Local newspaper group Tindle has hired its first group-wide digital editors to help recover revenue after the Covid-19 pandemic but has resisted becoming a “digital-first business” like many of its peers.
The family-owned group publishes more than 50 local newspaper titles in parts of Cornwall, Devon, Gloucestershire, Isle of Man, Somerset, Surrey and Wales and although it had a “challenging” pandemic, it began to think about what a robust recovery would look like very early on.
Tindle group publishing director Scott Wood told Press Gazette this involved using digital in a way it had never done before.
Wood said of the pandemic: “It was challenging without a doubt, but we very quickly as a senior team set our plan about okay, this is all about recovery. What does our business look like going forward?
“So we started to work very quickly on okay, when hopefully – as it is now – the world starts to open up a little bit more, we need to be well placed to be participants.”
The strategy going forward is to “recover in print and find, for us, new revenues online,” Wood said. “More digital revenues is part of that, but we strongly also believe there is print revenue that is still to return in our markets.”
This summer Tindle appointed Emily Woolfe, formerly a deputy group editor at Newsquest, as its first group digital editor. Jon Gripton, a former editor at BBC Spotlight in the South West, was named her deputy.
Their mission is to help “translate and grow” Tindle’s “successful print products and hyper-local ethos into equally successful digital brands,” according to Woolfe’s Linkedin.
They are working with Tindle’s newspaper editors to share best practice, help improve social media engagement, and ensure a “if it’s out, it’s up” approach to breaking news and stories from press releases, for example.
Wood told Press Gazette: “For us, print is still at the heart of what we do. This is not a digital-first business. But we understand that individuals consume their news in lots of different ways.”
He added: “We’ve come quite a way in a relatively short space of time recently in looking to improve that, and that remains our focus. We still want to just ensure that we provide the best solution in those local markets, whether it be print, online or social.”
Wood acknowledged “you can’t push against the tide” and that some stories have to go up as quickly as possible, but added, “our view is that a good print story can be generated from an initial online story” by delving more in-depth and building on the reader reaction online.
Wood added: “We certainly believe in the markets we serve there is still a future for print. What we strongly believe is that actually, there’s never been a greater thirst for local news.”
The pandemic showed “how important local was to everybody” and reinforced Tindle’s mission statement of remaining local, Wood said, adding that the publisher was “well placed” to report on the ways communities and businesses were supporting each other.
Tindle continued to publish all of its paid-for newspapers but suspended and closed several free titles as print advertising and circulation revenues were hit.
Its newspapers based in market towns such as Brecon, Tavistock, Kingsbridge and Abergavenny are all based on the high streets while the Mid-Devon Advertiser is due to soon move from the outskirts of Newton Abbott to the town centre. Wood said this was an example of Tindle’s “commitment to localness”.
Other publishers, including Newsquest and Archant, have recently made similar commitments to having staff back in the hearts of their communities. Although Reach has closed most of its offices, its North West audience and content director Alison Gow has spoken of the benefits of having reporters based flexibly in their communities instead of commuting to an office further away.
Wood said: “For us, it’s all about the community. It’s a great asset that we are on the high street – we’re really fortunate in that way that the [Tindle] family supported that and enabled us to have offices that are right in the part of the towns that we serve.
“For me, it’s very important that as the high street opens up, we’re there to be part of it. Having journalists in that office is really important so that a local resident can feel they can speak to an individual both from a commercial point of view or from a news point of view.”
Tindle has just hired its first five ever apprentices – from a pool of 200 applicants – in what it described as a “fresh focus on employing journalists in the heart of communities”. According to Wood, the publisher has been adding to its newsroom headcounts as the UK emerges from the pandemic.
Two of the apprentices, employed using the Government’s apprenticeship levy, are employed in Wales and are studying at Cardiff and Vale College while the other three are working for Tindle titles in Devon and Cornwall and studying at Darlington College. All were local to the communities they are now serving and Wood said they have already “had a really positive impact”.
Tindle used the Government job retention scheme to help cut costs during the pandemic, claiming somewhere between £100,015.08 and £380,000 from December 2020 to June 2021 (the amounts claimed are available only in banded ranges from December) across the group and its subsidiaries.
The company eased off using the scheme by early summer instead of continuing to furlough staff until furlough ended on 30 September. Wood said this was because the senior team felt it was “all about recovery and thinking forward”.
“Therefore we very much started to act and behave in the ways of having our own plans rather than relying on others to support us… We want our salespeople and our journalists to be part of that local environment and therefore we need to get people back into those environments as soon as we can because when the high streets start to open up, we need to be there.”