Around Easter The Media Online ran an article entitled ‘AMPS vs. ABCs, circulation vs. readership: The BIG debate’. The conversation was sparked by Independent Media’s claims that their Cape newspapers had recorded significant growth in the December 2014 AMPS report. With Independent Media currently being the bête noire of many South African journalists, it was predictable that this fairly standard self-congratulatory article would provoke a backlash.
Utilising a Facebook forum, a number of journalists expressed their disbelief at the claims, and exchanged their frank unguarded opinions over a variety of issues afflicting the print industry. These ranged from the credibility of industry research to the practice of bulk distribution of newspapers.
With the scent of blood in the air, the debate was peppered with loose comments such as “the AMPS figures are a bit of a thumb suck though. They claim to know that every copy of a newspaper gets read by x number of people…” and, “It seems like the Indy invented the AMPS system, probably gave them to release too…” Admittedly this was partially counterbalanced by the argument that AMPs is a “sample based consumer survey. So people are asked through a questionnaire on the street everything from what toothpaste they use to what they read”.
It was suggested that circulation was perhaps a better measure, and indeed the “acid” test. Gordon Patterson, in his capacity as vice president of the Audit Bureau of Circulation, and as “a man who really understands the numbers” provided his views. In a sensible way he took the reader through the ABC’s categorisation of types of circulation. He stressed that all ABC data is audited, while “readership is claimed”, but affirmed that having both sets of data allow the decision-maker to make an informed choice. He also provided a diagnostic table suggesting the conclusions one could draw from the fluctuations in readership and circulation, and the resultant movement in Readers Per Copy (RPC). Divide the number of readers of a publication by the circulation and one has a figure called RPC.
As long ago as 1978 the local founding father of readership research, Wally Langschmidt, noted that it had become “fashionable to assess the reliability of readership surveys by the number of RPC”. He added that “the RPC figure is viewed by many media men as a completely factual figure not realising that the reader part of the figure is subject to a vast range of variables”.
As a media woman, I wholly understand the seemingly sensible expectation that there should be correlation between the two measures.
Unfortunately the relationship between the two is not a simple one. It is, in fact, the subject of tomes of abstruse research, which demonstrates that there are numerous factors that affect this figure. These reside in both the measuring metrics and the relationship between the two. In terms of metrics, while the ABC looks temptingly reliable, changes in distribution method can affect the RPC, and returns in a particular period could be delayed.
Readership on the other hand is generated by interviewing a representative sample of the population, and even with a large sample, is subject to sample variation and methodological issues. In terms of the relationship between the two, issues such as the competitive situation, editorial changes, promotions, source of copy and frequency of publication can all affect the RPC. For example, it has been shown that monthlies are more likely to show variation in terms of RPC than weeklies.
Rather than become lost in the tangle of complexities offered by this field on inquiry, most of us involved in the buying and selling of media need to be able to agree on what constitutes an acceptable currency. On the most basic level, in order for a medium to have the opportunity to be allocated a reasonable share of adspend, there needs to be a consistency of measurement in the media. To require the ABC to be that measure for publishers would be similar to demanding that DStv price itself solely on subscribers rather than on viewers.
There is, of course, already some variation in the various media metrics. TV and digital ratings reflect actual eyeballs to a particular communication or advertisement, while radio and print measurement reflect the potential exposure to communication based on a quarter hour listenership or an average issue readership. Globally publishers are exploring how to move readership metrics forward, and have been for some time. There are no conclusive answers yet.
In South Africa, media research has been the domain of the South African Advertising Research Foundation (SAARF) for decades. SAARF tended to enforce a strictly monitored divide between the sponsoring media and the incumbent research agency. It also tended to favour maintaining historical trends over innovation and all independent audits tended to indicate that the research was sound enough for such a complex country. The media owners are now stepping forward to play a greater role in the direction the research is going. While this may sound alarming to media agencies and marketers, the media are certainly aware that they need to produce credible currencies. An environment where there is rigorous debate between stakeholders is one to be welcomed and will certainly move media research forward.
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