Innovator Insights: Joshi Herrmann on growing The Mill

Tom Trewinnard
Oct 26 · 3 min read

Fathm’s Innovator Insights series explores the bold steps taken by individuals and organisations seeking to increase value and improve quality in journalism, communications, and information sharing and identifies what we can learn from them.

In this edition we spoke to Joshi Herrmann, founder and publisher of The Mill, an amazing new local reporting project that provides in-depth reporting on Greater Manchester, and has recently launched sister publications in Sheffield and Liverpool. The Mill is funded by a growing community of “members” — of which I’m a proud member. As a Manc relocated to London, I find The Mill’s reporting offers a unique way to reconnect to my roots, and we think the approach and model is one that other publishers can learn a lot from. Thanks Joshi for sharing your insights!

Q. Why did you set up The Mill? What problem were you solving?

A. I wanted to try a completely new approach to local journalism — one that disposed with the need to cover dozens of stories every day and that instead focused on depth, nuance and good quality writing. Local journalism has been shrinking every year for the past 15 years, as it has rapidly lost the virtual monopoly it used to have on local advertising. So the quality of local media coverage is much worse in most areas than it was at the turn of the millennium and there are many fewer journalists employed.

I thought if we tried a new kind of reporting, tried funding it via subscriptions rather than ads and created a new brand that people can trust, we might have a chance of creating something valuable.

Q. What are the challenges or opportunities for member-driven local news organizations?

A. The challenge is the same challenge the wider industry has: revenue. Getting enough people to pay to cover the costs of having reporters and editors working properly on stories is hard. So far we’ve got more than 1000 paying members in Greater Manchester after a year, which I think is a really promising start. The opportunity is to create a media company that is much closer to its readers than mass-market websites that try to cater to everyone.

When your revenue comes from readers you have an incentive not to mislead them and to listen to what they care about.

That’s been huge for us — we know the names of dozens of our readers and meet and speak to them regularly.

Q. What has been the biggest lesson you’ve learned since launching the Mill?

A. Be honest with people about what you’re capable of. When I went on my first holiday, I just emailed my members and said: ‘I won’t be publishing this week so I can take some time off’ and they responded amazingly. No one cancelled. People like honesty and knowing a site is run by a real person.

Q. How have audiences responded to your style and range of reporting?

A. They have responded really well. I think what we’re doing is quite unusual — we’ve created a news organisation that leads with features rather than news. Some of them are about ‘hard news’ topics, but our normal format is a feature of about 1,500 words, and many are much longer. It’s a format that allows you to convey human depth, proper detail and different perspectives within a story.

Q. How has COVID-19 impacted your work?

A. I started The Mill during the first lockdown, so I’ve never been doing it without Covid going on in the background. Readers were telling me that our Covid updates, which were very data-led and the opposite of tabloid sensationalism, were valuable to them. So I hope we’ve provided a useful service.

Q. What’s next for the Mill? Where do you go from here?

A. I want The Mill to be able to work without me — we have a brand new team of young writers and they are already publishing some amazing stuff. But I want this to be an organism that isn’t reliant on me and that is financially sustainable over the long term. That’s the big goal.

At Fathm we think a lot about sustainable revenue for reporting — if you’d like to know more or join a cohort of peers thinking about similar challenges, find out more about our Revenue Development Lab, led by Corinne Podger.