This is just the start
2,000 reasons to be optimistic about journalism
Good morning readers. We hope you’ve managed to stay warm and dry amid the snow and rain of recent days. The weather in Sheffield looks much better today. Hopefully spring is just around the corner!
I just wanted to send you an update on The Tribune at a very exciting time for our fledgling publication. On Friday, we finally reached a milestone that has been our long-term goal for the whole of last year — 2,000 paying members. Milestones like these can sometimes feel a bit arbitrary, but this one seems significant. To get here from a standing start in the middle of a pandemic without any major investment and with just one full time member of staff for the first two years is a massive achievement. Thank you for helping us get here.
When I first started this I had absolutely no idea whether enough people would pay to receive our journalism and I cheered each new member that came through! But soon there were too many to keep up with. By the end of the first day, 73 paying members had signed up while after a week the total stood at 245. Since then it’s been slow and steady progress. Just before last Christmas we reached 1,000 members, which at the time felt like a huge achievement. Now, just 13 months later, we’re at 2,000. The Tribune is a success story.
To say this is a bit of an aberration for the industry is an understatement. The Tribune and our sister titles in Manchester, Liverpool and now Birmingham are rare reasons for optimism in what is currently a fairly grim media landscape. Last year the local publishing giant Reach (who run titles including Yorkshire Live and the Manchester Evening News), cut 1,000 staff in three separate rounds of redundancies. According to Press Gazette, 8,000 journalists in the UK, US and Canada lost their jobs in 2023. Already in the sliver of 2024 that has elapsed, titles on both sides of the Atlantic have gone under, putting even more great journalists out of work.
Why is this? Well, it’s not complicated. If you like and value a publication and want to see it survive, you have to pay for it. No ifs, no buts. When the internet first appeared, newspapers rushed to get their content online, and didn’t worry too much about giving their stories away for free. The consequences of that decision are now coming home to roost.
In an astonishing piece in the Guardian last month, the chief executive of Reach Jim Mullen was quoted as saying “nowhere near enough” people want to pay for their content online. And in the absence of people paying for local journalism, what was Mullen’s prescription? More clickbait, more web pages that are unreadable, and more layoffs. Engagement and quality are nice, sure, but they aren’t as important as page views, he said. “That is the way we sell advertising blocks, and advertising blocks deliver revenue. I know it is not ideal.”
But as The Tribune and our sister titles are proving, there is another way. By prioritising quality, we’ve persuaded thousands of people to pay for our journalism. As a result of this approach, we managed to hire another member of staff last summer, and Victoria has since gone on to write some of our best pieces (try these for starters: there’s her magnum opus about The Leadmill, her investigative masterclass about foodhall Kommune, and her hilarious deep dive into what ever happened to the Steel Man). It turns out that people are prepared to pay for journalism online — as long as you give them something that is good enough.
How far can this approach take us? Well, that’s up to you. The initial goal when we set The Tribune up was sustainability — we wanted to get enough members to pay my (modest) wages and get ourselves a foothold. Now we have achieved this you might think we don't need any more members. But we’re ambitious for the future of journalism in Sheffield. In the past this great city had dedicated politics, education, health and housing reporters as well as theatre critics and restaurant reviewers. We see no reason why it can’t again. The Star and the Sheffield Telegraph, both born in the mid-19th century, employed hundreds of reporters as recently as in the ‘90s. As we wrote in one piece back in 2021, the Sheffield Telegraph once had an entire features desk made up of seven or eight reporters, out of a staff of around 25. It is now produced with no dedicated staff at all.
I think we’re a decent paper with two people at the helm. But I think we could be a genuine force to be reckoned with if we had a fully-fleshed out team rather than a skeleton staff. Readers have been persuaded, via years of staff cuts at larger papers, that news and cultural coverage of our local areas isn’t terribly important. But I disagree. While world news is essential and compelling, coverage of local areas — the place we call home — is just as important. This city is the environment we engage with on a daily basis: the place that strengthens us or disheartens us, depending on how things play out.
It’s now almost three years since we sent out our very first newsletter. Back then, I had a hunch that people were yearning for a different form of journalism; one re-rooted in Sheffield and not owned purely for the benefit of distant shareholders. As it turned out that hunch was correct. But I believe the last three years are just the start. If you want to ensure the long term survival of high quality journalism in Sheffield, please become a member today.
Editor, The Tribune