Tuesdata: The state of news readership data
Welcome to Tuesdata - Unmade’s data-led analysis of the numbers driving the media and marketing industry. Today we raise a sceptical eyebrow at the latest set of news readership data, released by Roy Morgan and ThinkNewsBrands yesterday.
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What is a newspaper reader?
You know what they say. You never forget your first invitation to participate in the Roy Morgan Single Source survey.
Or is that just me?
In my case, it was budget night, back on October 25. It must have been almost exactly 7.30pm because Jim Chalmers was starting to give his speech when the phone rang.
I’d just got back to my Sydney hotel room from the Seven Upfront event and had a load of writing to do to cover it for the morning.
As a keen procrastinator, I was delighted when the call came. It was a researcher from Roy Morgan. They interview 1,000 people a week, so I suppose it was only a matter of time before they found me.
Those in the communications industry take for granted the presence of Roy Morgan in our working lives. The company has been around for 81 years. The Roy Morgan readership survey has existed for 48 of those. There’s even a fond parody of the late Roy Morgan on Facebook.
That single source survey is the basis of so many agenda-setting news stories across the year - business confidence, voting intentions, consumer confidence, gambling habits, alcohol consumption. It has real value.
But the reason I was keen to chat was because of readership.
When it comes to understanding of news consumption, Roy Morgan has seen off its challengers.
For a long time there were two sources of approximate truth in publishing economics - circulation and readership. An audited circulation number was proof that newspapers and magazines had been physically printed. Readership could only be derived via research - a guesstimate on how many hands a publication has passed through while it sat in cafe, media centres or the building site dunny.
Tiring of the bad news of falling sales, the publishers killed off the circulation audits half a decade ago.
And for a time they tried to create their own readership metric, EMMA, which stood for Enhanced Media Metrics Australia. They wanted more control. As News Corp put it back in 2013: “Roy Morgan Research did not respond satisfactorily to countless requests, over many years, to explain discrepancies and errors in its data”.
That meant that for the best part of a decade there were two readership surveys in the market, although EMMA, delivered by Ipsos, never quite took off. It smacked of the publishers marking their own homework. In the end, the newspaper owners lost. Last year, they surrendered on EMMA and threw their lot in with Roy Morgan.
Which brings me back to that phone call. It might take half an hour, the researcher informed me. Let’s go fast, I told her; I bet we can do it in 20. I was wrong. It was more than an hour.
What I was most curious about was how the questions would be asked about readership, a metric I’ve always been sceptical about. While there’s science behind how the number is gathered, the readership number does not mean what people think it means.
Before I explain why I say that, let’s cover off the topline data from yesterday. It offers an assessment of news brands’ readership across print and online.