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Manchester Mill celebrates local press paywall profitability

Manchester Mill founder Joshi Herrmann speaks about what's next for the Substack-based project after becoming profitable.

By Bron Maher

Manchester-based email newsletter The Mill says it has reached profitability a month ahead of its second birthday.

The outlet, which publishes through newsletter platform Substack, now has 27,000 people in Greater Manchester on its email list and 1,600 paying subscribers.

Meanwhile, its sister newsletters, the Liverpool Post and Sheffield Tribune, have reached 650 and 900 paying subscribers, respectively.

[Read more: Why are successful paywalls such a rarity in UK local press?]

At all three titles a monthly subscription, which gives readers two members-only editions per week among other perks, costs £7 per month. This gives them annualised subscription revenue of £134,400 for The Mill, £54,600 for The Post and £75,600 for the Tribune.

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The three titles, which are currently all published by Herrmann’s Millers Publishing Company and operate as a team, share a mission to produce quality local journalism focusing on “important stories in politics, education, business and culture”.

The Mill is one of the few successful examples of paywall-funded local journalism in the UK.

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The Mill, Tribune and Post all got a kick-start in June 2021 when Substack announced their project was one of 12 local journalism schemes to which it would give up to $100,000.

[Read more: Substack invests in ‘thoughtful and nuanced’ local news in Manchester, Liverpool and Sheffield]

Mill editor Joshi Hermann (pictured above, second from left) said: “I think when we were starting out there was lots of enthusiasm for what we were doing but people weren’t sharing their secrets with us – because you know, you have to establish trust.

“I feel like we’ve now got to a place in the city and in the region where people now get in touch – the volume of tips we get is really incredible compared to anything I’ve had in my career before. 

“Even when I was at the London Evening Standard, where you’ve got this big audience and you’re being read on the Tube every night, I never got as many tips as we get now.

“I think the challenge now is trying to build a big enough team that you can follow up with it. We’ve still got a tiny team – there’s me, there’s a couple of full-time reporters and there’s a part-time editor, but that’s not a very big team given the size of – you know, [it’s] three million people we’re trying to cover.”

One such tip came from a reader who pointed out that Manchester’s Royal Exchange Theatre seemed to have large blocks of time without programming, which The Mill learned was a lingering effect of the pandemic.

Another produced a story about a review website in the city that had allegedly been bullying local restaurants: the story received 45,000 views, and won The Mill a few hundred new newsletter recipients as well as a dozen new paying subscribers.

The key to profitability for The Mill

Herrmann launched the Mill on his own and now employs senior editor Sophie Atkinson (pictured, right) who has previously written cultural stories and essays for the likes of The New York Times, The Washington Post, and The Guardian. The Mill also counts as staff writers Jack Dulhanty (left) and Mollie Simpson (second right).

Talking about The Mill’s evolving editorial mix, Herrmann said: “How much cultural coverage do we want, what kind of coverage is that? We’ve primarily gone for story-based, and quite ideas-based coverage, rather than coverage that’s all about reviews or whatever. We’re doing more politics than we ever used to, but we’re trying to do politics in our way.”

He said that meant that, rather than following the day-to-day agendas of council meetings, The Mill tended to try every few months to put out a larger piece looking at “something really important behind the scenes”.

He added: “I think the most important thing about us getting into profit is that we’re producing highly differentiated journalism that you couldn’t get anywhere else about this city – and we’re doing it on a consistent basis.”

Fighting words

He contrasted that approach against what he saw as the strategy pursued by many regional news websites.

“They’re doing loads of things that they’re not best at. They’re doing SEO content about what time a football match starts. They’re doing rewrites of press releases that have gone to every newspaper in the country. They’re doing write-ups about what Piers Morgan says on the news this morning…

“The thing about all these things is, yes people will click on it – but you are not best at doing any of those things.”

And he argued that covering things that are unrelated to the region you cover “slightly erodes your brand”.

Herrmann had previously made similar criticisms to these against Reach, the country’s biggest local newspaper publisher.

Was Reach who Herrmann had in mind now?

“I think Reach plc has a lot of websites that spend a lot of their time doing things that are not local journalism, even if the masthead claims to be a local newspaper website.

“There’s some great journalism on the MEN, there’s some great journalism at the Liverpool Echo. But there’s an awful lot of stuff that isn’t journalism and isn’t local.

“And not only is that a huge waste of their journalists’ time… it’s also just eroding and eroding and eroding these great brands that have been around for hundreds of years…

“It is actually vandalism to really, really important and effective institutions in this country.”

Earlier this year, Liverpool Echo editor Maria Breslin told MPs there were “elements of truth” in the idea Reach titles have to have a trade-off between hard news and clickbait, but “you very much can go down a route of snobbery in suggesting some journalism is more valuable than others”.

[Read more: Liverpool Echo editor accuses critics of ‘snobbery’ amid clickbait debate]

Picture: Manchester Mill

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Select and enter your email address Weekly insight into the big strategic issues affecting the future of the news industry. Essential reading for media leaders every Thursday. Your morning brew of news about the world of news from Press Gazette and elsewhere in the media. Sent at around 10am UK time. Our weekly does of strategic insight about the future of news media aimed at US readers. A fortnightly update from the front-line of news and advertising. Aimed at marketers and those involved in the advertising industry.
  • Business owner/co-owner
  • CEO
  • COO
  • CFO
  • CTO
  • Chairperson
  • Non-Exec Director
  • Other C-Suite
  • Managing Director
  • President/Partner
  • Senior Executive/SVP or Corporate VP or equivalent
  • Director or equivalent
  • Group or Senior Manager
  • Head of Department/Function
  • Manager
  • Non-manager
  • Retired
  • Other
Visit our privacy Policy for more information about our services, how Progressive Media Investments may use, process and share your personal data, including information on your rights in respect of your personal data and how you can unsubscribe from future marketing communications.
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