A Local News Tree Grows in Britain

The most promising winner of the Substack Local contest offers hope.

Welcome to Second Rough Draft, a newsletter about journalism in our time, how it (especially its business) is evolving, and the challenges it faces.

It was my honor last month to serve as one of the judges for Substack Local, a contest where Substack awarded one million dollars to what turned out to be 12 proposed local news newsletters around the world selected with an eye toward their potential sustainability. I want this week to highlight what I considered to be the most promising of those proposals, and tell you why.

The proposal came from The Mill, a newsletter from Manchester, UK (it describes itself as a “new quality newspaper… delivered by email”), which began publishing in the dark Spring of last year. The Mill is the brainchild of Joshi Herrmann, a British journalist who has written for the Guardian, Times, Telegraph, Independent, Spectator and Evening Standard, and whom I had never met until after the contest was concluded. Since then, however, I talked with him by Zoom for this newsletter.

The Manchester Mill began in early June 2020 with 49 non-paying weekly newsletter readers. By late July, it had 2500, by this February 11,000, today more than 12,500. It records about 30,000 page views per week (90% of them driven by email), with free emails being opened at about a 36-37% rate.

It began charging subscribers for additional daily content last September. The price is £ 7 monthly (just under $10 at current rates), or £ 70 ($100) annually. It now has about 900 paying subscribers, with open rates for subscriber emails at 50-60%. (In comparison, the Manchester Evening News, the local paper, saw its circulation fall by more than half from 2018 to 2020, and now sells fewer than 14,000 copies daily.) In March, the Mill added a trainee reporter in addition to the founder. Her pay is roughly in line with that for an entry-level staffer at the Evening News.

Under Substack’s usual deal, the company takes 10% of the revenues. The Substack Local grant will provide the Mill with an additional $150,000.

Herrmann’s proposal to Substack was to take his model in Manchester and extend it to Sheffield (where the publication would be called The Tribune) and Liverpool (The Post). He sought an experienced local journalist in each city to lead these efforts. The Sheffield Tribune launched with 2500 free subscribers in late May under Sheffield Star veteran Dan Hayes. Hayes’s first email had a 50%+ open rate, and subscribers quickly passed 3000; the Tribune should begin its paid product around July 1. (The incumbent Star has paid circulation of about 9000.) The Liverpool Post is scheduled for launch this Fall.

What appealed to me most of all about the proposal from Herrmann and The Mill was its modesty and practicality. Nearly all of the more than 30 finalist entries in the Substack Local contest made a strong case for why they could produce compelling local journalism. But relatively few could convincingly paint a picture of possible future sustainability. And this is all too common among would-be news entrepreneurs these days—an “if you build it they will come” faith, belied by the reality on the ground.

Great Expectations Revisited

Herrmann isn’t trying to shoot the moon (although I’m sure he’d welcome that). His five-year dream posits 7500 paying subscribers in each of Liverpool and Sheffield, cities of roughly half a million and 600,000 respectively; Manchester is about midway between the two in size. (American cities of the same size are Atlanta, Tucson and Baltimore.) With that base, Herrmann indicates each publication could have a news staff of six, a freelance budget and a small office.

This would be important success, admittedly on a small scale. It will decidedly not replace what is being lost in local news (possibilities of that were more nearly the focus of last week’s edition of this newsletter), but Herrmann says that is his point. You “can’t rebuild the city newspaper from scratch,” he believes, and if you make that your challenge, you are likely to fail. Instead, he insists, you can build small teams in cities, rooted in principles of quality, engagement and trust. (Herrmann wants physical offices for his papers even in a world of virtual orgs precisely to aid in building community engagement.)

Local newspapers, in both the UK and US, Herrmann asserts, have eroded trust by failing to deliver on aging rhetorical aspirations, by deploying clickbait headlines and empty stories churned out by reporters running on hamster wheels, by refusing to apologize for errors, and by putting too much effort into saving doomed print editions. He seeks to reverse all of that, to begin with slower news, under-promising and over-delivering. This sort of “small is beautiful” approach to the future of local news may not regain newspapers’ golden age, but it does have the potential for progress from where we are otherwise headed.

I will watching with interest, cheering on these new British friends, and hope you will too.

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