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Small ads, big business but not for the local paper

Rory Cellan-Jones | 12:25 UK time, Wednesday, 13 April 2011

"Wanted - new source of income for ailing industry. Anything reasonable considered." For decades, classified ads similar to that were the lifeblood of local newspapers - or the "rivers of gold" as the veteran newspaper man Roy Greenslade described it to me.

Local newspaper board

Now, though, the rivers have dried up as the ads have moved online. That means the entire business model for regional newspapers is under threat  - and this week I've been getting different perspectives on whether it's time to write the obituary of the classified ad, and with it the future of local journalism.

A visit to Gumtree, the ads website owned by eBay, provided ammunition for the view that the end is nigh. Sam Taylor from Gumtree stressed the sheer quantity of ads - nearly three million on a site which now counts among Britain's most visited e-tailers, with more traffic than the likes of

"The benefit you've got is the volume," he explained. "So the more people place ads, the more people you've got looking for them. And that means you've got more choice at a local level."

Of course, the other point is that many if not most of the ads placed on the site are free - and that makes it almost impossible for a local newspaper to compete.

But I've also met a man with an inspiring story to tell about how regional newspapers can hold on to classified ads and compete in the digital age. Sir Ray Tindle, now 84, founded his newspaper group with the money he was given on being demobbed at the end of the war.

From a small office in Farnham in Surrey, he now presides over a business which has more than 200 titles across the UK, some of which have been in existence since the 19th Century.

He pointed with pride at the papers lining the wall of his office and in particular the Cornish and Devon Post which still carries advertising on the front page. "If the editors let me, I'd always have advertising on the front," he told me.

Sir Ray concedes that the business has suffered a bit during the downturn, with recruitment advertising in particular well down, and some decline in the rest of the classified ad revenues.

Sir Ray Tindle

But he says the Tindle Group remains profitable, and he laughed off the idea that the internet was killing off small ads: "We've still got most of what we had," he says. "The internet is a marvellous thing but when you get to the level of the local papers, everyone looks at it, because it's local - you're not going to go far to buy a bicycle."

Hyper-local news is all the rage on the internet now - but Sir Ray can claim that it's been his idea all along. He pointed to another paper on the wall, the Tenby Observer, and told me that when he had bought it many years ago, it was in trouble because it was not local enough. A previous proprietor had changed its name to the West Wales Observer.

"I told them every line had to be about Tenby, and they chucked out all the stuff from Pembroke and Haverfordwest," says Sir Ray. The result, he says, was that circulation soon tripled.

And when I popped round the corner to the high street offices of the Farnham Gazette, where shoppers drop in to place a classified ad, I found what appeared to be a thriving hyper-local newspaper. The chief reporter was busy on a couple of stories - about Farnham of course, not Leatherhead or Guildford and sub-editors were checking copy from local reporters.

While advertising has taken a big hit, it seems this paper and the rest across Sir Ray's chain are still making money and providing local communities with proper journalism. The Tindle Group even has a digital operation with a paywall. If you are a Farnham resident who has moved away, or you are Tenby-born but live in London, you can pay to download a digital edition of your local paper.

So there you have it - a newspaper group with a defiant message: there is still a place in the digital age for local adverts and local news. The trouble is that, nationally, the numbers tell a different story. The likes of Gumtree keep growing, while the revenue for local papers from classified advertising dries up.

When I suggested that the internet had made local papers irrelevant and obsolete, Sir Ray Tindle told me in the politest possible way that I was talking rubbish and offered me a bet - that local newspapers would still be around two hundred years from now.

I hope he's right, but I think they will need to find a replacement for classified ads and they haven't got 200 years.


  • Comment number 1.

    If he makes it to 284 years old that will be national news, not just local!

    Anyway. I love picking up the local Chronical when I visit my in-laws, fantastic to find out about what the local scout group are doing or that post office cat has died.

    The problem is generational though. My In-laws are happily retired in their 60s and subscribed years ago. Their child don't have time to read a full paper and are too interested in International events to subscribe to a local paper.

    Our local Evening Post recently tried canvasing the streets at heavily reduced prices. When I ask the seller if there was a digital version he said no and that he'd not had much success because everyone was getting their news on TV or through the web.

    Local papers, like local Radio which the BBC plans to serverly cut, are relevant but they are a luxury for those people who want to show to their neighbours that someone has just graduated or reached a significant Birthday / Anniversay / Wedding / Death.

    For that I just use Facebook.

  • Comment number 2.

    Interesting piece; I would go and seek the web point of view from, say, Richard Jones at which now enjoys 17,000 monthly uniques.

    Not bad for a single suburb of Oldham.

    No doubt Ray and the owners of the Oldham Even Chron would dispute the suggestion that anyone can offer that as a sales/circulation figure, but to my mind its an engagement level either would be proud of.

    The next question, of course, is how Richard seeks to commercialise that platform in regard to the local 'classified' ad market if Google AdSense doesn't make sense to the local publisher who is seeking a 'Postcard in the window of the local PO' type solution to his ad needs.

    As might a VentnorBlog or a BlogPreston or a LichfieldBlog.

    The answer, to my mind, will require a completely new landscape to be built from the bottom up, not the top down. And anyone with a top-down tool set - be it a print press, a TV transmitter or mile after mile of copper wire faces a challenging future in a world turned upside down.

  • Comment number 3.

    There is good reason to fear the Internet. It is fast and flexible and responds very quickly to news and growing opinion.

    That said the local press has the edge over the likes of Gumtree and eBay. For when you place an advert on these web sites you can get seen by many people if they can find you. But the norm is to be buried under a hail of other ads. So you are present but often not seen which is OK if its free! This is were the local press has the edge, adverts don't get lost, ads are always on top. Advertisers are seduced away by their lack of knowledge of this new media in to the arms of websites that care only for the numbers.

    Is there a technology white knight ? Can it offer a panacea for the printed words ills in the form of a crossover of support from the Internet ?

    There are now sites such as SeeItOnTheNet that allow newspaper readers to use the printed classified ads as a sort of category index to track down local classified items of interest. And then follow up that interest to the Internet where they can find a more in depth advert with pictures and email facilities with little more than the ads phone number . They even offer classified to auction tools were you run ads as online auctions, instead of the old fashioned "ono" (or nearest offer). These new types of site aim to support newspapers not disembowel them as the number crunchers would choose.

    Newspapers should concentrate on what people want, local news and ads and not chase after the number. They should bring back the values local people want from a local press with just the right sprinkle of new technology.

    This crossover support may all come to nothing and print media may find other ways to form a partnership with the web. But just as I can't see Amazons Kindle supplanting the book, I can't in honesty see the Internet killing the local newspaper either.

  • Comment number 4.

    I notice that, the day after this blogpost was published, journalists at Tindle titles in north London announced they were going on strike in protest at what they claim is the declining quality of their own papers. Oh dear.

    This would appear to cast some doubt on the line in the article that the papers are still "providing local communities with proper journalism." Perhaps it's an isolated case, and no doubt management will have a different view, but I just thought it was worth flagging up in this thread.

    (BTW - I'm the same Richard Jones that writes Saddleworth News, as mentioned in comment 2 above, which is how I found this article in the first place!)



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