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Mule, Manchester’s alternative press

The Manchester Mule Collective explain how their project shows a way to start to plug the gap in local news reporting

December 5, 2011
7 min read

Why Manchester needs Mule

Let’s be honest, the Manchester Evening News is dreadful. Its journalists are weighed down under the pressure of producing god knows how many articles per day. What they write is largely without analysis, barely backed up with fact and shies away from anything that challenges those who hold power.

Manchester is one of the poorest places in the UK, with the worst child poverty and the lowest life expectancy in England and Wales, but the economic roots of this never get mentioned. The only time economically marginalised communities turn up in the paper is when a ‘benefit cheat’ goes to court. If it’s not crime or benefit cheats, it’s television awards ceremonies and who’s shagging whom.

The reason for this is simple. The MEN doesn’t have much money, advertiser revenue is drying up and the easiest way of getting stories is to just reprint press releases almost verbatim. This all contributes to practically no accountability or engagement at the local political level because absolutely nobody knows what’s going on. So we want to let people know what is happening, through decent investigative journalism.

Manchester Mule aims to report the under-reported in the city while challenging local elites and maintaining high editorial standards, and has been supplying the rainy city with its fix of independent news for several years now.

A brief history of Manchester Mule

On returning to the Basement social centre in Manchester after the Gleneagles G8 summit in 2005, the atmosphere among our activist group was somewhat flat. Not because we had failed to ‘shut it down’ but because we had failed to convey our message. We had been drowned out by the likes of Bono and our opportunity to engage with people had been lost.

One thing was striking: alongside the cops on the street, the mainstream media had fought a running battle against us. In hindsight it was naïve to think that they ever would have engaged with our ideas but the sheer scale of denial over what we considered to be the root causes of third world debt – capitalism and neo-colonialism – was simply staggering.

The second problem was our own media outlets. We analysed Indymedia and other left news sources and found rant after rant, pages of badly designed and edited block text, much dogma and few facts. The answer seemed obvious: a well researched, written and designed newspaper that would add a level of professionalism, integrity and analysis missing from the media as a whole, not just the mainstream.

Where are we now?

Mule is constantly in flux. At the moment we have three options on the table – a subscription magazine, a free monthly magazine or a stand-alone news website. September will see us engage in a research exercise to see which option can best serve our audience and keep the project alive. Like all media outlets at the moment, we’re grappling with the problem of how to sustain ourselves financially when the internet has got readers accustomed to getting everything for free.

For us two things are key. First, we’ve found that running the organisation on a volunteer-only basis means we can’t accomplish as much as we need to, and so providing wages for key people is now one of our top priorities. By bringing in revenue through advertising, an online shop, grant fundraising and individual donations, we can keep on doing what no one else does in Manchester: send people to council meetings, sift through committee minutes, scrutinise annual reports – all the things that don’t yield immediate results but add a depth and richness to our coverage so often lacking elsewhere.

Second, we have got this far by sticking to basic principles. By being non-sectarian and independent of any groups or campaigns we’ve avoided the problem of other left media projects – few readers apart from small groups of activists. That outreach keeps us useful for the left as a whole and effectively we are returning to an old form of left journalism not seen since the radical papers of the past: well-researched articles about things people care about, such as schools, cuts, racism, local councils and housing, not just counter-culture stuff that’s only read by people already interested.

The collective

Mule operates as a collective of volunteers who edit and manage the website, write a large amount of the content and commission other writers. We take bringing through new writers seriously and work hard with them to improve their skills. We meet weekly to discuss content and operational issues. Basically we’re the editors, writers, sub-editors, owners and managers of the project – it’s all very non-alienated.

It sounds like a lot of work but because it’s done collectively it’s not as arduous as it could be, though it has to be said this approach is not without difficulties. Lengthy political discussions can take place and some articles take days to write amid hundreds of exchanged emails. But thanks to this the end result is all the stronger.

The best examples of our work

Challenging the police

At the height of the student protests last year the police released a false account of an incident in which they were involved. Through our reporting they were forced to change their story and admit that they had used a horse charge against a peaceful protest.

Mapping the centres of local power

It was clear from Mule’s start that few people who live in Manchester are aware of the power networks that dominate the city. Our mapping of various powerful local institutions, companies and people shed some light on the intertwined political and economic elite that run our town, usually for their own gain.

Exposing the Manchester College

Our coverage of staff and students of the Manchester College fighting back against sackings and slashed courses played to our strengths. It’s a massive organisation, one of the largest colleges in Europe. Yet despite accusations of, for example, bullying of staff and questions over funding, it receives only sporadic negative coverage in the national press because the stakes aren’t enough to interest them – and none whatsoever in the local media, because they’re unwilling or unable to hold it to account.

www.manchestermule.com

From Mule to co-editor of New Internationalist, by Hazel Healey

After a spate of one-off spoof papers like Hate Mail and Manchester Evening Newt, I decided to make the jump into full-time journalism. The editorial team was horizontal from the start, with all the challenges which come with that – fights to the death over coverlines in Tim’s girlfriend’s back yard. Our early editions suffered from heroic but amateur layout and a hazy sense of what we wanted from the paper.

It quickly became clear that unless we were saying something new and our material was unique in some way, we may as well not bother. But slowly a group was coming together with the right skills, vision and, importantly, determination to make the paper work.

I ended up moving to Madrid but kept working on Mule through Skype. Sweating it out in public internet shops with greasy keyboards justifying edits was heavy going, but I soldiered stubbornly on until a baby gave me the ultimate get-out clause. By then we were playing to our strengths as a local paper, breaking small-time investigative stories, and I’d bowed out on the international focus.

After working freelance for the mainstream media in Spain I came back for a co-editor’s job at New Internationalist magazine. It’s a co-op and so I find myself arguing over cover lines once more but in a stable 30-year-old organisation – oh, and with a salary too. I got my international focus back, but the lessons I learnt from Mule – ways to keep content fresh, value young, sharp writers with political nous and making sure readers learn something unique from your paper – are ones I draw on every day.

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