Media Forum: Are the NRS reforms worrying?

Do the proposals contain any major concerns for the industry, Alasdair Reid asks.

When Simon Marquis was appointed the chairman of the National Readership Survey in January, with a brief to restore its fortunes, few in the press market felt themselves moved to wild transports of grateful ecstasy.

Not because they felt any apathy as regards Marquis himself but perhaps because they have learned to be rather sceptical about (and bored with) the NRS subject as a whole. The survey has been perceived as so flawed by some planners and buyers that they have been finding ways around it - for instance, a publication's audited circulation figures have assumed increasing importance as a trading currency.

The NRS is a Grade I-listed stately home that has, arguably, fallen into chronic disrepair. The roof leaks, the plumbing makes a fearful racket when it is working at all and the whole west wing is without electricity following a botched rewiring job. And yet, you suspect, many publishers would shudder if you so much as hinted at pulling the whole thing down and starting again in a more brutal modern idiom.

So what could a mere mortal such as Marquis hope to achieve? Well, last week the first sketch of his plans began to filter out - and they are astonishingly futuristic, notably in his proposal to begin recruiting an online panel to supersede (eventually) the survey's traditional face-to-face interviews.

Is this a carbuncle on the face of a much-loved friend? Or something slightly less than rocket science? And what should the industry make of proposals to split the survey in two, with half of the respondents answering questions on magazines and the other half on newspapers?

Stuart Taylor, the commercial director of Guardian Newspapers Limited, says there is now an industry-wide acceptance that the NRS needs radical updating - and he argues that it's still a more important planning tool than one might think.

He states: "We can't avoid the issue of sample size. It's harder and harder to get respondents, especially in London. Meanwhile, broadband access continues to rise so I've no worries that the whole population can't be represented on an online survey."

Steve Goodman, the group press director at MediaCom, is far less sanguine about this aspect of the proposals. It will be far from easy to reach older and more downmarket demographic groups via the internet, he argues.

"I can see why there may be enthusiasm for this. The positive side to using the internet is that it will be a lot cheaper, so as a result the sample size can be increased or you can ask more questions. Also the immediacy of it can improve. If there is, for example, a format change on a newspaper, we can get an immediate impression of the impact on circulation. But we don't want to miss out on certain demographics. It will be interesting to see the broad industry response to this."

And Alison Brolls, the global marketing and media manager of Nokia, agrees about the dangers. She says: "If they go down the online route, what about those respondents who do not have ready access to the internet? What about those at the extreme, polarised end of the social spectrum? Surely, they have to think about how they will make the sample base truly representative of the UK population."

However, she can see the other side of the coin. "Then again, there are plenty of upsides from going web-based. It'll make for speedier, more efficient return and gathering of data. Respondents could be re-contacted at any time. Changes and modifications can be easily and quickly implemented," she says.

David Fletcher, the head of MediaLab at Mediaedge:cia, agrees. He says that the industry has to keep looking forward: "In general, we are going to find ourselves as an industry doing more and more research online.

It's a fantastically efficient methodology from a respondent's point of view - you can choose when you want to do it and it doesn't interrupt your day.

"People have become less forgiving about researchers knocking on their doors and random-digit (telephone) dialling raises all sorts of problematic issues. As for splitting the survey, the maths needed to fuse data sets has improved in recent years so I don't think that's a problem. Previous changes to the NRS were no more than tweaks. This amounts to a lot more than a tweak. They needed to grasp the nettle and I think they have."

NO - Stuart Taylor, commercial director, Guardian Newspapers Limited

"The survey has been patched and mended for some time now. It needs something more substantial now and I think everyone should be encouraged by what has been proposed. This is just the start of the process and people will have concerns but I am confident this is a step in the right direction."

YES - Steve Goodman, group press director, MediaCom

"I'm not wildly keen on splitting the survey in two. We want to understand a person's overall media behaviour. But my main concern is that if we shift to an internet sample that will affect the quality of the people were researching. We will miss out on (demographic) extremes."

MAYBE - Alison Brolls, global marketing and media manager, Nokia

"If they go down the internet route then the danger is that we could end up with a bank of respondents that is only representative of Middle England. But if they can tackle the representation issue, then as far as this element of the new NRS is concerned, this would certainly be a genuine step forward."

NO - David Fletcher, head of MediaLab, Mediaedge:cia

"As for splitting the survey, it may allow for a longer media list and a more robust sample. It's less of a purist approach obviously but if it means we have better data on individual titles then we will happily accept we have to do more in the way of (complicated) maths."

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