A ray of sunshine: the man making money from local papers

The founder of Tindle Newspapers tells Matthew Bell how his empire defies the nay-sayers

To get off the train at Farnham and enter the world of Sir Ray Tindle, the 84-year-old owner of 230 local newspaper titles, is to step back in time.

In this parallel universe, there are plenty of jobs for journalists, the ad department phones are always ringing, and, best of all, the public are buying newspapers.

An interview with Sir Ray begins with a tour of the Surrey town's old police station, now the home of Tindle Newspapers, and a peek at his collection of veteran cars out the back, before settling down either side of a giant partners' desk to talk business, a bottle of whisky and cut glass tumblers visible in a cabinet behind him. An attack of throat cancer 14 years ago left him with no voicebox, and he has to cover a hole in his throat to speak through a special valve. Nevertheless an hour passes discussing the 15 newspapers he has launched since the downturn, and the £3.5m profit he has made every year since 2008, which enables him to continue sponsoring next weekend's London to Brighton veteran car run, in which he will take part. Then it's off for a three-course lunch in the boardroom, served by uniformed staff. What is going on?

If you read the pontifications of Roy Greenslade, professor of journalism at City University, and professor of doom at Media Guardian, local newspapers are dead. The internet's the thing, the print model doesn't work, and you might as well call it a day. So how does Sir Ray keep proving Prof Roy so wrong?

The secret to his success, as national papers seek to reach global audiences via the internet, and other local newspapers expand their beats, has been that every Tindle newspaper – most are weekly – has focussed on the minutiae of a single town. It's called going hyper-local, and, says Sir Ray, is best illustrated with the story of the Tenby Observer.

One morning over breakfast in the 1970s he read that it was about to go under. He telephoned the receivers who said the last edition had been published and staff were clearing their desks. That afternoon Sir Ray was asking them if they wanted another go. They would have to get the paper out in just two days, as against the usual seven, because to miss one issue would, he believed, make a recovery impossible.

They got the paper out – with one major change. The previous owner had renamed it the West Wales Observer and lumped several other towns in with Tenby. Sir Ray's instructions were that every line of every story must relate only to Tenby. "A cat must not have kittens in Tenby unless it's covered in the Observer," he said. Circulation rose from 2,700 to 7,000 in a few years. But within months it was breaking even.

Sir Ray has never borrowed money for his business nor made a journalist redundant. He employs 817 staff across England and Wales, mostly in the South and South-west. Among his titles are some of the oldest in the UK, including the Cornwall Independent (1808) and the Greenwich Mercury (1833), though if you glance down the list of Tindle titles, it's striking how many were launched in the past decade: the Brecon Advertiser & Diary (2003), Oxted County Border News (2004), the Edmonton Herald (2010).

Sir Ray is not immune or oblivious to the internet and the problem of an ageing readership which have devastated circulation figures on other papers. He is full of praise for the internet, showing me his Apple laptop, perched on its own mahogany table. His newspapers are individually managed, and their web policy varies, but the basic principle is that readers will always want a print and an online version. "When your small daughter wins a prize at school, she is in the local paper with all the status in the community that holds. Will the internet replace the local weekly paper? No – the two will live side by side."

Sir Ray's story is heart-warming to print journalists. His love of print began in the war, when he sailed to the Far East to join his regiment, the Devonshire, and made his first newspaper on board: "You couldn't get more local than that." After a "good war", he came out determined to be a journalist. "I wrote to every Fleet Street editor but I never made it." Instead, he used £250 of his £300 army pay to buy the Tooting Gazette. From there, his empire grew, enough to make him a millionaire and the owner of hundreds of newspapers and several veteran cars, his other passion. Astonishingly, he was never granted membership of the National Union of Journalists, which has always rankled. Clearly, Sir Ray has done all right without them. More worrying is where we would be without him.