What is Newspaper Works really up to?

Fair to say, this week’s moves by Newspaper Works – the propaganda arm of the Australian newspaper industry – to take control of readership statistics may not have gone entirely as the organisation wished.  

It did not tell Roy Morgan – which runs the current single source readership survey – until a few hours beforehand. But by the time the coverage was in the papers the next day, Roy Morgan was certainly being heard.

The coverage in the newspapers – even though they are the main funders of the body – has not been positive. Not least because Roy Morgan said it would not be tendering – meaning that rather than creating an improved industry currency that everbody could unite behind, we could end up with three: Roy Morgan, Nielsen and the Newspaper Works.

The Australian Financial Review said Roy Morgan has “poured scorn” on the plan. The company’s Gary Morgan told the AFR the reason Newspaper Works – which is funded by Australia’s newspaper companies – wants to take over is members’ self-interest. He said:

“The only reason they are not happy is because we sometimes get lower figures than they want people to believe.”

Meanwhile the Sydney Morning Herald quotes Roy Morgan’s Michelle Levine as saying her company would boycott the tender, adding:

“The market will decide which information it believes – that which comes from newspapers or independent data.”

And The Australian also features Levine, warning that Newspaper Works is looking for a “cheaper, second rate” system, adding:

“We think Roy Morgan is world’s best practice, and everyone understands that, so this is not about that but the newspaper industry wanting to have control over the measurement and the data that’s released.”

Now there is a little more to it than that. Sources close to some of the previous discussions say they have struggled to get Roy Morgan to come to the table and open its methodology to close scrutiny, so the research company may have brought some of this upon itself. And Roy Morgan only carved out its market position as the main readership source through getting on and doing it (not that there’s anything wrong with that) rather than originally having an industry-wide mandate.

One of the key things at stake here is media buyers have long wanted to have figures for sectional readership. It seems likely that the number of people reading, say, the sports section would be significantly less than the front page – it’s something that would certainly affect rate negotiations. So it’s not the sort of transparency that newspaper owners would necessarily want.

A cynic would think that once readership is under control of Newspaper Works, sectional figures would be a dead duck, or rather practical reasons of cost and logistics might emerge why it couldn’t be done. Or maybe not straight away, but of course there’d be a vague promise that it would happen somewhere down the line.

Certainly I understand that media agencies have had to fight hard to get involvement in this process as at one stage it looked like Newspaper Works were not going to include them either, and there’s no guarantee that they will get the outcome they want.

Another twist is whether Roy Morgan have taken the correct strategy. One informed source points out that if the company took part in the tender, other players might be scared off because of the benefits of effectively being the incumbent.

Certainly, I personally wonder about Newspaper Works’ motivations for wanting control of this data. Rather than hold an open press briefing on their plans, they only invited selected media, which is relatively unusual, and I ended up having a very odd email exchange with their PR agency about the affair.

I have been known to adopt a sceptical tone about some of the cheerleading done by Newspaper Works Mumbrella’s readers even more so. So after the covergae of the briefing emerged, I did wonder whether I wasn’t invited because whatever I wrote might be unsympathetic to Newspaper Works’ cause.

Usually when I chase up an event I’ve missed or presss release I’ve not seen, the answer tends to be, either: 1) “We did invite you – you just didn’t open the email, you idiot” or 2) “We didn’t invite you because you’re not important enough, you nobody”. I may paraphrase slightly, but both sentiments are fair enough.

But this was a first for me. The press release, Newspaper Works’ PR agency insisted, had been sent to me  but it had just got lost. Fair enough, I believe them.

But, they confirmed, I wasn’t invited to the briefing, not that it was anything to do with controlling the message. They said in an email the only people they invited had  “previously expressed an ongoing interest in the readership measurement issue and had made specific requests to be informed of any developments”.

That must have been my mistake. Although I’ve written about the issue of newspaper readership a few times, I should have rung the PR agency and said: “By the way, in case you ever think of holding a press briefing to announce that you’re planning to take control of the readership data from Roy Morgan, could you invite me please?” What an amazing lucky move by all those other journalists having done that. And do you know what? Some of them don’t even remember having done so. Lucky them, eh?

Rember the scene in the Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy when Arthur Dent protests to the council that he didn’t know they planned to demolish his shed, and they told him he should have known to check the planning application which was locked in a filing cabinet in a disused basement?

Maybe a PR practiitoner can help me. Is it the usual strategy for a press briefing to only invite people who have previously mentioned they’d like to be invited? Seems a slightly odd approach from the organisation who’s members also champion the Right To Know campaign.

Clearly this is going to be an important issue. Roy Morgan carries out face to face interviews, which are expensive, and if they don’t give the data that the industry wants, then that’s bad news for papers.

And it’s a wider issue than just the newspaper industry – if Newspaper Works’ move kills the economics of the Roy Morgan readership survey because fewer organisations subscribe to it, then that has a knock-on effect for magazine readership measurements which are carried out by Roy Morgan too.

I’ve a feeling this is a topic we’ll be covering a lot. As a note to Newspaper Works, please take this as an expression of my ongoing interest.


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