It was a phone call any local newspaper boss would dread. It came from a representative of Farnham’s estate agents, who informed Tindle Newspapers‘ chief executive Brian Doel they were giving a month’s notice before pulling all their advertising from the Farnham Herald and going with a new glossy give-away product.
This was war. Farnham is where Tindle Newspapers has its headquarters, in The Old Court House; some of those estate agents had advertised in the Herald for 100 years, comments Tindle newspapers chairman and owner Sir Ray Tindle indignantly.
‘Let me tell you how we planned our counter attack,’Sir Ray says with a combative glint in his eye. Flanked by Doel and co-director Wendy Craig, his two trusted lieutenants, he describes how the estate agents were all invited to breakfast at head office and shown a new Tindle-produced, glossy property guide that could be delivered alongside the Herald. Most publishers would probably have done the same. But how many would have also threatened to launch their own chain of estate agents in retaliation?
That is just what Tindle did. ‘We had three empty shops in the town, put up signs saying Herald Homes and whitewashed the windows so no-one could see what was going on inside,’Sir Ray says.
The estate agents swiftly caved in and went with the Herald’s new property guide. But you still feel Sir Ray would have relished the battle of taking on the agents at their own game.
‘We still believe we could have won. Imagine the estate agents pulling out, us opening shops and saying to readers: ‘We’ll sell your house for one per cent (undercutting the agents’ fee)’. Don’t you think we might well have won that battle?”
It is a sign of the steel behind the rise of Sir Ray, who began his newspaper group with £300 demob money given to soldiers at the end of the Second World War and was knighted in 1994 for his services to the newspaper industry. He started with a weekly paper in Tooting, south London, with a circulation of 700. Through launches and acquisitions the group now has 225 titles, with a weekly circulation of more than 1.4 million, and entered the Newspaper Society top 10 list of regional publishers last year.
This followed Tindle Newspapers pulling off its biggest buy by paying Trinity Mirror £18.75m for 27 weekly newspapers, including the South London Press, Yellow Advertiser series, Streatham Post, Mitcham Post, Bexley Mercury, Barnet Press, Enfield Advertiser and Enfield Gazette, last August.
Despite the size of that deal, Sir Ray and his directors say it is very much in keeping with the group’s ethos of concentrating on local and community weekly newspapers. ‘The South London Press may be the biggest paid-for weekly in London but it is still a community newspaper that serves its local community,’Doel says. ‘It is the same if you look at the Yellow Advertiser series. They are made up of 11 very local papers.”
But why did Trinity sell them? According to Doel: ‘They (Trinity) are national and regional newspaper-based and they see the mass market as their future, while we see the very local market as actually going up.
‘The profits of Tindle Newspapers over the past 10 years have doubled every five years. You are talking about £2.5m in 1998, up to £5m in 2003, and this year, with the London papers, we are now running at the rate of more than £10m profit.’Turnover is now around £50m and Tindle margins have averaged a healthy 25 to 30 per cent.
Sir Ray illustrates his ultra-local philosophy by recounting his rescue of the Tenby Observer in 1978 after reading in the Daily Telegraph that the paper, which had been renamed the West Wales Observer in an attempt to reach a wider market, had ceased publication.
After buying the paper from the liquidator, he revived the old name and told staff to throw out any story that was not from Tenby. ‘The West Wales Observer covered everything from Carmarthen to Haverford West, and it had failed. I told the staff I only wanted news of Tenby and I wanted to go back to the old title.’Sir Ray says the Tenby paper made well over £100,000 last year and sales have more than doubled to over 7,000 since he saved it.
‘I wonder how many weekly papers widened their scope and lost out. It is rather obvious isn’t it? If you’ve got every line from Tenby you are going to be much more of interest to the people of Tenby and more are going to read it.”
There was another reason Sir Ray wanted to save the Tenby paper. He knew that in 1908 the paper’s editor had led a campaign which resulted in the passing of the Admission of the Press to Meetings Act. Today the Tenby Observer carries the proud slogan ‘pioneer of press freedom’under its masthead.
