Ructions in newspaper land as Gary Morgan’s readership figures land in more than the usual amount of poo.

Crikey has learned that pressure over apparent anomalies has led to Morgan changing the questions asked in his readership surveys to better distinguish between online and hard copy readership.

The results – if and when they are released – could embarrass a lot of people, and call into question the data that publishers and advertisers have been relying on for the last few years.

In particular, Fairfax insiders believe the Sydney Morning Herald, which for the last few years has inexplicably been showing up in the figures as having more readers per copy than The Age, could be revealed as having fewer hard copy readers than previously claimed. As well, The Australian, which since 2005 has apparently been increasing the numbers of readers per copy sold, could instead be revealed as merely having more online readers.

Morgan and others have for some years tried to explain the figures by saying that Sydneysiders are more likely to share a newspaper in cafes and offices than readers in Melbourne. It was always a tendentious claim.

But now it seems likely that the real explanation is that respondents to Morgan’s surveys have not adequately distinguished between online readership and hard copy readership, and the difference in the readers per copy is because the SMH website has more readers than The Age.

Every year the nation’s publishers and advertisers pay lots of money for data on how newspapers are read. There is always scepticism about the robustness of the figures. Publishers boast about them when it suits them and rubbish them when they don’t.

But in the absence of anything better Gary Morgan’s readership survey results, together with circulation figures, have been cold, hard currency of publishing.

Crikey wrote a couple of weeks ago about the increasing anomalies and discrepancies between circulation and readership figures over the last three years. In the response to that story, we found out that Fairfax insiders have noticed the same thing.

Crikey understands that their number crunch led them to suspect that Morgan’s figures were wrong because his questions did not deal adequately with the online readership issue. The result was a commitment, contained in an e-mail to publishers from Morgan earlier this month, that questions would be changed to clarify how readers are accessing the newspaper.

This is merely the latest stoush over the figures. Last year The Canberra Times got hot under the collar about figures that showed readership declining at a time when circulation was going up. Fairfax called Morgan’s sampling into question – but he strongly rejected any suggestion of problems with his methodology.

Crikey talked to Morgan yesterday about the new questions, and got some mixed messages. He denied that the changes were due to pressure from Fairfax or anyone else, but acknowledged that next month he would be conducting an “establishment survey” or a “pilot study” on the question of hard copy and online readership.

After a few more questions, Morgan asked to ring back and put us on speakerphone, as a guard against being misquoted.

The story then changed a little. The “establishment survey”, I was told, was not a separate exercise from the normal surveys – which are conducted by self-administered diaries and face to face interviews – and was nothing new or special, but rather just part of normal experimentation with questioning that goes on all the time. The new questions would be asked in face to face interviews – which had not previously tackled the issue of online reading.

As for the increasing anomalies between his figures and circulation, Morgan again claimed it was the circulation figures that have been suspect. New rules now mean the circulation figures are “more honest” and this has caused the apparent discrepancies, he said. He again referred us to this paper on why the circulation and readership figures don’t always move in the same direction.

So when and how will the results of these new questions be made available to the industry? And how will he tackle any discrepancy between the new results and the ones everyone has been relying on for some time?

Morgan was vague. He would wait for the results and see what they told him. “This is very early days.” To release data based on one month’s figures would be “loopy”. He will decide how to handle the whole thing once the data is in.

In any case the new questions will not be reflected in the readership figures due out in May, which are based on earlier surveys. So watch this space – and the figures.