Sir Ray Tindle: Full text of his barn-storming speech to the Press Gazette Local Heroes conference

On 14 May Sir Ray Tindle made a barn-storming speech extolling the virtues and strengths of the British regional press.

Since then several readers have been in touch to ask if we can publish the full text, so here it is:

Sir Ray Tindle

Keynote speech – Kingston University Local Heroes conference, 14 May, 2009

Since Dominic kindly invited me to speak today to counter the doom-mongers I have given much thought to this moment – facing one of the toughest audiences in town – the Press.

And we need to be tough. Just listen to these headlines and comments all made since this recession started:-

(1) ‘Lifeblood drains from local Press.”

(2) ‘Britain’s local presses rolling towards oblivion”

(3) ‘Papers around Britain following US titles to the grave”

(4) ‘Local newspapers collapse”

(5) ‘50% of the Press will be dead within five years

This last statement was made by a research company to MP’s early on in the recession. Dominic asked me to talk about this damaging and dangerous rhetoric and, though I’m a bag of nerves facing this audience, I’ll certainly do as I’ve been asked and prove that they are wrong. In fact, the local weekly Press is rock solid, with revenue rising again and looking forward to another 200 years of serving their readers. But first, a few facts in order to authenticate my attempt to destroy these attacks on us.

TOTALLY INDEPENDENT

I apologise for talking briefly about myself and I make no claim to know any more than anyone else here but I have been in the Press the whole of my life since leaving the Army at the end of WW11. Tindle Newspapers is not a public company. It is a small private one that I started in the Sixties. It has about 150 local weeklies within its total of 230 titles. It has no debts, no bank loans, no overdraft, no investors, no shareholders – apart from me that is. Having no debts and only one shareholder makes us truly independent and you might say it also makes us truly democratic – if you take the one man one vote definition literally!

We don’t run our titles directly from a head office though we have a group MD. Each is run locally by local management and a magnificent staff. We find this is possible in most cases and so far we have come through this recession, which has seen 5000 newspapermen made redundant, without losing a single title and without making a single journalist redundant and yet remaining completely viable throughout as a group.

Before you ask please allow me to add that I did not inherit any newspaper titles nor any money to buy them with. What I did have was the gratuity which all soldiers received at the end of World War II. In my case it was the sum of £300 including back pay as I was in the Far East. We have never borrowed money.

Back in Civvy Street in 1947 after the War I joined a local weekly newspaper as a dogsbody while I learned the trade and looked for an opportunity to own my own paper. It took a long while but it came in the Sixties.

The old-established Tooting Gazette was closing, having lost almost all its advertising and all but 700 of its readers to a big public company group running a competitor. I paid £250 for the Gazette’s title.

A LONG FIGHT

Then followed a long fight between the opposition which covered a wide area and my paper which concentrated on very local news. A hyper-local example perhaps? It ended when the big group made me two handsome cash offers which I declined and, finally, they offered me three papers in fact, for my Tooting paper. I accepted, provided I could take my small but superb staff with me.

That’s how it all started. I bought and launched more small papers over those early years. One in particular has a similarity with one aspect of the current situation. It was the West Wales Observer, which had been launched in l853 as the Tenby Observer. Studying for exams in the late 40’s and 50’s I had learned that the Tenby Observer was the paper which had campaigned for and caused the Admission of the Press to Meetings Act of l908 to be passed. It had since fallen on hard times or perhaps had been mismanaged.

Over breakfast one morning in the Seventies I read in the Daily Telegraph of its death. The Receiver was named so I rang him at half past nine.

‘Could I still buy it?’I asked.

‘Yes’was the reply ‘but it has published its last issue and the staff that are left are clearing up.’ They said that they as Receivers had advertised it extensively but there had been no takers.

I reached Tenby in the afternoon. The editor and remaining staff gathered around.

‘Do you want to have another go?’I asked. ‘Its Tuesday afternoon so it would mean getting the paper out in just over two days instead of the usual seven in order that it doesn’t miss an issue which would make our recovery almost impossible.

The only major change I need at this point is that you immediately go back to your beginning, and concentrate entirely on Tenby and Narberth. A cat must not have kittens in Tenby unless it’s covered in the Observer, but forget the rest of West Wales. I know you have no paper and no printing plates and the telephones have been cut off. I’ll deal with all that but can you get the paper out in two days?”

