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Newspapers and magazines - consciously uncoupling?

15 Jul 2014  |  Richard Marks 
Newspapers and magazines - consciously uncoupling?

Following last week's announcement that the national newspaper industry is to rethink audience measurement, Research the Media's Richard Marks believes the debate is not just about whether the NRS is moving quickly enough to embrace online platforms - it's about whether you actually believe print is dying.

Just as the world was recovering from the announcement earlier this year that Chris Martin and Gwyneth Paltrow were 'consciously uncoupling', the news broke last week that the Newspaper Publishers Association is about to serve a 'statutory 18 month notice' on the National Readership Survey.

This potentially breaks their research marriage with the magazine industry as they look to build a new life with a more 'contemporary audience system' which may or may not be the NRS.

Yesterday Dominic Mills discussed how the newspaper industry had come together to make this decision in an unusual outbreak of co-operation, rooted in discontent with an NRS system that he claims is variously 'opaque', 'unwieldy' and 'volatile'.

Research insiders may be more tempted to see this as the most dramatic example yet of a conflagration between magazines and newspapers that flares up from time to time. Should we be that cynical? How do we decode this? Is this a case of irreconcilable differences, or a warning shot?

At heart it's about whether print is dying or not, where revenue is likely to come from in the future and the different positions and ambitions of the newspaper and magazine industries.

The NRS has funding from the IPA alongside the magazines and newspapers. Both arms of the publishing industry have long flirted with a research divorce even before the Internet came along.

Back in the 90s, when I was working as a research supplier to both parties they would moan about the NRS. The argument was essentially over breadth vs depth. Put simply, as sections and supplements multiplied like tribbles, the newspapers wanted their measurement system to have depth, to measure their products at a more granular level, to build sales arguments against the enviable depth of advertiser information commercial channels got from BARB.

Meanwhile the magazine industry was looking to preserve breadth, to cover as many of their titles as possible as opposed to filling limited questionnaire space with loads more questions about Saturday newspaper sections. From time to time I would be told that this conflict was at boiling point and that it was inevitable that one or the other would go it alone.

At heart it's about whether print is dying or not, where revenue is likely to come from in the future and the different positions and ambitions of the newspaper and magazine industries."

But it never happened. Each crisis blew over and magazines and newspapers stayed together for the sake of the kids, perhaps due to the IPA working as counsellor. Every now and again word would reach us research suppliers that there was a 'real appetite for change' within the NRS. Usually this would be ahead of a tender process in which they wanted as many agencies as possible to pitch, trying to convince us it wasn't a slam dunk for the incumbent and it was worth tendering, honest. In latter years the NRS has not even been up for tender.

However, the pressures of meeting the online challenge has made the relationship between newspapers, magazines and the NRS even more complex.

For newspapers, it is argued, print is dying and the future lies online. There is something of an inevitability about this, particularly in the US - a journey from a to b. It isn't happening overnight, but all the debate is about how best to make money online, be it via paywalls or building a massive global online reach.

It is a common sci-fi trope that eventually mankind will evolve to the point it will transcend its physical form completely and we will become non-corporeal beings. In Iain M. Banks' Culture series of novels this process is referred to as 'subliming'. So let's assume that the newspaper industry is indeed gradually subliming - that is certainly prepared for in Newsworks' promotion of newsbrands as opposed to newspapers. If so, then spending millions of pounds measuring the newsprint husks that their cross-platform digital butterflies are shaking free of becomes a point of debate.

Is the readership research money being spent in the right places? NRS PADD is a great initiative, but is effectively a bolt-on solution to the NRS, when - as I read it - the NPA is looking for a more platform neutral solution with more money spent on where the industry is subliming towards, and less on where they have come from.

The obvious parallel to NRS PADD is BARB's Project Dovetail, which also involves the incorporation or addition of online data into the currency to achieve cross-platform measurement. That also reflects a 'bolt-on' approach.