Sir Ray’s regard for newspaper history was reflected in his comments when Tindle Newspapers bought the London papers from Trinity last year. He was quoted as saying: ‘I am delighted with the purchase of newspapers dating back to 1833, 1859, 1865 and 1976.”
It was rather like a lover of fine wine celebrating buying some famous vintages. Not for him the corporate-speak of ‘creating synergies’across the group or ‘adding shareholder value”, as some takeover deals are celebrated in press releases. But then, as a private company, Tindle is not beholden to the City or shareholders.
‘It makes a huge difference,’Doel says. ‘When we get into times of recession the big groups that have shareholders have to look to dividends and profits. If the revenues aren’t there they have to cut costs, which changes the nature of their newspapers. Whereas Sir Ray, as the only shareholder of the company, is able to say he has seen it before and knows we will come out of it.’
Sir Ray says he has lived through six recessions, including the current one. Doel adds: ‘I am sure we could have saved money across the group by having centralised subbing, editorial or whatever, but we’ve kept each title very local with local editors and subs and reporters as much as possible. They know most about the community they serve.”
Pessimistic pundits who claim that newsprint is dead, and the lack of City enthusiasm for shares in regional newspaper groups, cuts no ice with Sir Ray. ‘We don’t go along with the doom and gloom,’he says. ‘There is nothing yet in our figures, profit or circulation, which supports this unfortunate feeling that the press is in trouble. The dailies may have trouble with circulation, but they will recover.”
Doel, however, believes many more regional dailies will follow the example of the Bath Chronicle by going weekly or bi-weekly in the face of sliding circulation.
What concerns Sir Ray is that the City ‘lumps together’weekly and daily regional newspapers. ‘The City never separates weeklies from dailies. If they did they would find the weeklies are doing much better.”
He points to a report in Press Gazette (28 February) showing average sales of weeklies down 1.6 per cent compared to a 5.3 per cent drop for regional dailies. Of the circulation of the Tindle titles Doel says: ‘We have a very local management which knows what the local area wants. We don’t try to centralise and, as a result, circulations have in most cases stayed exactly the same within a few copies and in some cases have gone up.”
Sir Ray likes to buck fashionable trends. As an example he brandishes the Launceston & Cornish & Devon Post, glorying in its grey broadsheet front page devoted only to small ads, apart from one picture teaser – ‘Biker Muriel marks her 100th’– nestling among the farm machinery sales. ‘The finest paper in the country,’he declares. It sells for 65p and circulation is rising.
When we sit down for our interview, Sir Ray has a quick word with Doel about a picture he was unhappy with in one of his titles the previous week. ‘Who buys a newspaper to see a picture of onions?’he asks rhetorically. Sir Ray believes the old mantra that ‘names, faces and places’sell local weekly newspapers and they provide news you cannot get anywhere else.
He has fulsome praise for Brian Doel and Wendy Craig, who have helped plan and oversee the expansion of Tindle Newspapers, which has been rapid in the past five years. They both speak of the robustness of weekly advertising.
Craig says that estate agents have found they need to build their profile in local weeklies to attract local vendors. Doel also reveals that property websites acquired with the London papers will be rolled out across the group.
The Tindle model may seem a nostalgic view of the local press through sepia-tinted glasses, a kind of Morris Minor world that existed before the internet. Yet you cannot help wondering how Tindle Newspapers has survived for 40 years when a modern media company like Emap has turned to dust and been sold off to give ‘shareholder value”.
Perhaps a clue may be that the Tindle family crest, which is carried by all his newspapers, has the motto ‘Noli Cedere,’which translates as ‘Never surrender”. It is an attitude that has led Sir Ray to go from being a ‘general dogsbody’on the Croydon Times in the post-war years to building up a company valued at more than £200m in the Sunday Times Rich List.
Sir Ray was diagnosed with cancer in 1995 and had his larynx removed. But even now at 81 he is not surrendering to the lure of retirement. Despite suffering a second serious illness which required a spell in hospital and several months off work, he intends to be back at his desk in ‘full harness’next week.
Disloyal estate agents or Tindle editors thinking of running pictures of onions, rather than people or places, be warned.