We are seeing a proliferation of media startups trying to innovate the news industry. But becoming the head honcho of these enterprises is sometimes a cryptic endeavour. Journalists who take to these roles will find it requires new and old skills. In this series, we talk to the CEOs of media startups of all sizes to demystify their job description and understand what they have learned in the role.
We start with The Mill, a Substack newsletter publication, based in Greater Manchester that launched in June 2020 as little more than an experiment. By bringing in-depth reporting to email format, it found a niche that worked and decided to launch a paid membership in October 2020. Now it has almost 1,000 paying members and 14,000 registered users.
In addition to that, thanks to funding from Substack's Local programme, it has now been able to set up sister titles The Tribune in Sheffield in February and The Post in Liverpool to launch in October.
Courtesy of Joshi Herrmann (above), CEO , founder and editor-in-chief of The Mill
When you are the leader of a small company like this, which has only three other employees at the moment (including freelancers, trainee reporters and graduate hires), you take on a wide variety of tasks. Joshi Herrmann is not only the CEO and founder, he is the editor-in-chief too.
That means he commissions, edits and writes stories, as well as manages the team, markets the publication to the world and is in charge of future planning. This was his first stab at running his own business, and speaking to Journalism.co.uk, he reflects on his day-to-day responsibilities. The interview has been lightly edited for brevity.
What sort of important decisions do you need to make regularly? What is the process?
Which stories to run, how to get our editorial mix right, which freelance writers to use, and how to respond to feedback and ideas that readers send in.
My process is trying to speak to people I trust as much as possible, including Dani [Cole] and Mollie [Simpson] in the office, Dan [Hayes, at The Tribune], my good friends about finance and media startup stuff, and lots and lots of our readers and members who have useful bits of expertise about Manchester, business, journalism and lots of other things. And then not being worried about making the wrong decision – everyone screws up sometimes and as long as you are humble in those situations, I think you will be ok.
What are the key challenges with running a media startup and your specific business?
The biggest challenge for this industry is revenue. Revenues have collapsed for most media companies in the past 20 years, and new ones struggle to bring in money for the same reasons. People have got used to free news, despite the fact that journalism is far from free to produce. So we are trying to persuade people to pay for journalism again after 20 years of the industry disastrously choosing to give it away for free.
According to the Reuters Digital News Report 2021, eight per cent of people pay for local news in the UK, which is extremely low compared to other countries. I strongly believe that will change if readers are offered high-quality, thoughtful, properly researched work. We will see.
And how do I solve problems? I talk to people who know more than me, ask my staff out loud and try to think what my dad Mike would do. He died two and a half years ago, but I think he still guides me, and he was a very wise and level-headed man.
What are the key skills needed to do your job? How do you work on them?
A good sense of what readers care about. An ability to surprise people with eclectic story choices. Lots of empathy for the people we are writing about, so we do not march into their lives and screw them up. Good time management and focus, neither of which comes naturally to me.
What is one skill people might not expect you to need when becoming CEO?
Doing things before you are ready to. Everyone thinks business is about huge amounts of planning and business plans and detailed prep. But I think sometimes you just have to take a risk, throw your idea out there, and see how people react.
What advice would you give media professionals who aspire to launch a startup?
Try it out. Our industry is in a hole – it desperately needs new ideas. Particularly in local media.
Would you like to contribute to our series? Get in touch with us today