However, in TV the overwhelming majority of viewing and TV revenue is still about viewing on domestic TV sets. The idea that we are going to abandon those TV sets in order to sublime to watching on mobile devices has been largely discredited. Online is very much an addition to rather than replacement for viewing on TV sets.

It could be argued that the "print plus" approach of the current NRS makes far more sense for the magazines than it does for newsbrands, who appear keener to rip it up and start again."

Consequently, spending the bulk of the TV measurement money on a PeopleMeter panel still makes sense. Other platforms are an add-on, and Dovetail reflects that. However, for the newspaper industry there has to be a serious question about the NRS spending the majority of its money on a large sample face-to-face Dual Screen CAPI survey to measure print.

But what about magazines? By pure coincidence a couple of days before the NPA announcement I was up in Oxford at the Saïd Business School moderating at a senior management course sponsored by FIPP (the international magazine publishers association). In preparing for that course it became apparent to me how potentially divergent are the futures of magazines and newsbrands/papers.

Whereas between H1 2012 and H1 2013 newspaper circulation fell by 10%, magazines circulation fell by half that amount. In the US so far this year, whilst 30 (print) magazines have closed, 93 new ones have launched. As the US magazine industry site 'Dead Tree Edition' put it: "I advise magazine folks to stop reading articles about the newspaper industry's demise; they are depressing and mostly irrelevant to our business."

So when it comes to magazines, is print quite as dead as it seems to be for newspapers? I would argue not. The physical nature of magazines is an important part of their attraction. Newspapers have at their heart the gathering of news, for which the Internet was arguably always going to be a superior and more timely distribution platform for them to move to.

Magazines are about relaxation, a respite from the day, a luxury, an indulgence - and print is a great medium for display advertising. On a personal level I do fear that we spend far too much time staring at glowing rectangles of different sizes and believe that there will always be a role for physical media to provide respite and a balanced media diet.

In these very pages Ray Snoddy has highlighted the 'Lazarus-style' print resurrection of Newsweek, whilst Peter Houston argued: "So please stop talking about the death of print. Maybe try talking about the rebirth of print, an established product with a valued place amongst the rest of your multi-platform portfolio..."

Meanwhile, the digital revolution has greatly reduced the barriers to entry to producing print magazines of a high quality. The challenge is more around distribution as sales outlets contract. In the US last year whilst subscription sales of magazines fell by just 1.2%, newsstand sales fell by an alarming 11%.

I expect that many newsbrands and magazines will continue to have a print version for the foreseeable future but the balance between print and digital revenues may be very different for each party and if so, that presents a challenge for the NRS in focusing its efforts.

Looking at NRS PADD data, we can see that online delivers an incremental reach of 11.4% for newsbrands but just 7.6% for magazines. However, those figures don't include tablets or smartphones, the speed of measurement of which has been a bone of contention.

So, if the print version of magazines are declining at a slower rate than newsbrands, and the Internet is adding less incremental reach, then it could be argued that the "print plus" approach of the current NRS, with the bulk of measurement money going on measuring print makes far more sense for the magazines than it does for newsbrands, who appear keener to rip it up and start again.

So where is this heading? Is this just another periodic three-way flare up or actually a historic announcement? What will become of the NRS? Well even if the NPA does go its own way, it will still need a source of print readership estimates and to build one from scratch would not be cheap.

Meanwhile, whilst the IPA will want the best possible measurement of all the media its members advertise in, will it really want another JIC and another source of figures when measurement is supposed to be converging not diverging?

The 'print plus' approach may be fine for the magazines, but for the NPA the future may be effectively be 'PADD in reverse', with them building a new system tracking newsbrands across platforms and slotting in the NRS at the relevant point in that system.

If that is the case then the NRS print survey could continue, but it would certainly lead to some interesting debates about how the cost of it is split between the parties who fund it.

Meanwhile, I hear rumours that all may not be over for Chris and Gwyneth either.


Richard Marks is the director of Research the Media. Find out more here.

Twitter: @RichardMlive

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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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