The power of local news

How do you make a £200m fortune from newspapers and radio? Sir Ray Tindle reveals his secrets to Raymond Snoddy
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The Independent Online

Its owner, Sir Ray Tindle, is very proud of it. "Circulation, revenue and profits are all rising, so why should I change it?" he says.

Sir Ray has built a local newspaper empire (with commercial radio on the side) that could be worth close to £200m, mainly by buying and launching local papers that are generally too small to attract the attention of the large newspaper groups. He has profited greatly by largely ignoring the conventional wisdom of the time.

From his offices in an old courthouse in Farnham, Surrey, Sir Ray runs a business that encompasses everything from the Abergavenny Chronicle and the Alton Diary to the Yeovil Independent & Clarion and the Ystradgynlais Express. He also owns the Sunday Independent in Plymouth, a paper founded in 1808. In all, there are 200 titles plus radio interests in the Channel Islands, Wales, Ireland and the east of England.

The weekly papers all have one absolute principle; they must be full of local names, faces and places. "If you go to Aberystwyth, you won't find news from anywhere else," says Sir Ray, 79 in October.

"I am going with the wisdom as it was when I first came into the business. Local papers were strictly local, and almost every one was privately owned."

Tindle Newspapers recently announced its best-ever results: pre-tax profit of more than £8m, a rise of 25 per cent, on turnover of £32m. Total circulation per issue, including weeklies, fortnightlies and monthlies, was 1.26 million. Not bad, Sir Ray says, for a business founded with the £300 gratuity when he left the Army after the war.

We're talking in an office full of newspaper and Second World War memorabilia. Sir Ray was an intelligence officer in the Devonshire Regiment, and displays the regimental silver he bought when the regiment was disbanded.

He says he's proud of all his newspapers, but of one in particular: the Tenby Observer, which began publishing in 1853. He was reading his morning paper one day when he spotted a item saying the Tenby Observer had closed. He was on the phone by 9.30am, held on to the remaining staff, stopped the removal of the press and handed over a cheque for £5,000 to cover debts. "The paper received a Prince of Wales award last year," Sir Ray says.

When a small weekly or group of weeklies comes up for sale, Sir Ray believes he is usually at the head of the queue. So the group is still expanding, although he refuses to borrow: "If I can't pay out of cash flow, I don't buy it," he says.

Sir Ray is talking to another owner about acquiring a further six titles, but the price is £4m more than he can comfortably fund. He's waiting to see the accounts, but has no argument with the price. "In my case, reserves are rising and maybe the two [numbers] will meet, but at the moment the answer is no."

The chairman and editor-in-chief of Tindle Newspapers was first attracted to the media after running a newssheet on a troopship on the way to the Far East in 1944. After failing to land a reporter's job on national papers after the war, he took a job as a "dogsbody" on the Croydon Times. On the advice of the owner, he qualified as a chartered company secretary and spent six years working in the commercial side of newspapers; circulation, accounts and advertising. He then launched "a sort of Time Out thing in Brighton", which failed.

"I came to the realisation that if you start with an existing title, however poor, you have a foot in the camp," Sir Ray says. He bought the Tooting and Balham News for £250, parlayed the title into ownership of a larger group, London County Newspapers, and with titles such as the Fulham Chronicle, Chelsea News and Pimlico News, Sir Ray was up and running.

The head-office staff really only amounts to three people: Sir Ray, his assistant Wendy Craig, whose responsibilities include the radio interests; and the group managing director Brian Doel, who runs a very devolved newspaper operation. Sir Ray's son Owen runs his own conference centre, but has been involved in the Tindle business for 20 years and is ready to take over.

Until then, Sir Ray will continue to buy more local newspapers when he can. His instructions to editors don't go further than warning them to avoid religious or political bias - with one recent exception. Sir Ray, the old soldier, issued a "request" before hostilities in Iraq that there should be no anti-war stories. "When British troops come under fire," he wrote, "I ask you to ensure that nothing appears in the columns of your newspapers which attacks the decision to conduct the war in which those men are now involved, nor... anything which attacks the troops themselves."

There were complaints from unions and freedom of information groups, but what Sir Ray says goes at Tindle Newspapers. He owns every share, and has no intention of selling or floating on the stock market. "I wasn't in this to go public. I was into it because I loved newspapers."