WE’LL DO IT

‘We’ll do it’they said. And they did. They produced a magnificent Tenby paper bang on time. Here is the actual issue. I was so proud of them. Those journalists and the rest of the depleted staff must have worked for 48 hours non-stop. They had localised the paper as I had asked – literally. Here is a quote from the front page ‘Theft of two clothes brushes from caravan!’ Could this be another early example of being hyper-local?

From 2,700 we reached 7,000 circulation in a few years with this very local approach. From a loss of some thousands of pounds a year we had it back to break-even in months. This 157-year old paper is now making a comfortable living and has done for well over 30 years since that collapse in the Seventies. I have copies here if you want them.

MERCHANTS OF DOOM

You have all read and heard these merchants of doom. It is common now to hear that the Press has had its day – paid-for newspapers are finished, and so on. But they are all wrong, the true picture is quite different. This morning’s excellent speakers have already demonstrated a different picture.

Of course there have been casualties. The Newspaper Society says 60 titles have closed. But let’s get that in perspective. That’s out of the Society’s own total of over 1200 titles, 1100 being weeklies.

Already, during the recession, we’ve had some launches to offset at least some of these few losses and we are hearing about some most interesting launches today at this Conference. So the true net percentage loss of titles is tiny and that’s over the worst two years of recession. With the tide turning now, most launches are yet to come when the recession ends.

Is this a collapse of local newspapers? No, it is not!

Will half the Press – over 600 newspapers – be dead in three more years? Of course not!

I’ve been hearing all that nonsense about the dire state we’re in for 63 years. I heard about the impending death of local weeklies in the Sixties when Lord Thomson launched all his local evenings and when Woodrow Wyatt brought out all his full colour offset papers. I heard all about our demise again when local commercial radio arrived in the Seventies and I certainly heard it very strongly when free newspapers swept the country in the Eighties. Each time we were on our way to the knacker’s yard!

Of course some papers have disappeared over my time of more than 60 years but local weeklies have been around for 200 years and 1100 of us emerged from all these onslaughts that I’ve mentioned stronger than ever in the Nineties. In the last few years we made profits higher than ever seen before until two years ago when the recession struck.

In a major recession some papers do better than others. Some do well, some lose. But all group results take a dip just as they do in every other industry.

But did that dip justify the doom and gloom for the future? No it did not and I’ll prove it. Of course, I can only speak specifically about the local weeklies, particularly those in my group. I can’t speak for the dailies. This country needs the daily newspapers. They’ve had a caning but so has the motor industry and housing construction and so on, and newspaper managers, both dailies and weeklies, are a tough and resilient bunch. The dailies will flourish once again. Local weeklies are certainly already regaining their strength.

THREE NEW WEEKLIES

More of this in a moment but first I have been asked to say a word about our launch this March of three new local papers.

The position was this. An old-established weekly with a circulation of about 100,000 began to lose money because of the recession and the paper’s London location. Its losses reached £192,000 in ten months or so – more than this in total over the whole of this two-year recession. It was no fault of the staff.

We were faced in February this year with the two normally accepted choices in such circumstances :-

(1) Closure or

(2) Mass redundancy

A THIRD WAY

I invited the three top executives (the publishing director, editor and ad. manager) to a meeting and said we must obviously eliminate this £200,000 loss but I told them there might be a third way of doing it.

Instead of making ten or twelve or more people redundant, why not use them and, indeed, the whole staff, to launch new papers to attract new sources of revenue to make up the £200,000?

I suggested there could be a layer of small retailers who couldn’t afford and did not need a paper with a circulation of 100,000. If we produced hyper-local papers for smaller areas within these circulations they would meet the needs of the small retailers at a price they could be happy with.

I showed them papers we had produced in the past alongside larger old-established publications. Without detriment to these larger papers the small very local ones had netted around £1,000 a week each because their overheads were mostly already being met by the existing papers. Four of these, I said, could bring in £4,000 a week – £200,000 a year – so four might just eliminate the losses and bring us back to break-even and thus avoid redundancy.

‘We’ll do it’the three executives said without hesitation. We called the whole staff together and I set out the situation and the plan. The executives followed and supported me. The entire staff at once said ‘We’ll do it”.

