© John Watson

Could email newsletters keep local journalism alive?

Joshi Herrmann describes founding The Manchester Mill as an antidote to “content farms”
April 5, 2023

Joshi Herrmann doesn’t like content farms (or “eyeball farms” as he calls them), a term for the mass-media companies where much of our local news comes from in Britain. Online, you’ll have seen what these farms have done to local news: websites cluttered with stories reprinted from press releases, crime reports and celebrity gossip, smothered in ads and impossible to navigate. “These companies have not just degraded local news gradually, but dismantled it in a fashion that feels to me like vandalism, rather than just drift,” Herrmann tells me. “They are basically responsible for dismantling a key bit of national infrastructure, and they’re doing it for relatively short-term reasons. They have reporters writing up to 15 stories a day about [influencer] Molly-Mae and Martin Lewis.”

It’s that degradation of the news model that Herrmann, 34, has set out to undo with The Mill. Started in Manchester during the first throes of the pandemic, in under three years the email newsletter has gained around 55,000 subscribers who receive, via email, one story a week for free, with around 4,000 paying £7 a month for three extra weekly articles. The Mill, which is hosted on Substack, has set up two sister publications, The Tribune in Sheffield and The Post in Liverpool. The goal is simple: to deliver high quality local reporting to readers by writers who live locally. “I felt like there was a lack of depth in writing,” Herrmann says. “The UK’s news culture is very incremental, day-to-day reporting. It’s all about the latest quote from this big person, the latest report from this thinktank.”

The Mill has been able to dive deeper. Recent features include an investigation on homelessness in the city and what it’s like to be a private investigator in the north. “I like readers to get to know the scene and the people, more of an American magazine style of writing,” says Herrmann. “And there’s basically none of that here. Local journalism has completely collapsed over the past couple of decades. So I thought, could I try and do the two together?”

You don’t get really good coverage of basically anywhere outside of London

Today we’re talking (yelling) in a busy bar in Covent Garden, which is about as far from his day-to-day life at The Mill as possible. Originally from Sussex, Herrmann started his career at the Evening Standard, before joining the Tab and overseeing the university news network’s expansion into the US. He moved to Manchester in 2020. As a self-described southerner with a posh accent, he was worried that editors and writers Up North would judge him—and if that might hinder his chances when setting up The Mill. He needn’t have worried, he tells me: everyone was very welcoming.

The rest of the publication’s team of five are also all based locally, an antidote to the UK’s tendency towards “helicopter journalism”—the practice of sending a writer from a national paper to an outpost in another city for a day or two to write about it, before running off home. “I think that kind of journalism sucks,” says Herrmann, who transforms from being gregarious to deadly serious. “Particularly in politics, where we have a massive issue. 

“You don’t have to look far to realise that the, say, 1,000 political journalists working today missed the undercurrents that led to Brexit, because they don’t live in the worlds where those undercurrents exist… You don’t get really good consistency and coverage of basically anywhere in this country outside of London.”

He believes there should be a “national sense of alarm” over the collapse of newspapers outside of the capital. “How can these communities sustain themselves, without good-quality local journalism?