Small ads, big business but not for the local paper
"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.
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 JohnLewis.com.
"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.
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.