After the battering the regional press has taken over the past couple of years, maybe it wasn’t surprising that the rallying cry against its critics was issued from what felt like a lead-lined bunker.
A presentation room devoid of natural daylight and which mobile phone signals were not strong enough to penetrate was the venue for Press Gazette’s Local Heroes conference yesterday. The keynote speaker was Sir Ray Tindle, the newspaper owner whose life in the industry is the stuff of legend.
It began by using his £300 demob money from fighting in the Second World War to buy a newspaper in Tooting which was about to be closed after readership numbers fell to just 700. After turning that newspaper around, he sold to ‘one of the bigger publishers’ and got another three newspapers in exchange. Taking his staff with him to his new titles, the rest, as they say, is history.
Sir Ray’s empire now spans the south coast and parts of Wales and is made up of some 220 titles and, now in his 80s, he’s proud to say that he’s actually launched newspapers during the most recent recession, and has never borrowed money to buy new papers. So if anyone was going to stand up and launch a defence of local newspapers, then it was going to be Sir Ray.
The main thrust of his 30-minute speech was that local newspapers – and by local, he was mainly talking about weeklies – had survived so much over the years that they would indeed prosper again. He points to the fact the profits made by newspaper companies in the last year look bad when you compare them with the pre-boom years (defining what the preboom years were is a matter of conjecture, I guess).
He pointed to the fact that his titles were already seeing recovery, and while his analogy that housebuilders and carmakers had also suffered but would recover may not stand up to the closest of scrutiny as a like-for-like comparable, there’s no doubt he has point.
He said that daily newspapers would flourish again, and that it was essential that they did, for the country. Perhaps comments from Anita Syvret, the former editor of the Gloucestershire Echo, came closest to suggesting how this might happen when she said that: “Journalists need to learn that free doesn’t mean crap,” during a session later in the afternoon.
On the internet, Sir Ray said he felt the two would live side by side, as far as weeklies were concerned. He suggested that the ‘big boys’ were more advanced in his area than his firm, but he believes the internet won’t kill print. He also believes hyperlocals and weekly newspapers can work side-by-side, a sentiment which had earlier been expressed by James Hatts of the SE1 hyperlocal blog. Will Perrin, of TalkaboutLocal, had also encourage the regional press to ‘try new things’ in terms of partnerships and joint working.
Of course, Sir Ray was speaking to an audience which wanted to hear good news, which wanted to be told everything will be ok. But it’s very hard to argue against a man with as much experience and knowledge of the subject as Sir Ray. The fact he launched three ‘hyperlocal’ papers in London to cover the losses another title was making in the area proves he still knows where the money is.
But perhaps the message which resonated the most was that the doomsayers who predict the demise of print are wrong – and that that is the message which the industry needs to start shouting about that. The irony being that the media, by its nature, is particularly good at giving itself a good kicking.
Look at the way the BBC likes nothing than talking about itself, often appearing to be in a race with its rivals to deliver a critical analysis of itself. In the areas of the media, it’s sometimes felt as though there’s been a dash to dance on the grave of the regional press by elements of the national press. Media Guardian has seemed, at times, to particularly revel in this.
Some of the harshest critics, the biggest doom mongerers are those whose careers have benefitted massively from being involved in print in the first place. Twitter, during the middle of 2008, wasn’t always a nice place to be for someone who was connected to the print industry. Not because the problems of print were being discussed, but because of the glee some vocal commentators seemed to derive from delivering a new dispatch to followers about the troubles befalling newspapers. That appears to have died away somewhat since.
And that’s why Sir Ray’s speech was so refreshing. His numbers – that just 60 papers have closed in recent years, against some 1,100 weeklies which remain – can’t be argued with. The Newspaper Society supplemented that stat by pointing out that many of the papers which closed were second, third or fourth in their marketplace. That doesn’t make up for the hundreds of people who have left the print industry through redundancy – although the NUJ magazine pointed to the fact that many of those people now say they are happier than they were before – but it does put things into perspective somewhat.
I’m sure many will seek to find holes in Sir Ray’s speech, and it would be wrong to suggest those in that bunker-like room left feeling as though all the problems were over. But if Sir Ray’s speech reminds people that the game is far from up for newspapers, prompts them to remember that they still do an awful lot of good in the communities they serve, and brings a little more balance to the discussion about the future of print, then it’ll be right up there his other many achievements.