alongside her journalism course, my former neighbour Ahisha who does our sub-editing, plus our growing network of superb freelance contributors. Up until now, we haven’t had an office so our editorial meetings have been on Zoom, often accompanied by Dani’s housemate’s cat Jake (see below) and occasionally by my extremely aloof cat Mimi.

When I started out in June, I didn’t expect The Mill to take off this quickly. But even more gratifying has been the flood of personal responses to what we are doing. I’ve had literally hundreds of emails from people across Greater Manchester (and in a handful of cases much farther afield) praising our writers or saying that what we are doing has reassured them during the pandemic or added something to their life. I particularly liked the sentiment posted by a reader called Angela under David Barnett’s elegiac piece about his career in regional newspapers. “Having just paid my subscription to The Mill,” Angela wrote, “I feel like I’m taking back some of the huge treasure of local journalism lost to time.”

I think that’s a really beautiful image. And it captures what we are trying to do better than anything we have written. What is the treasure we’ve lost? On the most basic level, it’s the cataclysmic loss of talent from regional journalism — the tens of thousands of newspaper staff who have been laid off as the industry has painfully ceded its traditional monopoly on local advertising. The newsrooms buzzing with dozens of writers and reporters and sub-editors and photographers in every single town of Greater Manchester and Lancashire, working for titles that now employ skeleton staffs or no one at all.

A few years ago I attended a conference in Phoenix, Arizona about the future of the news business. It was a crisis summit. America’s once-great city newspapers were being gutted by the day — gobbled up by corporate owners whose only strategy was to cut more and more staff. A year after Donald Trump’s election, fake news was on the minds of the editors and journalism professors in the conference’s airless meeting rooms. Who was going to stop the spread of false information in so-called news deserts — communities with no journalists left? What about in communities that did have newspapers, but where the journalists were chained to their desks all day, writing endless stories sourced from social media to feed the hoggish appetite of the internet?

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Those questions still hang in the air, now with added urgency as the pandemic deepens this year’s rounds of media redundancies. But there’s something else to say about the huge treasure lost to time. For reasons having to do with which stories generate the most online traffic for the least effort, local newspapers have generally held on to their news reporters but cut all the staff who honed the craft of writing — columnists and feature writers and culture critics and literary editors. This mistake has done as much damage to the quality of local newspapers as the decision to render their websites virtually unreadable by plastering them with dozens of ads.

It means we have lost a crucial layer of journalism — the layer that concerns itself with the culture, history, people and emotional life of the places we live. "While coverage of businesses, government, and transportation is sorely needed — don’t we also all long for a sense of delight in our cities?” asked a US media commentator recently, “The kind of journalism that made us feel something about our cities, understand them better, and care more?” That’s it. That’s the treasure of local journalism we’ve lost, and The Mill is our humble attempt to bring it back.

Anyway, that’s quite enough journalism theory for a Saturday lunchtime. Thanks to all of you for reading our stories, sharing our newsletters with friends, and supporting The Mill in whatever way you can. Thanks to our members, whose funding means we can now expand our elite writing corps and take on more investigations in the new year (you can join them using the button below). From January we will have a couple of desks in an office somewhere and have a postbox where you can send your leaked documents and letters of complaint. As always, if you have ideas about stories you think we should be looking into, please hit reply to this newsletter.

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Using the button below, you can buy someone special in your life a year’s Mill membership, and set it to arrive in their email inbox on Christmas Day by clicking “Schedule for later” and setting the date to the 25th. Plus: If you buy a gift subscription in the next 10 days (by close of play on December 15th) and drop us an email (joshi@manchestermill.co.uk) with their address and a personal message, we will send them an actual handwritten Christmas card, telling them to check their email to get their gift.

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