Why are publishers shooting themselves in the foot? Ever since the Indian Readership Survey (IRS) 2014 was released earlier this year, publishers have been on the warpath, in what has become an annual ritual. The Times of India and others are publishing large notices ridiculing the IRS - which is released by the Media Research Users Council (MRUC), a body of publishers, advertisers and agencies. Some, such as The Hindu and Dainik Bhaskar, have withdrawn from the survey. Others refuse to pay their subscription fee. Many are now swearing by circulation numbers, a metric they have treated with utter disdain for years.
It has been almost two years since a readership survey that was 'acceptable' to publishers. Meanwhile, advertisers - who bring in two-thirds of the industry's Rs 26,300-crore revenues - have moved to TV or digital. The growth of print ad revenues fell from 8 to 5-6 per cent in the last two quarters. ("Does IRS matter to advertisers?").
This begs the question - has readership become less relevant? Maybe.
About two-thirds of the ad spend in regional language papers come from local or regional advertisers who use response as a measure. Readership matters to national advertisers who, in its absence, are already moving to other media.
Second, the readership growth of English print had slowed down to less than 1 per cent in IRS 2012. Some top newspapers showed marginal declines. In the absence of current data, advertisers base their spends on historical data, so the established ranking holds. However, smaller publishers, beyond the top 2-3 ranks, need readership to negotiate for better ad rates. The whole thing then is a tussle between big and small publishers.
That is ironical. The MRUC was set up in 1994 to shake off the dominance of large papers in the erstwhile National Readership Survey. Now, it is more representative of all users - big and small publishers, advertisers and agencies. In 2009, it joined hands with the Audit Bureau of Circulations to overhaul the survey. The new IRS was released in January 2014. It showed that total readership was down from 353 million to 281 million people (restated to 301 million) and many biggies were displaced in the ranking. That is when all hell broke loose.
The Indian Newspaper Society denounced the survey. Dainik Bhaskar got a stay order on it. However, a 15-member revalidation committee cleared it. Using IRS 2013, along with one round of fieldwork from 2014, the MRUC released IRS 2014 this year. But publishers still refuse to accept it. Their complaint - the data are dated, tamperable and the sample size is small.
Some of these issues are real. A few days ago, the MRUC board decided to increase the sample from 235,000 to 300,000. There will be a concurrent audit by one of the big five consulting firms.
The other issues are born of poor judgement - like using one-year-old data given the acrimonious backdrop.
But what have publishers, who form a large chunk of the MRUC's membership and are active members of the board and revalidation committee, done to deal with it? "Publishers are making such a noise about corruption of data, but who is corrupting it? Why can't they rein in their own guys?" asks one member.
For contrast, look at the television industry's handling of the changeover from TAM's rating system. The newly formed Broadcast Audience Research Council has done a good job of what one insider calls, "constituency management". When it fell short of money, members (broadcasters, advertisers) stood guarantee for the Rs 180 crore needed to get a new rating system going. The MRUC is still struggling to scrape together Rs 15 crore.
In most parts of the world, print is dying a slow, painful death. One reason is the measurability that the internet and TV offer. India is one of the few markets where print, especially in different languages, is still growing. It has certain advantages - net penetration is low, home delivery is a huge competitive advantage and so is the Indian fascination with the written word. Given that literacy rates are more than double that of print penetration, there is a lot of headroom for growth. Justin Smith, CEO, Bloomberg Media Group, recently said that Indian print media's strength has held back the growth of mobile advertising.
It is not a strength that Indian publishers seem to have faith in.