Bafflement over London freesheet NRS figures

LondonLiteAssociated Newspapers has won the latest round of bragging rights in London’s afternoon freesheet battle, after coming out on top in the first National Readership Survey (NRS) last week.

The survey, on the face of it, makes bleak reading for News International as it claims fewer people are reading its free title, thelondonpaper, than Associated’s rival London Lite. This is despite thelondonpaper having a significantly larger distribution across the capital – 495,899 compared to Lite’s 406,899, according to the latest Audit Bureau of Circulations (ABC) figures.

The NRS data reveals London Lite had an average daily readership of 745,000 between January and June this year, compared to 713,000 for thelondonpaper. Crucially, London Lite also recorded a higher percentage of ABC1 readers – 576,000 (77%) against 526,000 (74%) for thelondonpaper.

Valid data?
While both appear to be achieving their targets of reaching young, upscale audiences, it is no surprise to find Associated alone is championing the importance of the NRS. It says the news is a “great result”, adding that the NRS is “the most accurate data available to date” and that “this information further demonstrates that we are producing the better paper”.

News International, on the other hand, says “concerns remain over the validity of the data”. Those concerns – which delayed the release of the figures – centre on the NRS sample size, which it believes is too low to provide a satisfactory indication of the number and profile of the paper’s readers. The NRS spoke to 231 readers of thelondonpaper against 250 readers of the London Lite – figures that are well above the minimum level of 175 for an NRS sample.

Waiting for the patterns
However, Ian Clark, general manager of thelondonpaper, is counting on the next batch of NRS data to tell a different story. He says: “Over 12 months, the survey sample will potentially double, and I would be more confident that we have more readers than London Lite.” 

Clark is also keen to point out that the NRS is not an absolute figure, but an estimate, and that thelondonpaper’s readership could be 112,000 higher than the 713,000 figure. This may be true, but it could also be 112,000 lower – and the same variations apply to London Lite.

The concern for News International is that buyers and planners will use the data to redirect advertising spend away from thelondonpaper – a scenario which, Clark argues, is unlikely.

While media buyers use NRS to make decisions, some believe that in the case of freesheets, there is merit in waiting for more NRS data to detect a trend across the market. Rob Lynam, press director at Mediaedge:cia, says: “You may question the share you are giving to either title, as the data indicates you are reaching more through London Lite”. But he feels there is a valid argument for waiting for the next set of figures to see if a pattern emerges.

However, the results have led to confusion among some in the media industry. One media buyer says: “I can’t see how a paper with a lower distribution will have a higher readership. The more copies out there, the more readers the paper should have.” Some believe Associated stole a march on its competitor when it switched its distribution to an extended evening slot, while others hint that respondents to the questionnaire suffered from brand confusion. Some claim London Lite is simply a superior product.

While the NRS data has left some unanswered questions, there is little doubt that it has also left News International much to ponder, given the similarity in distribution between the two papers.

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