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Manchester Mill newsletter eyes expansion after £1.75m valuation

The local news outlet Manchester Mill is preparing to expand across the UK after being valued at £1.75m by a group of investors including the former New York Times boss Mark Thompson.

Joshi Herrmann, the founder, said his startup was considering Leeds, Birmingham, Glasgow and Newcastle among the targets for new versions of its high-end paywalled local newsletter model. “We’ve shown in the past few years that very high quality reader-funded local media is possible,” he said. “What we’ve done is build up an unusually zealous and committed number of readers who want better coverage, better writing, better investigative writing.”

Hermann started the Manchester Mill on a personal project in 2020, initially sustained by his own money and then funding from Substack, which runs its newsletter technology. Since then the Mill has launched spin-off editions in Liverpool and Sheffield, attracting more than 5,000 subscribers paying £7 a month for its mix of longform journalism and on-the-ground reporting. Hermann has raised £350,000 from a group of private investors in return for selling “less than 20%” of parent company Mill Media, with the intention of using the cash injection to launch new local outlets and hire more staff in existing cities.

He said reporters are desperate to join his outlets and escape the treadmill of rapidly rewriting police press releases and posts from local Facebook groups. Hermann pitches his outlets as the opposite of local news websites that are unreadable because they are swamped with low-quality adverts: “You’ll get way fewer stories but they’ll be properly researched and have original reporting in them.”

Herrman, 34, previously ran UK student website the Tab and its New York-based spin-off Babe.net, which was aimed at millennial women. Powered by $10m (£7.9m) of investment from the likes of Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation, the sites were heavily focused on traffic, seeking clicks from social media such as Facebook, and were most notorious for their messy internal cultures and an allegation against comedian Aziz Ansari. Babe.net later ceased publishing while the Tab was sold at a loss and continues to publish, without the involvement of Herrman or his co-founders.

Hermann insists he has learned lessons from that period and that the days of chasing audience growth at any cost are over. Mill Media is tiny compared with other local news publishers such as Reach, Newsquest and National World, with just nine full-time staff members. Despite its size, Hermann said reporters from established outlets approached him in a bid to jump ship on the promise of being given the freedom to do original journalism. One recent hire described their former job at the Leeds-based Yorkshire Evening Post as the “miserable world of clickbait” filled with disillusioned staff trying to hit traffic targets by writing five stories a day with little real value.

Thompson, the former BBC director general who is a leading candidate to take over at CNN, said he was investing in Mill Media because “Britain’s cities need great commercially sustainable journalism to inform the public and hold powerful institutions to account”. The size of Thompson’s individual stake was not disclosed, with other new investors including David Rosenberg of Snap Inc.

Executives at Reach, which owns the likes of the Manchester Evening News and the Liverpool Echo, complain that the Mill gets disproportionately large praise for running relatively niche outlets serving a few thousand people in major cities. One north-west-based reporter said the outlets had been broadly welcomed by the local “chattering classes”, albeit with some eye-rolling at Hermann’s “tendency to present it as the invention of local journalism”.

Hermann accepts the outlets make no attempt to cover the breaking news about crimes, accidents and traffic that fill up local newspapers. Instead, he holds up the recent lengthy profile of powerful Manchester nightclub owner Sacha Lord and a piece on reclusive local landowners Peel Group as examples of journalism that takes time.

Herrmann said: “Do we over-index on people who read broadsheets rather than tabloids and have university degrees? Yes. We have longform articles and to read all of them, you have to pay. But our monthly subscription costs less than a few print newspapers. Some of my readers would be offended if you said the Mill is just for middle class people. And about half of our journalism is available for free.”

He said the focus is on impactful news, rather than lifestyle content. “If you send an email out and you see someone in Andy Burnham’s team has opened it 200 times you can see they’ve forwarded around their team, so you’re doing something right,” he said. “Or they’re fuming and are going to call you in the morning and demand a correction.”

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