A new local publishing model is giving regional titles the wake-up call they need

Our local news outlets should be a source of enrichment, and of pride in where we live

There is a moment in the epic BBC drama Peaky Blinders where Cillian Murphy’s character Tommy Shelby summons a reporter from the Birmingham Evening Despatch to witness the gang’s public burning of portraits of King George V.

The Peaky Blinders screenwriter Steven Knight, a native Brummie, spent long hours researching the hit show in local newspaper archives and the Despatch was a fixture of Birmingham life for much of the 20th century, until the title vanished after a 1960s merger.

That will change next month when the name returns to Birmingham media as a new product for the digital age. The Dispatch (inspired by the original newspaper but adopting the more contemporary spelling) marks another significant step for a young publishing business that is reimagining local journalism in large cities by serving readers with longer-form content that does not underestimate their intellects.

Delivered in newsletter format to the recipient’s email inbox, The Dispatch will offer three heavily researched pieces a week on local matters of political and cultural importance. In an epoch where so much local “news” takes the form of celebrity clickbait, salacious crime round-ups and video clips repurposed from social media, the new title is surely meeting a need.

The model has already taken root in Manchester, Liverpool and Sheffield, where publisher Mill Media Co has built profitable digital titles. Forerunner The Mill began in Manchester during the 2020 lockdown. The dream of entrepreneur Joshi Herrmann, it now has 2,584 members who typically pay £7 per month for subscriptions via the Substack newsletter platform.

The Mill has published extensive reads on Manchester’s architectural heritage, from the Hulme Crescents social housing blocks to Burnage Garden Village. It has interrogated local political wrangles, analysed traffic schemes and celebrated entertainment icons, including Wigan Casino and the late impresario Tony Wilson. Reports are often underpinned by data analytics and writers are given days to do research, unlike most hard-pressed journalists in local newsrooms.

Herrmann, 34, went on to found The Post in Liverpool and The Tribune in Sheffield, which between them have another 3,000 paying members. “I wanted to show that this kind of journalism would be well-received, that people would enjoy it and pay for it and engage with it,” he says.

He has proved the point. This summer, benefactors led by former BBC director-general and new CEO of CNN Sir Mark Thompson, stumped up £350,000 to help the project evolve. The Dispatch, serving the West Midlands, is a consequence of that investment.

Its debut will be a wake-up call for the city’s incumbent paper, the Birmingham Mail, which swallowed the Evening Despatch in 1967. Like most British regional papers, the Mail has endured a torrid recent history of cost-cutting in the face of dwindling circulation and advertising revenues.

The Dispatch will be led by former Mail journalist, Kate Knowles, who is from Birmingham. She promises content that is “less tabloid and more in-depth – stories that get under the skin of the city”. Expect exploration of Birmingham’s civic identity and its intimate relationship with the motor car. There will be data analysis of local air pollution. Peaky Blinders should get the forensic local scrutiny that Brummies deserve.

“We have loads to shout about,” says Knowles of the heritage of a city that hosts the Birmingham Royal Ballet but is habitually ignored by national media. “We are the birthplace of heavy metal. We have Brutalist architecture. I don’t think Birmingham’s culture gets the attention it deserves.”

The Dispatch will cover the vibrancy of districts such as the Jewellery Quarter. But it will also examine the “Victorian levels of poverty” in some West Midlands neighbourhoods, says Knowles.

Life for Britain’s local journalists is tough. They rarely get opportunities to report at length on topics they have been allowed to study in detail. When they do, their work is often disfigured by web pages overloaded with pop-up ads by publishers who are focused on commercial inventory and value search engine optimisation (SEO) skills over good writing.

I hope that the bold ambition of The Dispatch and its sister titles will be an inspiration as well as a threat to big regional news publishers, such as Reach PLC, which produces the Birmingham Mail. They should take note of the early success of this model and recognise that readers are tired of shallow distraction. Our local news outlets should be a source of enrichment, and of pride in where we live.

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