There is a view among people who have never met Sir Ray Tindle that he is a dinosaur, a dyed in the wool technophobe who is the last person on the planet to recognise that dead tree media has had its day. When you spend a brief amount of time the man you will quickly realise this is not the case. He certainly has a great deal of passion for local news which, when combined with the fact that much of what he says goes completely against received opinion, could lead you to believe that his love of his industry is blinding him to its realities. However, the other thing that should quickly become apparent is that he is an extremely astute businessman with a knowledge of the local news business that is second to none.
Despite my respect and admiration for the man I did raise an eyebrow at the recent decision to launch a series of hyperlocal newspapers in the South London area. To me the huge relative success of his group compared to that of the other big local media players has been down to an approach which I didn’t think could work in the capital. The editorial staff on his best papers always seem to be deeply embedded in their communities. They may not be well paid but the Tindle employees I know will argue that the have a good quality of life. They are doing a job they love, they share Sir Ray’s philosophy and they live in areas where the cost of living is not that high.
Tindle Group is not immune from the revenue pressure that local print media has been under but he has not compounded a poor industry position with botched attempts to move into digital. People presume Sir Ray’s refusal to get involved in new media was down to him being of an older generation and stuck in his ways. In retrospect it was a stroke of genius. He has recognised the obvious fact that if you give away your content for nothing then that sets it value. His belief that print will be around in 50 years time is ridiculed but more and more he is starting to look like a prophet – literally and figuratively!
My view was that the Tindle model wouldn’t work in London. The cost of living is too high and quality staff have plenty of options and would get lucrative offers elsewhere if they showed any inkling of talent. The turnover of staff in the London local press is extremely high even given the inept way that it has been managed and all the closures. The decline of the local print press has been much more severe in London than the rest of the country and it is the one place where digital hyperlocal seems to be consistently producing a better product than the big media incumbents who are more and more putting out zombie papers that simply existed to justify take local authority money for statutory notices. The widely held view is that it was just a matter of time before most local news in London was provided by the new digital sector.
My theory on the thinking behind the move into hyperlocal is that Sir Ray believes the cost of doing business in the capital has now fallen to the extent that he can deliver a quality product. Good journalists at London local newspapers in previous years have been snapped up by national titles or the Evening Standard as well as a host of other specialist publishers. The other big employer was the public sector who aggressively hired lots of people from the London press on generous salaries to staff their ‘Town Hall Pravdas.’
Right now none of these alternative employers are hiring plus the amount of freelance work available has contracted dramatically. Sir Ray knows at this point that he can get talented people quite cheaply and hang on to them. London is an expensive place to live in and even senior staffers will not be on packages that would be described as making them comfortably off but there are probably enough people out there who love the industry enough to accept that if they want to work in local news this is as good as it gets.
It is too early to judge how well these papers are doing and the particular challenges of doing business in London are not confined to editorial staff – distribution for instance is, and will remain, a nightmare. My hope is that the project proves a success and that these papers are the first of many. London digital hyperlocal is miles ahead of the rest of the country and it is the only place where independents have really gained the kind of audience that is needed to make them sustainable but their success remains patchy and there is a huge swathe of the capital that would benefit from Sir Ray’s brand of local media.