Tindle Newspapers: Hyperlocal successes may not pay the mortgage

Sir Ray Tindle was speaking at the Local Heroes conference last week and, from Twitter, I detected a lot of love in the air for  what he was saying, but it was only when going through my rss reader  today that I got the full gist of what he was saying.
His take on the future of newspapers is fairly optimistic; he doesn’t  believe the gloom, and he has some basis for making that bold claim:  Tindle Newspapers – which totals 230 titles – has weathered the  recession with its journalistic workforce intact.
But the line from his talk that really caught my eye was when he cited the Tenby Observer as an example of hyperlocal publishing. That was my first paper, and unless things are very different now, I would say the adulation should be a little tempered.

TenbyImage by Steve Oliver Imagery via Flickr

Throughout my life whenever the question “Where are you from?” comes up my reply of “Tenby” generally prompts a response along the lines of “Ooh! We used to go there on holiday when I was a kid”. It’s one of those postscard places – golden beaches, pretty town – that exists for tourism but which has a thriving year-round community.

When I was little it was a big old broadsheet printed out of a ricketty operation in The Parade, Tenby, and was my mum’s employer for at least two decades. It was edited by Arthur Ormand  MBE (always Mister Ormand to me, with the MBE was silently tacked on the end) and every single journalist in the UK owes the Observer a  debt of gratitude, because without it, you might not be sat in your  local council meeting.
The masthead carries the legend Pioneer of Press  Freedom, and that’s because it was responsible for the 1908 Admission of  the Press to Meetings Act being pushed through Parliament.

If I was off school sick, or during holidays, I used to end up sat  with Mum in the Observer offices, childcare being a fairly ad hoc  thing in the 1970s, and the Law of Sod meant I ran into Ray Tindle and  his sidekick, Tom McGowran, more frequently than either probably  would liked but they were both unfailingly tolerant.
A careers councillor asked what I wanted to do when I was aged 17, noticed  my A grade for A level English and – in desperation I think – suggested  journalism. I started work at the Tenby Observer about a month later,  and I suspect editor Neil Dickinson is still wondering how the  hell that happened.

I was the most junior or juniors, on glorified work experience really, and given the task of covering Whitland, about 17 miles away, Welsh-speaking, and aggressively covered  by the Western Telegraph and Carmarthen Journal. I had a camera (I  had to develop my own photos), car mileage, two magistrates  courts, two councils, numerous agricultural shows and summer carnivals to cover, for the princely sum of £30 a week – upgraded to £40 after two  months – and for about 13 months I had the most through induction to  local newspaper life (and hyperlocal news) I could have wished for.
I wrote up weddings and funerals, sat in show tents painstakingly  writing up the results for ‘best heifer  not yet showing broad teeth’, I got lost, made horrific mistakes (I  once married the bride to the vicar) and called in every single favour  that my family had accrued in generations of living in Tenby and  Narberth. I also lived off my parents – there was no way I could have afforded to do anything else.

I used to see Sir Ray, as he was by then, and Tom too, and both of   them would always ask how I was getting on. He won’t remember this, but  I once got Tom to help me jemmy a stuck film out of my camera; how  many  CEOs in the newspaper business would do that for a trainee, I  wonder?
And then, just when I was getting to be of some use to the Observer, the  Western Telegraph came in with a job offer that included putting me through the NCE (the Observer didn’t offer formal training), and off I skipped.

But the Tenby Observer remains a part of my life, because I’ve always received it every week in the post. It’s  a link with home; every birth, death and marriage, every swimming gala photo and rugby trophy, cricket league, long service award   and more was recorded in there.
However, nostalgia aside, Tindle has traditionally had a terrible reputation among news reporters, because of the lack of training and the low pay; when I moved to work for dailies I learned that it was utterly notorious for its poor remuneration and shunned by a good number of bright young things.
Obviously this may have all changed in 20 years but I couldn’t help wondering what the situation was now when I saw all the positivity and praise for the group after Sir Ray’s talk last week.

In the past, colleagues have occasionally moved to work for one of the London-based Tindle papers, and there has always been a common theme – “The pay’s shit but I can live at home and it’s only til I get on a national”.
Believe me, the pay was rank. And there was also the odd editorial meddling – like Sir Ray’s papers, regardless of location, covering (purely in the spirit of support, of course!) the annual London to Brighton classic car run which he happened to be competing in, and in 2003 Tindle papers were also stopped from reporting news that might damage the War Effort, so to speak.

I do admire Tindle group, but unless it has changed the terms it  offered its workforce I’m not going to consider it a complete model for other groups to emulate. Cherish the hyperlocal approach it  does so well, by all means, but don’t think Tindle is Utopia.

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