Torin Douglas: Media planners ensure NRS fights a losing battle

Research on newspaper readership benefits media owners and planners alike, yet no one seems likely to take notice of the NRS’s findings, says Torin Douglas.

How many newspapers did you read this weekend? And how many of the sections, supplements, magazines or other bits did you devour, flip through, glance at or discard unread. Go on, be truthful.

Where was that profile of the Jurassic Park III star? You know, the blonde, Téa Leoni. Was that the cover of the Sunday Times Culture section, or the Telegraph Magazine on Saturday? Or did they have the film’s other star – the bloke – Alessandro Nivola? And where did Amanda Platell tell all about her video diary? Was that the Observer? I seem to remember something about it on the front page. But it didn’t say which bit it was in and I think I may have missed it. Or maybe it was in Friday’s G2?

What about Jean Shrimpton and her Cornish restaurant? Was that the Observer Food Monthly, or the Telegraph Weekend section, or any one of half a dozen travel sections?

And now for the really hard one.

Did you or your agency have an ad in any of those weekend newspapers? What makes you think anybody read it? I ask because the issue of how to measure newspaper readership has popped up again, as has an even more intriguing question: does anyone in the industry care?

They certainly used to. In the early days of Marketing Week, we could fill news pages for weeks on end with the rows over whether advertisers should be compensated when a colour supplement lost some of its distribution. These days, it seems you could lose a couple of supplements entirely for a week or two and neither the reader nor the advertiser would notice.

What’s more, advertisers and agencies don’t seem to care at the planning stage, when they’re deciding where to place ads. That, at least, is the accusation levelled by the Telegraph’s display ad director, Chris White-Smith.

He has every right to feel aggrieved. It was The Daily Telegraph that responded most promptly when media planners and buyers were crying out for the organisers of the National Readership Survey (NRS) to tackle the problems posed by reader fragmentation, and find out who was reading which supplements.

Two years ago – frustrated at the stalemate then gripping the NRS and the main industry bodies, representing newspaper and magazine publishers – the Telegraph published its own survey showing who read which sections of the Daily and Sunday Telegraph. It revealed that half the readers dipped into the sports pages, rising to 61 per cent on Mondays, when it published its sports section. Crucially, in the sales department’s eyes, that section reached 79 per cent of male Telegraph readers under the age of 45.

The industry applauded – as I recorded in this column at the time (MW August 5, 1999). But two years on, says White-Smith, media planners have still not begun to grasp the opportunity. “The data that was called for has been made available, but it is not being requested,” he says. “There is little or no evidence that it is being used to plan advertising spend to the best effect.”

This week the Telegraph has published the third phase of the “Sections Planner” research, conducted among more than 5,000 of its readers. It shows a marked level of consistency with the previous two surveys, but that is little comfort if no one is actually using it.

Is White-Smith right? And if so, what does this mean for the new, improved – and more expensive – NRS system that will come into operation in January? He continues: “If we assume planners don’t care, why are newspaper and magazine houses about to fork out hundreds of thousands of pounds to deliver a new NRS with all this extra information, if seemingly it will be ignored?”

Priscilla Rogan, press buying director at one of the biggest users of press, MPG, says planners do care: “I think the Telegraph is to be applauded, though I’m afraid we remain cynical about research produced by media owners. We tend to think they will only publish what looks good for them – we’d rather have joint industry research.

“I think White-Smith’s being a bit harsh. It’s about environment as much as numbers – more business people read The Sun, but that doesn’t mean we want our ads there. You want the right gravitas and environment, that’s why people want business ads in the main news and business sections. If the Telegraph wants to encourage advertisers to go into the sport section, it’s got to give a better incentive.”

But Roger Pratt, managing director of NRS, sympathises with the Telegraph and hopes the new NRS sections’ data will be better used. From January, it will be expanding its sections research beyond the current 30 standalone magazines and supplements. There’ll be new technology – a screen to prompt respondents about mastheads – and it’s conducting qualitative research to find out how readers consume newspaper sections (and what they call them) to make sure the questions are framed effectively.

“Many readers remember what they’ve read, but not where,” he says. “It’s not helped by the fact that some section titles are descriptive – Business, Sport and so on – and others aren’t.”

What’s not widely appreciated is that the NRS will stop publishing for more than six months next year, when the new system comes into operation. No figures will be published from January to June, while it builds up enough new data to make it statistically reliable.

Given the Telegraph’s experience, will anyone actually notice?

Torin Douglas is media correspondent for BBC News


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