Media: All About ... The National Readership Survey

The new chairman must restore its battered reputation.

Simon Marquis, the new chairman of the National Readership Survey, says his first priority will be to take soundings from all sides of the industry - advertisers and media agencies as well as media owners. But he is under no illusions about the size of the task facing him.

Recent years have seen a decline in the standing of this joint industry research initiative. The NRS used to be the gold standard underpinning the medium's trading currency, the primary yardstick for the industry, with the Audit Bureau of Circulations figures as a cross-check.

Now, commonly, it's the other way round.

This perhaps shows how far the NRS has fallen from grace - because the circulation figures are also now widely seen as unreliable, given that magazines and newspapers are, for a whole host of reasons, not disclosing the true levels of their bulk sales.

It is in the publishers' interest to see credibility restored at the NRS - but, agencies say, the great irony here is that it is the publishers who have held back its evolution. They are petrified of real change, some commentators say - they have always been determined to stick with the devil they know.

Therefore they now find themselves with a survey that spreads itself too thinly, telling not very much about an awful lot of publications.

Its very definition of "readership" is fundamentally flawed, according to many users - if you glance at a magazine for two minutes in a dentist's waiting room, you qualify as a reader. For many media planners these days, that's a laughable basis for a gold standard.

So, game on. But is Marquis the right man for the job? Having worked for Haymarket, he knows a thing or two about publishing (and is still a Campaign columnist, obviously), he holds a clutch of non-executive directorships in the industry and is scaling back his chairmanship role at ZenithOptimedia to concentrate on the NRS.

He's urbane, well-connected and, according to those who have worked with him, a good man to have on your committee if you're after a consensus.

Does he relish the challenge? Of course. "The NRS may be slightly creaky but it's still alive and kicking and the truth is that it's still an awesome business," he insists.

"What it does is of a higher quality and more innovative than people give it credit for. We have to ensure the NRS is doing what its stakeholders want it to."

1. The NRS was formed almost 50 years ago and its main stakeholders are the media owners. The Newspaper Publishers Association and the Periodical Publishers Association each own 44 per cent, with the remaining 12 per cent underwritten by the IPA. Until 1992, the survey was administered by the Joint Industry Committee for National Readership Surveys.

2. NRS Limited, which succeeded JICNARS in 1992, is run by its managing director, Roger Pratt, who has a full-time staff of three. Pratt also sits on the board of directors, which will now be chaired by Marquis. There are 16 seats on the board, with representatives from the IPA, newspapers, magazines and ISBA.

3. The cost of operations last year was £4 million. Ninety per cent of funds are raised pro rata from stakeholders, but 10 per cent of income comes from the sale of data to organisations that are not members of those bodies.

4. The current NRS research contract was awarded to Ipsos-RSL in January 2002. It will run for at least four years.

5. Data is collected from individuals aged 15 and above in more than 3,000 face-to-face interviews a month - or more than 35,000 a year. Interviews take place in respondents' homes and take around 30 minutes.

6. As well as newspapers, the NRS covers more than 250 magazines, and respondents are prompted for every single one of these titles. The average respondent claims to have read only four of these titles recently enough to be counted as an average issue reader. The NRS is looking at ways to restructure the interviews to focus on a media list that will be more relevant to each respondent.

7. Hard-copy reports are published twice a year and there is a third volume outlining the duplication of readership between publications. However, most serious users subscribe to the survey's electronic database, which is updated quarterly.



- The feelings towards the NRS of the media owners who are its main stakeholders, are, at this stage, highly ambivalent.

- They will be focusing their efforts on persuading Marquis that change must happen at a glacial pace and do little or nothing to disturb the current status quo. They can be expected to argue vociferously about the importance of continuity.


- Agencies agree that the NRS needs to change, but many say it ain't broke, essentially, and just needs a tweak here and there.

- A more radical contingent argues that we need to rip it up and start again. One of their main contentions is that the definition of a reader is flimsy and unreliable.

- The definition of sections within publications continues to be a bugbear and critics say the NRS tries to cover too many lifestyle add-ons that are better done by TGI.

- Some factions say that the NRS should adopt a new blueprint based on a pioneering study called QRS undertaken by the PPA four years ago.

- The IPA must achieve consensus if it is to lobby for change of the NRS under Marquis.


- Although individual marketing directors and media controllers can hold trenchant and forceful views on the adequacy or otherwise of trading currencies, they rarely voice those concerns in a forceful manner at a joint industry level.