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Dominic Mills 

Unusual outbreak of co-operation amongst press - again

Unusual outbreak of co-operation amongst press - again

As they try to forge a contemporary audience measurement system, newspaper publishers have joined forces and served notice on the National Readership Survey. A victory for planning? asks Dominic Mills.

He's a big fella, and well capable of looking after himself, but I feel a little bit sorry for Barry McIlheney, chief executive of the PPA.

There he was last Thursday 10 July, preparing for the PPA awards, its big night of the year, and the newspaper publishers chose to rain on his parade by announcing that it was serving notice on the National Readership Survey (NRS).

The move effectively signals the end of the bi-partite arrangement under which newspapers and magazines have jointly funded their readership research.

I suspect that, while the news might have been a shock to the PPA, it was no surprise. You don't have to be Mystic Meg to read the tea-leaves. (Actually, all you have to do is follow Newsline's very own MM, Bob Wootton, who uncannily touched on this subject a couple of weeks ago in his 'Bonfire of the JICs?' piece).

It's been obvious for some time that the NRS, as currently constituted and despite efforts to keep up with the digitisation of publishing with the addition of PADD data, was no longer serving the interests of the newspaper publishers. It clearly could not continue as it is.

Even today, when newspapers are focusing on mobile and tablets with all their might, the NRS says their addition to the research data is "impending" - a sort of jam-tomorrow promise.

The second warning sign came last year when Newsworks, the national newspaper marketing body, announced that it was setting up a pan-publisher electronic advertiser trading system (PATS).

What this signalled was an unprecedented outbreak of co-operation between the likes of the Guardian, News UK and Associated - a group which normally spends its time beating the living daylight out of each other and can rarely agree on something as unarguable as the day of the week.

Plaudits therefore, and the media equivalent of the Nobel peace prize, to Newsworks' David Pattison and Rufus Olins for helping these natural antagonists to see that there are certain things they can do better together.

It's far too early to say what the end result will be. Under the terms of its contract, the newspapers have to serve the NRS with 18 months' notice - a ludicrous period, you might think, except that in this case it gives all parties a chance to work out what to do.

The newspapers have the time to scope out the research brief and test it, the PPA to decide whether, or if, it can tag along, and the NRS to see whether it can retrieve the situation. But as one figure involved in the process put it to me: "The newspapers are the engine of this train, and they know where they're going. The others can jump on the train, but they can't change its direction."

So where are they going? Well, what the newspapers want is audience research that gives agencies the granularity they need to plan across multiple devices, including mobile and tablets and, if and as it develops, wearable tech. The key is planning across the totality of the brand, which is difficult, not to say impossible, in the current environment and with the current pace of change.

At the moment they have little of this. The NRS is quarterly (astonishing, really, in this day and age), volatile to a degree that can make planners question their sanity, and doesn't always correlate to the ABC figures (i.e. circulation can be down, but readership up).

Of course, if you actually saw or filled in an NRS survey (not that I've ever come across anyone who's admitted to it), you'd understand why. You've got to have the patience of a saint and the memory of an elephant to fill it in properly. The publisher of Yachting World and the Mail on Sunday get the same metrics. A decade ago, this might have been what they wanted. Today, it isn't.

Compared to TV, it's opaque, unwieldy and a navigational nightmare. In an era of multiple choice, media that don't make planning easy will lose out.

An interesting calculation - and there are plenty of people out there who can do it - is to measure the amount spent on JIC research per medium versus that medium's share of adspend. I'd bet TV and radio come out better than print, and especially newspapers.

One destination at the end of the line is PATS, intended to launch in Q1 next year (fingers crossed). By early 2016, when the NRS contract actually ends, it will be theoretically possible to integrate the new research data with the electronic trading system. As Newsworks is already in conversation with the PPA about magazines joining the scheme, we could actually see the two sides come together, albeit in a different modus operandi, again.

And what, by way of a small deviation, is the position of Northern and Shell, that serial non-joiner of media trade bodies, and therefore not a member of either Newsworks or the NPA? I once saw Agostino Di Falco, C5's head of partnerships, waxing lyrical about Thinkbox. When it was pointed out to him that C5 had refused to join, he looked as embarrassed as a man on his wedding day farting at the altar.

So there's a danger, if such a thing can be said of newspapers which are still banging on about Princess Di, that the three N&S national papers will get left behind. But then N&S is nothing if not commercially hard-nosed, and if proprietor Richard Desmond deems it in their best commercial interests, he will no doubt sign up.

See also: New NRS chief speaks out on the survey's future

MediaTel will be hosting a debate on the Future of National Newspapers in September, with panellists including Trinity Mirror's James Wildman, News UK's Abba Newbery and the Independent and Evening Standard's Chris Blackhurst. See our events page for details.

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