The How, What and Why of Erroneous Claims by Newspapers

20 Mar,2019


By Sanjeev Kotnala


Recently one of the top newspapers published a corrigendum on its circulation claim. Another newspaper hinted that the competition was lying. And a few others’ claims went unchallenged.

When claims happen, you know the IRS (Indian Readership Survey) or ABC (Audit Bureau of Circulation) reports have been released. Reacting to competition,  calling them ‘liars’ and ‘unethical’ is very polite for the season.

It’s not the first time and definitely not the last time when claimed circulation or readership data has error or is disputed. Surprisingly these originate from prominent publications fully aware of the rules and regulations guiding the research report usage. They know, what is allowed and what is not. Yet human errors creep in.


Behind The Scene. Getting Ready.

The release date and timing of the research reports is one of the worst kept secrets in the newspaper industry. Everyone seems to know it in advance.

Just before the expected release, the marketing executives are stressed out. The anxiety level is high. The external interest is low. A few trade portals are still interested in the press conference, to report the change in hierarchy.

Inside newspaper offices, predictions are made. The conspiracy and corruption theories are discussed over coffee and beer. Soon, the wait is over, the data is released.


Readership And Circulation Data are Like the Board exams for Newspaper Industry..

‘IRS/ ABC data swing ki kimat tum media planners aur client kya jano.

The swing in readership or circulation data can result in psychological metamorphosis within the newspaper taskforces. The employee’s confidence may get strengthened or be shattered beyond repair.

The wait is agonising. The fears are not unfounded. The ‘Number One’ tag may fly away. ‘Largest’ may need a new definition. The gaps between rival newspapers may get widened or narrowed. Being second maybe reason enough to celebrate. The advantage in few strategically placed editions could be lost.

These are like the Board exams for the newspaper industry. The data is expected to reflect the impact of all the efforts on Ground Zero. Hence, many unanswerable questions arise with every data release. Some questions get buried temporarily.

That’s the power of readership and circulation data.


You Have To Be Part Of The System To Know How It Feels.

The management waits for the analytics team to truthfully present a favourable picture. The marketing department time and again crosschecks strategies and alternate presentations. The Excel sheets are verified at many levels. They are now ready to face anything other than a glitch in data.

The sales guys are eagerly to get some good news. It can ease sales target pressure. It’s known that the good news comes with revised sales targets. But for the pride, they are willing to live with it. They will take even the bad news. It will make their life a lot tougher. However, they will get a new excuse.

The circulation team is tense. Whatever may be the new data, circulation is involved and responsible. The earlier unconcerned editorial department too is dynamics stressed. The debate ‘circulation from readership’ or ‘readership from circulation’ is not yet settled. However, in the last decade, editorial too has been sucked into this not-so-unfamiliar number game.

The numbers define power equations. They create new relationships. The newspaper’s perceptual positioning is validated, strengthened or destroyed. It has the potential of defining the order in which a media buyer or planner will meet the media sellers on a hectic day.


The Claim League Starts.

The moment data is out; the analyst’s fingers start moving n the keyboards with the practised smoothness. The fingers run with the rehearsed flow. The matrices and cross-references start whispering to each other. The colourful graphs are conceived with alarming speed.

The marketing head, revenue heads and the top management keep their fingers crossed. There is an unheard prayer in their lips. They are like the expectant father outside the operation theatre, waiting for ‘the’ news.

The instructions are unambiguous. The SOP for the situation is well-defined.  No slip is allowed. Only the top management must have access to the first cut data. They will in their strategic business huddle debate and define the new strategic implementations. No delay is allowed.

Everyone is racing against time. It’s like the next sequel to Mission Impossible. Or like the Wild West, where the first mover and the fastest draw would survive to live another day.

Before the close of the day, rightly slaughtered and supremely cut acceptable data is released. It will feature in the next day edition. The position of this news will depend upon how the newspaper edition or group has performed. It could be anywhere from the front page, back page, city page, business page or tucked in some unmentionable corner.

You can’t blame any newspaper title for it. It’s a league of claims out there. If they don’t publish their interpretation and skewed impressions, the competition will. It is a necessity. They have to present their point-of-view.

No one can risk to be branded by default. The readers and the advertising industry must not only get what the competition publishes.

Some are in the race to catch the next morning e-mailers. They know most of the e-mailers land in the spam folder or are trashed without being opened. But, the tradition and internal SOP demands action.

It is complicated. It is a multi-dimensional race. The numbers have to be interpreted differently for the readers, advertisers, employees, and trade partners, competition and in some cases investors and share market. After all they have different expectations from the newspaper title.


In A Premeditated Surgical Strike, Collateral Damage Is Acceptable.

It will be foolish to believe that stakeholders are unaware of what is going out in the public domain. How the data has been tweaked? What new interpretations have been unearthed? How the numbers are stacking? And what is the tonality of communication.

Printing corrigendum is not a problem. Corrigendums don’t reverse the gained advantage.

ASCI can be ‘handled’. Saying sorry, giving newer explanation and temporarily abandoning the campaign is acceptable practice. The process of interrogation and explanations gives enough time for small battles to be won. The art of self-regulation and ethical practices is not discussed in such forums.

The pressure to meet timelines is a star excuse for the errors in data interpretation. The wiser ones know this game of self-congratulatory chest thumping news is of no real value. But, the serious players must play the league.

The ABC rules are clear and the penalty for violation is high. Hence, the trade-off call always involves the top management.


No Surprise for Repeated Errors.

In time, everything is forgotten. The new claims and presentation lose their sheen.

The newspaper sales and marketing comes back to the position it deserves. Dominance, arrogance, humility, relationship, negotiation and commoditisation become the norm. Everything is forgotten over field trips, parties, 3-D mailers, discounts, freebies and such facilitation tools.

The wait for the next round of results begins. The essential steps in brand building are forgotten. The newspaper marketing with new found determination focuses on client and media-agencies. The sales team is back to their revenue mining activities.

All forget that the results are mere reflection and directional in nature.


The Fastest finger First Claim league must stop.

No one wants to be left behind. No newspaper title will allow the competition even a 24-hour advantage in presenting the result. It’s a jungle out there. And to survive you must draw the gun first.

Here is what can be done.

A) Create Release And Usage Gap.

It’s a fallacy that this readership and circulation data is a critical release. A few days or even a week’s delay has no consequences.

What if such data was released on a Monday morning with 72 or 84 hours embargo? What if the newspapers are forbidden from releasing it in the public domain for some time? Even the trade portals are not allowed to release the story. The leading pink paper signs the Non-disclosure-agreement and honours it.

The hurried analysis and a race for the data are removed from the system. Everyone gets the real breathing time to analyse and decide the course of action. No one plays ‘Fastest Finger First’. The chances of Fat-finger or surveyors error is removed. The stress decreases.

B) Wrong Data Usage And Interpretation Is Severely Penalised.

There should be strict no-tolerance policy on data usage and interpretation error.  It becomes totally unacceptable. Any violation debars the title, edition or group from further using the data, even if they have subscribed and paid for it. Repeat offenders are no longer covered. And to get back has a lag of two rounds!

C) Facilitate And Educate.

To ensure no-tolerance policy additional steps need to be taken.

Every subscriber of these circulation survey and readership researches must have one person in trained by the research body. It is like a certification programme leading to chief interpretation officer.

Moreover, for the initial month, the research body should provide a free-facility to crosscheck interpretation. Promise and deliver a response within 4-6 hours. Maybe that will help.


No one is afraid of paper tiger. The bite must be felt if the industry has to stop playing fastest finger first.



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