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TOI cannot digest readership survey findings

On Friday, ET, the business paper of the Times Group, published a story on the IRS findings. A careful study of figures reveals that ET has picked readership figures from one period, and circulation figures from another.

india Updated: Jun 14, 2014 09:36 IST
Prashant Jha

At a time when an internal industry mechanism — under the framework of the Readership Studies Council of India (RSCI) — is validating the results of the Indian Readership Survey 2013, a newspaper group has stirred up a controversy to derail attempts to carve out a common, acceptable ‘currency’ for the Indian print media.

On Friday, Economic Times, the business paper of the Times Group, published a story on the IRS findings, riddled with inaccuracies. RSCI, the joint body of the Media Research Users Council and Audit Bureau of Circulation, has called TOI’s attitude ‘unfortunate’. HT Media competes with Times.

The story alleged that while most other newspapers had seen a dip in readership, HT Media publications were the only ones that witnessed a spike. This is not only factually incorrect, but goes against what Times publications themselves claimed when the IRS figures were released earlier this year.

Exposing the inconsistency, a report on on Friday cited a Times of India front page story on January 29, which claimed their readership had ‘grown dramatically in Maharashtra’.

The story, using IRS figures, had said, “TOI has grown by 30% and now has a combined readership of 26.72 lakh in the state.” It added that Mumbai Mirror, from the TOI stable, had grown 32.4% and “leapfrogged to No. 4 position from No. 7 among all English dailies”.

ET itself had a story the same morning thanking readers for their loyalty and claiming, “Your newspaper has moved up the rankings and is the sixth most-read English daily.”

While HT has made substantial gains overall, it is also true that TOI readership figures have grown by 34% in Mumbai and 22% in Bangalore. HT has witnessed a drop of 12% in Delhi and 31% in Punjab — a fact conveniently glossed over by ET.

Siddharth Kothari, director of the Patrika Group, disagreed with ET’s claims too. He told HT, “Rajasthan Patrika/Patrika and many other newspaper have witnessed genuine growth in their readership, which is now truly reflecting ground realities.”

The ET story on Friday also claims that HT’s Readership Per Copy (RPC) is abnormally high. A careful study of figures reveals that ET has picked readership figures from one period, and circulation figures from another — which has thrown up distorted results. HT’s RPCs are lower than that claimed by the story.

ET also said that the Delhi high court had barred the release of the findings. HT checked with the Delhi HC, and it has passed no such order.

TOI’s inconsistency is not merely with regard to facts and figures, but their overall approach to the new IRS survey.

The newspaper industry, including TOI, was unhappy with earlier methodologies and agency conducting readership survey. In early 2013, AC-Nielsen, a global firm with impeccable reputation, was awarded the contract to conduct IRS.

A new methodology was adopted with four distinct changes. Instead of a pen and paper method — wherein interviews took over an hour and a half and left interviewers and respondents fatigued, besides leaving room open for distortions — a unique double-screen computerized system with strong security measures was introduced.

Instead of readers being asked what media they had consumed in the past year, they were now asked what they had read in the past month to reflect more real trends.

Past IRS surveys projected population on the basis of the 2001 census, while this time, the new 2011 census data was used. And finally, it had a more representative sample size, including smaller towns. This would contribute to creating a ‘global gold standard’ in readership data.

Because of these changes, industry players agreed it would be wrong to compare the new data with the old. IRS 2013 was meant to mark a new start, with a clean slate.

Guess who welcomed the changes? After the findings were released, Rahul Kansal, executive president of Bennett, Coleman and Co Ltd, told Mint, a sister publication of HT, in a January 29 report, “The new methodology is certainly much more robust. It has made the whole process far more tamper-proof and secured it against the vagaries of poor field work.”

Less than a week later, in February, TOI seems to have changed its mind, and cobbled together an alliance of a few newspapers to oppose the IRS findings. Paying heed to the objections, the RSCI held the IRS findings in abeyance, and decided to go through a process of ‘revalidation’ of the design and execution of the study. A third party audit is currently underway.

Amidst apprehension that the ET story is meant to influence this process, Hormusji N Cama, RSCI chairman, told HT, “No one and no report can influence this process. It is unfortunate that groups like Times of India and Dainik Jagaran have taken this attitude.”

The readership figures are a crucial factor in decision-making for newspapers, advertisers, ad agencies and media planners.