Friday, April 05, 2013

The art of viewing figures: TOI and The Hindu show how


 For those in the media it’s always interesting to learn how newspapers or television channels are faring, who the movers and shakers are, what the buzz is like, what the grapevine is, what the managements are up to, etc. So, a headline on the front page such as ‘TOI bigger than next 3 papers put together’ draws your attention immediately and once you start reading you try not to miss any word.

It’s not strange any more to see how newspapers or news publishing organisations use surveys to their advantage, the objective being to impress on the reader who is King. What they don’t understand or really much care about is that readers today are a very discerning lot, much more than in the past, and all readers are not fools. What they also seemingly care very little about is facts being portrayed in the right way and bringing clarity to such pieces.

The Indian Readership Survey (IRS) came up with its findings for the last quarter of 2012. It is a survey that has come to be accepted as largely fair by media houses. The challenge nowadays is how to use the findings to your advantage. Damn the reader, or, sometimes, damn the real picture. It’s ironic because news is supposed to be sacred and when you use facts and figures to suit yourself you are not being truthful enough. 

According to the TOI story, the survey found that TOI’s average issue readership (readership and circulation do not mean the same thing) of over 7.6 million dwarfed HT’s 3.8 million, Hindu’s 2.2 million and Telegraph’s 1.3 million. The report went on to say that in India’s eight largest cities (those with a population of more than 5 million), TOI’s readership was almost 50 per cent more than the combined tally of the other three papers. It pointed out that in Tamil Nadu, TOI’s combined readership in Chennai, Coimbatore and Madurai had increased by 5000 readers over the earlier quarter, while during the same period The Hindu had lost 15000 readers, with Chennai accounting for 11000. The story went on and on about TOI’s leadership in several other cities.

The following day, The Hindu (as I expected it would) came up with its counter-version on Page 1. It was a relatively much smaller and weak piece about how it was No. 1 in the South and “rising” in the National Capital Region. The opening two sentences seemed to have been carefully crafted: “The Hindu continues to be the most popular English language daily newspaper in South India, staying ahead of competitors by a huge margin, according to just-released findings… it also retains its position at the national level with a readership figure of 21.64 lakh (the 2.2 million figure in the TOI report). The report added that The Hindu continued to dominate the Chennai market with a readership of 5.13 lakh, its figure adding up to more than the cumulative figures of the other English dailies.” The last two paragraphs in the report talked about the IRS and what it meant.

If the TOI report was true and The Hindu had indeed lost 11000 readers in Chennai, how could it “dominate” the market in the city! Or was “dominate” used to describe the lead it had over TOI in the same market?

Now, this is extremely clever when you consider that most families buy only one newspaper. So, effectively, you don't know the other side of the story. But those reading both TOI and The Hindu, as in this case, must have been a confused lot. You can confuse readers and yet be a winner. The reader will never get the actual figures in such reports. TOI will never tell you what its circulation figures are in Chennai, neither will The Hindu, or any other newspaper for that matter. All they will say is this paper gained so many more readers or the readership grew by so much per cent, or it is staying ahead of competition by a huge margin, etc.

Sometimes, it is best not to respond or react to a story if you don’t have much to talk about or if you choose to be rather vague. The Hindu’s effort in this case is an example. The headline mentioned “rising in NCR”, but it was hardly expanded in the text. All there was, was just one line saying: “It has also made impressive strides in the National Capital Region.” What were these strides like? A rather weak-kneed approach to a counter, which showed little sense of domination.




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