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In December, the fieldwork for the new Indian Readership Survey (IRS) is finally expected to begin. The move has been confirmed by research firm Nielsen, the agency that will conduct the research. The members of the Media Research Users Council (MRUC) and the Readership Studies Council of India (RSCI), the media bodies that publish IRS, are keeping their fingers crossed.

The last survey findings were released in March 2015 and no fieldwork has been undertaken since. If the research firm starts gathering data now, the findings will be available only by the end of next year. That means there will be an almost two-year gap between the two surveys. That’s bad news considering digital media consumption can be tracked live while television throws up viewership numbers every week. At the current rate, IRS will be coming up with readership numbers once in two years.

To be sure, the last few quarterly numbers published by MRUC and RSCI were controversial, with several newspaper companies rejecting the IRS data released in January 2014, the research for which was conducted in 2013. Newspapers which saw their readership numbers decline were up in arms, raising questions about the methodology used by the newly appointed research firm Nielsen.

The uproar eventually led the data to be held in voluntary abeyance. It was re-released later in August 2014 after re-validation but media companies such as Bennett, Coleman and Co. Ltd (publishers of Times of India and Economic Times), ABP Pvt. Ltd that owns The Telegraph and Kasturi and Sons, the publisher of The Hindu, among others, never accepted the survey’s results. The next round of IRS numbers released in March were also given the cold shoulder, even though the overall growth in media consumption as tracked by the study indicated robust growth in print, a direct impact of the 2014 general election. The data was validated internally as well as by a third party audit, but publishers, critical of the original findings, maintained that the March numbers contained old information except for one quarter of fresh data.

MRUC, the not-for-profit body, was set up to organize media research and RSCI was born four years ago when two readership surveys—the National Readership Survey (NRS) and IRS—were merged. While IRS was always managed by MRUC, NRS was managed by the National Readership Studies Council (NRSC). RSCI was designed as an equal partnership between MRUC and ABC (Audit Bureau of Circulation).

Readership data is the currency used by advertisers to choose publications in which they advertise. But the recent war over the IRS does not bode well for the print media sector. So much so that even planners and buyers at top media agencies are worried. For starters, a measurement matrix is important for all media. Robust individual measurement systems accelerate the use of that particular medium. In a heterogeneous market such as India, you cannot put money into a medium without research, says Anupriya Acharya, group chief executive ZenithOptimedia. C.V.L Srinivas, chief executive of media agency GroupM, believes that the absence of readership data has impacted the advertising revenue of print. It’s important for the print industry to stay together and support IRS especially given the mounting challenges being faced from digital media, he says.

But newspaper publishers refuse to recognize the writing on the wall. It has been with great difficulty that print companies have agreed to fresh fieldwork. However, if fissures appear again, it will hasten the shift of ad monies away from print, Srinivas cautioned. Incidentally, on Tuesday, Srinivas was also appointed chairman of RSCI.

In western economies, newspapers are already bearing the brunt of the shift in eyeballs and advertising dollars from print to digital media. Several leading international titles have been sold in the last few years. In India, too, the English language news consumer is moving online. IRS does not capture this data. It probably should. It should not only measure readership but also engagement and interplay with other media. While the absence of data is hurting print, what is measured is not path-breaking either, adds Acharya.

Right now, print in India is growing at an average of 7% a year—at a higher rate for regional language publications and a lower one for English. However, even regional language print publications may need to work harder to hold on to their audiences in the future as the smartphone population expands and the volume of regional language online content grows. According to a report on media and entertainment by consulting firm KPMG and industry lobby Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry (Ficci), the number of Internet-enabled smartphones in India is increasing and expected to grow at a compounded annual growth rate of 30%. The country will have 435 milion Internet-enabled smartphones by 2019.

Print should take a leaf from the book of broadcasters. TV companies took the lead to set up BARC, or the Broadcast Audience Research Council India (ad agencies and advertisers are also stakeholders in the joint industry body), and started rolling out audience measurement data from April. Recently, BARC started capturing rural viewership numbers, too, in addition to urban markets audience data. Besides, they have invested over 200 crore in their research unlike print which is shy of putting in even 15-20 crore.

Print continues to be relevant and exerts influence on the consumer, but it can get its due from advertisers only if it has robust and regular measurement data.

Shuchi Bansal is Mint’s media, marketing, and advertising editor. Ordinary Post will look at pressing issues related to all three. Or just fun stuff.

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