EQUALLED THE LOSSES

Four weeks from that day – by early March (two months ago) – they had done it. With a little help from two sister papers, South London Press and Yellow Advertiser, with the advertising blitz, which was obviously necessary in the first weeks, the extra revenue brought in for the second issue was enough to equal the losses for that week.

Of course, one swallow doesn’t make a summer, but morale is high, we are back in profit and I believe that company has been saved without closure or mass redundancy. The staff did it themselves. I am proud of everyone of them and in particular the three executives who organised this complex job.

Alison Cruise – publishing director

Gary O’Keefe – editor

Maria Pirani – ad manager

Please show yourselves. Well done Alison, Gary and Maria.

According to the Newspaper Society, the circulation of the 1100 local weeklies is over 21,000.000. I think that compares very well indeed with any other printed medium. Quietly be it said, it may even be slightly more than the number of internet installations throughout the UK though I can’t swear to that. Either way, collectively local weeklies must be one of the largest and most powerful mediums in the UK.

Sixty or 70 of my own local weekly newspapers are over 100 years old. Quite a few are over 150. One is over 200! They’ve been through at least half-a-dozen recessions including the great slump in the Twenties and Thirties, and they’ve been through the World Wars of the Kaiser and Hitler. One paper even survived Napoleon.

BY WHAT RIGHT, BY WHAT LOGIC, BY WHAT ARITHMETIC ARE WE WRITTEN OFF AT THE STROKE OF A PEN BY A RESEARCHER?

Let’s examine the facts as we see them.

CURRENT PROFITS

Let’s look at current profits. Surely, we have been taking a caning there? Of course we’re down like everyone else in a recession – almost all the businesses in the entire country suffer a dip in every recession and they go up in a boom – but let’s stop for a moment comparing our figures today with those of the very recent wonderful boom years we keep quoting. Let’s go back to more normal years before the boom.

Our profits for the two years of this dreadful recession are as near as dammit the same as those of the normal pre-boom times of a decade ago. We were happy then and we are not unhappy now with both sets of figures. And it’s a genuine comparison. The papers we’ve purchased or launched in the interim period were not included. They balance out anyway.

But if I still haven’t made my point let us indeed compare these recession results with the boom years even though that is a false comparison. With the help of my auditors, Grant Thornton, I can tell you that the recession year 2009/10 just ended at March 31 and the recession year before that 2008/9 – taken together had profits over half of the boom years of 2006/7 and 2007/8. So with recession results roughly equal to normal years before the boom and over half the boom profits, and with the recession now hopefully fading and revenue rising again, and Ernst and Young having just forecast strong growth next year – 2011.

I just don’t know why all the doom and gloom has been aimed so strongly at the local Press

GLOOM UNJUSTIFIED

It is absolutely unjustified. My audited figures prove it. We can’t stop some people making these unfounded assertions but at least we can stop running ourselves down. The local weekly Press of the UK – by far the major part of the Press in terms of numbers in this country – is standing firmly on it’s own two feet.

CIRCULATION

But what about circulations? Yes, it may be true that many but not all circulations have fallen somewhat. Is it possible that may be due as much to a lack of reading time today as to direct competition from the internet?

I really don’t know but for 10 years now we at Farnham have been keeping our own weekly circulation steady when it dipped by giving away on our periphery the same number by which our sales have fallen. There’s nothing whatever wrong with hybrid (that is, part-paid for and part-free) newspapers. Some 580 local weeklies are wholly free in this country. Much the same number is paid-for. We ourselves have 60 years experience of paid-fors, 30 years experience of completely free papers and long experience of hybrids without a substantial complaint. We have no fears for the future on this front.

INTERNET

Let us look at the internet. Should that worry us more than all the other problems we have faced? No, it should not. Yes it’s a wonderful thing. Its great. We all admire it and use it. During its many years it has changed much in this country and we are all involved with it. But will it replace the local weekly newspaper? No, Sir. It will not usurp the printed weekly paper. The two will live side-by-side.

PUBLIC WANT BOTH

The public will require both the internet and our local papers. My weeklies publish in every issue all or almost all the news of the town, in depth, with all the names and faces, news from the local councils, schools, churches, clubs, births, marriages, deaths, what’s on, local jobs, houses, cars, prams, bicycles, pages of local sport in detail and everything that’s for sale locally and so on.

