One participant described it as advertising’s equivalent of the Northern Ireland decommissioning talks. After more than a year of discussions – amid public declarations of good intentions and private accusations of bad faith – the parties have, until recently, seemed no nearer to a solution.
The dispute is that between the Newspaper Publishers Association and the Periodical Publishers Association over the future of the National Readership Survey.
The NPA says it wants better analysis of its own increasingly multisectional titles and, so as not to exhaust the survey respondents, a corresponding reduction in the number of magazines surveyed. Fifteen years ago, the introduction of the “extended media list” increased the number of NRS titles from 90 to 200. It is now up to 300.
Conversely, the PPA wants more magazines added to the list so that new titles and publishing categories can establish a trading currency. It says 90 per cent of magazines are not covered by the NRS, including whole markets such as the computer sector.
The fear is that the disagreement may lead to two separate surveys within (or outside) the NRS, adding considerably to the cost of the research while diminishing its value.
After the latest NRS board meeting, however, some participants claim to have detected a glimmer of light at the end of the tunnel. Others fear it is the headlights of an oncoming train.
Proposals have been made to set up test surveys to help find new solutions. The problem is that some of the projects will be costly and they may not provide a clear enough result to lead to an agreed outcome. Those charged with steering the NRS talks between the rocks and the hard place are two former media directors: NRS chairman Ray Morgan, and its chief executive Roger Pratt.
The first test, suggested by the NPA, is to find out what would happen if the list were extended further. However, it would be an expensive experiment, and would require several big samples so that each option could be tested against the others. And this would be in addition to the current NRS survey.
Pratt says: “The likely cost [of the test] would be in six figures, and we need to determine whether that would be a sensible use of NRS resources.” Other issues also need investigating.
One concerns “replicated” and “parallel” readership and “telescoping”, where people give slightly wrong answers in the survey. At present, respondents are asked whether they have read a particular publication during its most relevant period – a daily on the previous day, a weekly in the previous week, and so on. If they have read a previous edition, or two editions, of a title in that period, or if their memory is faulty and they read it outside the correct period, it can affect the figures. Some of the NRS’ constituents want to know how much that can distort the picture.
Another issue is “audience accumulation”, the way a readership of a weekly or monthly title can build up over several days. For advertisers running a limited period price promotion, or anxious to measure an ad’s effectiveness, it can be important to know how many readers see a title on the first day of sale, and how many catch up with it later.
The growing number of newspaper sections also needs investigating. Supplements account for 90 per cent of the ad spend in newspapers. Not so long ago, the NRS measured nine newspaper colour magazines, on top of the papers themselves. Now it records 21 supplements of various sorts, yet there are actually more than 150 newspaper sections each week. Should others be measured?
Then there is the question of whether it is possible to extend the list of titles without overburdening respondents. For example, the sample could be split so that each respondent is questioned about only 200 titles but 400 are researched altogether.
Or perhaps the method of questioning could be changed. At present, 40,000 people a year are questioned face-to-face, in their own homes, by a researcher. It takes about 35 minutes to complete the survey. The NPA must therefore consider whether a self-completion questionnaire would be more effective, or whether it would change the nature of the results. Could new technology – in the form of computer-assisted research – speed up the process?
All these issues are now under consideration in an effort to break the impasse. In the meantime, the current NRS contract with Ipsos-RSL has been extended again until the end of next year. The NPA and the PPA have agreed to discuss the proposals together, to see if a solution can be agreed. Both say publicly they want a single source survey, rather than separate research systems – although both seem to want a solution that favours their own branch of the press medium.
Perhaps the answer is for the press to take a leaf out of radio’s book. The new Rajar audience measurement system was introduced only after the BBC and commercial radio agreed that change was in both their interests, even if the new system turned out to favour one side over the other.
The new, more accurate Rajar confirms there are more listeners than was previously thought, benefiting radio in relation to other media. Perhaps the NPA and the PPA should bury their sectional differences for the greater good of the press medium as a whole.
Torin Douglas is media correspondent for BBC News