In the wake of the release of the Indian Readership Survey (IRS), battle-lines have sharpened in the Indian print media industry. Publications which witnessed a spike in readers have hailed the survey, even as those whose readership figures are reported to have dipped have refused to accept its legitimacy. The division threatens to leave the industry without a 'credible currency'.
The IRS findings have revealed substantial readership gains for the HT Media Group's publications. HT competes with several newspapers that have questioned the recent findings.
Soon after the IRS was released on January 28, 18 leading publishers claimed it was riddled with "shocking anomalies". They listed out six specific instances.
These included how The Hindu Business Line had more readers in Manipur than Chennai and how, while Mumbai had shown a growth in readership, Delhi had seen a dip. They asked Media Research Users Council (MRUC) and Readership Studies Council of India (RSCI), which drive the IRS, to withdraw the survey.
The new framework
A senior MRUC official said the recent survey was based on a new methodology. "Past surveys depended on the pen-and-paper method. Each interview took an hour-and-a-half, which left the interviewer and respondent fatigued. Intermediaries were known to distort the data."
This time, there were four changes. An MRUC technical committee member said, "One, we had a computerised system, with strong security measures."
The second change was asking a reader what media he/she had consumed in the past month, instead of asking about the past year.
The third change was the 'base'.
"The last 20 IRS rounds projected population based on the 2001 census. We used the 2011 census which showed that the population of many centres did not grow at the rate at which it had been projected."
And the fourth change was a more "representative sample size".
Sample and validation
MRUC uses the new method to explain the new data. "If you ask people if they have read a paper in the last year, more people will nod. Also, if your estimated population for a city is higher, your readers will be higher. This exercise is aimed at finding real, recent readers," said one official.
When asked how it was possible that The Hindu Business Line had more readers in Manipur than in its home city, Paritosh Joshi, chair of the MRUC technical committee, said, "As many as 235,000 households were interviewed to project the behavior of readers in the entire country. One detected reader in the sample translates into thousands. In Manipur, 770 were interviewed in the raw data. Even if one person said he read a particular paper, it would translate into 9,000 such readers."
To avoid precisely this, Joshi argued they had a caveat: don't use a sample size of less than 30.
There is a debate about 'outliers'. One research source said such "inexplicable data" should have been removed through a process of "validation".
"Not doing so eroded the credibility of the exercise." But Joshi rejected the contention, and argued, "The moment I claim the right to censor data, I lose the right to claim integrity over data."
While admitting there could have been better communication about the survey, another MRUC executive said, "This remains the most rigorous, technologically-advanced readership survey in the world."
At the core of the debate over technicalities are commercial calculations. Publishers feel advertisers will use the current data to ask for rate-cuts. But one technical committee member said there was "unnecessary panic".
"What matters more than absolute numbers is the relative order in the market." Joshi added this was a start, and it would be wise to wait for future surveys to establish a trend.
All eyes are now on the RSCI – which is the joint body of MRUC and Audit Bureau of Circulation – to come up with its decision on the survey at a meeting on February 19.