Tindle Newspapers: Hyperlocal successes may not pay the mortgage

UPDATED: This is a really old post (from 2010 in fact). I accidentally republished it today while going through the back end of my blog to find posts on local news reporting,  to research something for a conference. Quite how I managed to plagerise myself I don’t know. So, if this sounds like I’m repeating myself, I really am. Sorry.

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 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 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? How many of them would not only remember that trainee’s name, but ask them how they were getting to grips with the patch they covered?

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, and off I skipped.

But wherever I worked around England and Wales, the Tenby Observer remained a part of my life, because I received it every week in the post. It’s always been a link with home; the Observer was a part of my family life; every birth, death and marriage, every swimming gala photo and rugby trophy, cricket league, long service award and more was recorded in there.

Tindle had a terrible reputation among journalists when I worked for the group, because of the lack of training and the low pay; 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.
Sometimes reporters left regional papers I worked on to work for a Tindle title around London, and there was 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, having to cover the annual London to Brighton classic car run because he was a competitor, and in 2003 Tindle papers were also stopped from reporting news that might damage the War Effort, so to speak.

But I do admire Tindle group. Nevertheless, unless it has changed the terms it offered its workforce I won’t get too carried away about it being 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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About Alison Gow

I'm a journalist, particularly interested in story-telling, networks and digital innovation.
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