All heat and little light. That’s the conclusion from a ring around of the advertising industry as the stoush over the attempt to set up a new system for measuring newspaper readership veers towards the combustible.

The head of media analysis company Fusion Strategy, Steve Allen, told Crikey this morning that the stoush seemed to be more about personalities — specifically head of Roy Morgan Research Gary Morgan and News Limited boss John Hartigan — than about the data advertisers needed to make decisions.

In the media sections of today’s newspapers Hartigan blasts Roy Morgan Research as “arrogant and intransigent” for allegedly trying to undermine the attempt by the Newspaper Works industry lobby group to conduct a tender for a new system of readership stats, taking on the Morgan monopoly.

For those of you coming in late, the wheels began to loosen on the Newspaper Works attempt when, last week, Fairfax Media announced that it was pulling out of the tender process and would stick with Morgan.

But amid the brickbats, nobody has yet managed to ascertain what data the Newspaper Works actually plans to collect, and how.

Will it be only on readership, or will it also collect the data on purchasing history and intentions that is of most use to advertisers?

Steve Allen told Crikey this morning: “We all know you can collect data cheaply, but it is rubbish data. Hartigan accuses Morgan of lack of transparency. I’d ask that the Newspaper Works be transparent about whether they will be collecting single source data of the same depth as Morgan.”

Allen said that readership data was only a “pin prick” in the information needed by his clients. So far as his clients were concerned, the “single source” method employed by Morgan, in which a wide range of  information on consumer habits, purchasing history and intentions is gathered in a single face to face interview, was the minimum that was needed. Any less than this would be worse than useless, and would not be supported by the industry.

Yet a spokeswoman for Newspaper Works, Rochelle Burbury, told Crikey this morning that it had not yet been decided whether its new method would include data on purchasing intentions and the like, or only on readership.

She said that the request for tender documents would go out in late January or early February to the shortlist of three who had responded to the call for  expressions of interest. “I know that single source is one bone of contention,” she said.

Allen said he had told the Newspaper Works that their competing information would have to be of single source and of the same variety and depth as Morgan’s to be supported by his clients, but had not been assured that this would happen.

As for Gary Morgan “bombastic he may be but in our view they have been very transparent with us.” The specialist databases maintained by Morgan were “expensive, but worth every cent” and the single source method of collecting data was going to be impossible to for Newspaper Works to replicate.

There was no way, Allen said, that the industry would welcome the extra costs involved in using two sets of data. In his view “News Limited is the key to this plot, and some of it seems to be about John Hartigan and personalities…someone’s got an axe to grind and its seems it’s not as simple as Morgan’s not being up to speed.”

Meanwhile the Advertising Federation of Australia is sitting on the fence, with executive director Mark Champion saying it was too early to come to a judgement about the Newspaper Works competing scheme. “People will make up their own minds about the value of the insights they gain from different data,” he said.

“Robust” readership data was of value to advertisers and “I take my hat off to the Newspaper works” for trying to improve the system.”

Peter Fray

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