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The regional press faces a myriad of challenges...the saviour may well be Tindle

16 Nov 2011  |  Raymond Snoddy 
Raymond Snoddy

Raymond Snoddy: There is another walking, breathing, potential solution to at least some of the problems of the local publishing industry and he is called Sir Ray Tindle...

The headlines coming out of the Society of Editors annual conference at Runnymede this week were mainly about one obvious topic - not least because the main conference sessions coincided with the formal opening of the Leveson inquiry.

In a case of parallel universes, editors - or at least most of them - picked away at trying to devise an acceptable Press Complaints Commission Mark 2 while in the High Court QCs exposed the full extent of the cottage industry of phone-hacking and with it the prospect of rather tougher regulation to come.

Yet a simple anonymous survey of local and regional editors carried out for the conference deserves wider attention.

It amounts to a howl of pain from men and women who you can be absolutely certain have never even thought of hacking anyone's phone or of bribing a policeman.

A tale of more and more work heaped on fewer and fewer people with less and less resources and of corporate media organisations apparently failing to adapt to the undoubtedly challenging environment they face.

Before our eyes, if the editors who responded to the survey are to be believed, the traditional role of the local press is melting away as rapidly as icebergs in a warming climate.

Asked about the negative things that could happen to the regional press over the next five years and the replies included:

  • Commercialism at the expense of responsible and balanced reporting - there is a long gradual shift towards sensationalism and scandal-driven journalism at the expense of more nuanced and educational reportage
  • Continued consolidation and resulting job cuts/loss of local knowledge/loss of identity
  • Further rationalisation of editorial resources; over-investment in social media; failure to acknowledge that we can no longer sustain the profit margins of the past; giving up too quickly on print media
  • Any further reductions in the skeletal staffs which now eke out newspapers will kill the remaining quality that exists

And so it goes on and the individual bleak comments are backed up by the overall numbers produced by newspaper consultant Jim Chisholm's survey for the Society of Editors.

The survey found that since 2007 editorial staff numbers have fallen by 27 per cent. The decline in editorial management and editorial production is even worse at 37 per cent. In the same period traditional print output has fallen by 17 per cent while digital output has increased by 163 per cent.

What is the solution - if any can be found? Many suggested increasing investment in journalism, multi-media training and improving the quality of the writing.

Others said it was time to declare the end of the corporate era for local and regional papers and instead take them away from the Stock Market and bring on local entrepreneurs who might breathe new life into local publishing, albeit it at lower profit margins than has traditionally been the norm.

Other editors suggested it was time to stop giving away all their content for free on the internet. How about the first two paragraphs online and then if readers want more they can buy the paper.

Chisholm himself points out that local publishers only spend around 1 per cent of revenues marketing themselves. "The reason that circulation is going down is because nobody knows we exist any more," argues Chisholm.

Lack of marketing and promotion may not be the only reason for falling sales but Chisholm undoubtedly has a point.

There is another walking, breathing, potential solution to at least some of the problems of the local publishing industry and he is called Sir Ray Tindle.

Tindle Newspapers, famously started after the war with Sir Ray's £300 demob payment, has always seemed particular - one man's vision.

But if you keep winning as Sir Ray and his tiny head office staff have done by putting together 220 titles and annual revenues of £50 million, then maybe people should start to wonder whether there might not be something of more general application in Sir Ray's hyper-local approach.

Perhaps an MBA student should be dispatched to Tindle's modest headquarters in Farnham in Surrey to research the essence of Sir Ray's counter-intuitive business methods before the 84-year-old decides to retire.

The founder of Tindle Newspapers has simply refused to be browbeaten by all the gloomy talk, and where others are closing or retrenching, has spent much of this year launching new titles - the latest last week, the Chepstow Review. It appeared complete with unfashionable front page ads.

In recent months there has also been the launch of the Pembroke and Pembroke Dock News and the Chingford Times.

Since the credit crunch began to bite Tindle has launched, or bought, 11 new titles and more launches are on the way.

The formula is always the same - plenty of "names, faces and places".

Sir Ray has also been active in buying what he regards as the undervalued shares of Johnston Press. His stake of over 7 per cent valued at more than £2 million means Sir Ray is now the third largest stakeholder in the Edinburgh-based publishing group. He insists however he has no intention of make a full bid for Johnston.

In the immediate future all newspapers, whether it's Tindle's tiddlers or The Times, face pressing reputational problems following the phone hacking scandal.

Another survey this week, this one a YouGov survey for PBS, found that more than half the British public say the phone-hacking scandal has damaged their trust in the British press.

Fifty-eight per cent of adults said the scandal has had a negative effect on their perceptions of the press.

Things are obviously about to get very much worse as celebrities - the good and not so good - queue up to denounce the press day after day.

The case will have to be made again and again that this is not about all newspapers and even within the guilty titles it was never about all journalists.

At least it is a problem that should not trouble the Chepstow Review or the Chingford Times.

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