MEDIA SPOTLIGHT ON: READERSHIP RESEARCH - New survey causes tremors in corridors of NRS sponsors. Newspaper owners’ grip on research has been shaken by QRS, Alasdair Reid says

It has been a strange couple of weeks in the normally sedate backwaters of media research. First, there was the launch of QRS, a quality of reading study undertaken without the support or knowledge of the newspaper publishers.

It has been a strange couple of weeks in the normally sedate

backwaters of media research. First, there was the launch of QRS, a

quality of reading study undertaken without the support or knowledge of

the newspaper publishers.



Last week there followed rumours that the release of QRS had fomented a

crisis at the industry’s gold standard research body, the NRS. Sales

reps from some papers were going around bad-mouthing the NRS in

aggressive terms and it was said that one big publisher was about to

withdraw its support for the survey.



QRS, which was funded by the Periodical Publishers Association, the

Incorporated Society of British Advertisers and the Institute of

Practitioners in Advertising, looks at something the newspaper industry

has managed to suppress for years - readership levels across individual

news-paper supplements.



It was developed in great secrecy and kept under wraps until its launch

a couple of weeks ago. The rest of the industry believed the newspaper

publishers would have tried to kill the initiative had they got wind of

it early enough. As it is, they will probably still try to hole it below

the waterline - as they did with a similar initiative, called MPX, in

the 80s.



Their biggest worry is not QRS itself, but the knock-on effects of its

release - the newspaper owners fear they will be bounced into adopting

changes to the NRS sooner than they would have liked. Since May 1997,

the NRS survey has been split in two, with half the respondents being

given the standard questionnaire and half being given a test

questionnaire which asks more detailed questions about individual

newspaper sections.



The test data has never been released.



The problem is that readership figures derived from the new

questionnaire are broadly lower - and for some titles markedly so - than

those from the old. Two media research veterans have been appointed to

try to find out why.



Cynics on the buying side expect them to conclude that the methodology

of the questionnaire is so flawed it is impossible to release the

results.



The trouble is that, given recent events, the NRS will look pretty silly

if it continues to stall. Last week, News International and Associated

Newspapers questioned the integrity of the new NRS figures. More

worrying, there were rumours that Associated was preparing to pull out

of NRS.



Not guilty, Mike Ironside, the ad director of the Daily Mail,

insists.



’We have expressed concern about the levels of reporting coming out of

the NRS and there have been some reservations about the readers per copy

figure. But the NRS test results will come out. And we are also pleased

to note that Weekend (the Mail’s Saturday review section) does very well

on QRS.’



The good news last week was that potential tensions between the

newspaper and magazine sectors had been diffused. Many buyers were

quoted as saying the QRS data wouldn’t affect the way press advertising

was traded.



But all of that will be academic if the NRS, the cornerstone of the

whole system, is damaged. And there are those in the industry who say

the newspaper publishers are in a dangerously unstable mood. As one

senior media research director puts it: ’They have been running the NRS

the way they wanted for years - and with an arrogance you wouldn’t

believe. Now they have been thoroughly and deservedly outmanoeuvred. In

some ways it’s nice to see them squirm. But I find it unacceptable that

they are casting doubt not just on QRS but also on the NRS. The NRS has

flaws but it is one of the best pieces of media research in the world.

It deserves better.’



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