When your small daughter wins a prize at school or a scholarship or is in the annual play – she’s in the local paper with all its status in the community and where her success is seen not just by a few people but by all the neighbours and simultaneously by 10,000 or 20,000 others and not just on an individual foolscap print-out, though there’s nothing whatever wrong with that, of course.

The internet is wonderful, but it certainly doesn’t replace a local weekly newspaper with its detail, its breadth, its photographic coverage. Just look at this double broadsheet spread in our issue of March 19th covering the Duke of Kent’s visit to a Farnham school. In what other weekly medium would you see anything similar for a local school event? Yes, it may have have had a paragraph in a daily, or the odd picture on the box and it may have been covered in a blog two or three days before my weekly came out and it may have done that very well but if that affected our sale at all it would have increased it not reduced it. The blog can have the same effect as a contents bill for a newspaper and the two can exist happily side-by-side.

OWN WEBSITES

Our strong commitment to printed newspapers does not mean that we are failing to embrace the internet ourselves. We have developed a website for every town our newspapers serve and the vast majority of our publications have their own website where we have the full newspapers on view using the latest page-turning technology. This has been carried out in the main by Brian Doel our group M.D. who understands these things. He and his colleagues have also developed a forum for each newspaper so that readers can add their own comments, blogs or tweets. We are making a little money from the internet – but only a tiny fraction of what we receive from our printed newspapers which remain our principal concern following our traditional concentration on strictly local matters.

The big groups are ahead of us in this respect I’m sure but most weeklies have ventured some way along this internet path.

The internet is a competitor for our advertisements in the case of some printed newspapers, though less so for the local weeklies perhaps. Both the Press and internet can claim many advantages. Recent research at BrandScience found that for every £1 spent on newspaper ads retailers get a sales increase of £6.23 compared with between £2.23 and £3.57 in other media. Traditional media were more lucrative for a town’s retail advertisers than online and we’ve been part of the town for a very long time. There’s plenty of scope for competition and as the UK recovers from the downturn there’ll be room for both of us.

12 NEW PAPERS AND NO LOSSES

We ourselves have bought or launched 12 weekly titles since the start of the downturn (3 in Essex, 6 in the West Country and 3 in Enfield) and not lost one. As I have told you, this company has never borrowed money. We owe nothing to anyone, and have a healthy bank balance despite the recession. These doom mongers are wrong.

If we have a problem, it is with local authorities launching local newspapers which carry their public notices which have to appear in a newspaper but which, in their own papers, are not subject to scrutiny and criticism. These propaganda sheets are a real menace to local democracy as well as to part of our revenue which helps to keep local newspapers independent.

JAMES MORRISON’S BRILLIANT PAPER

As a previous speaker, James Morrison, Senior Lecturer in Journalism at this University, said in a brilliant paper given in Edinburgh recently ‘The combined effect of recent developments is to dilute the ability of Press and public (and, indeed, some elected councillors) to scrutinise the workings of local authorities in the way they once could, let alone hold them to account.

Thank you for that James Morrison, and for all you said this morning.

NO JOURNALIST MADE REDUNDANT

Thank you, Dominic Ponsford and Press Gazette, and Kingston University, for giving us this opportunity to hit back at those who, perhaps unwittingly, are doing the local Press active harm by so wrongly reporting our current position and so badly forecasting our future. My local newspaper company and many others are surviving this worst-ever recession with flying colours. Tindle Newspapers has never once wavered, never once hesitated when the going looked rough, and, as I’ve told you, has never lost a title nor made a journalist redundant during this downturn.

As we begin to recover as a nation, the local Press, which is read throughout every town and village in the UK, is already leading the upturn. We are known and trusted by all and our papers are targeted so that they reach exactly the potential customers the advertiser wants in the area in which he sells his wares or services. People don’t go miles to buy a hammer or an electric light bulb.

The recovery from this recession is already under way in the Press. It is being lead by the established printed newspapers together with exciting innovations and enthusiastic newcomers. So, three predictions:-

1. The entire local weekly Press will live not die.

2. It will expand not contract.

3. It will flourish not wither, and local weeklies will continue their 200 years of being among the country’s most trusted and effective media.

The United Kingdom has the finest Press in the world and we have the best journalists. Local newspapers and local journalists are proud to be a significant and major part of the British Press. And we’re here to stay.

Please let us tell that to the world from this conference.

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