By: Dorothy Giobbe Conflict arises over proprietary studies that piggy back on syndicated research; changes considered to separate the two sp.
SCARBOROUGH RESEARCH CORP. has apologized to its newspaper clients after recently conducting a readership study of newspaper sections in five markets on behalf of a television network and its affiliate stations. "Scarborough had pursued a policy that was somewhat misleading," said Bob Cohen, president of Scarborough. "I was distressed to find out about it when it came to my attention and I immediately apologized to the NAA [Newspaper Association of America]. . . .This practice has been discontinued and I regret that this has occurred." Cohen, who joined Scarborough last November, said that "previous administrations" agreed to perform the study and that he was unaware of it until "after the fact." Representatives from the Los Angeles Times said they found out about the study approximately two months ago and asked Scarborough to halt the survey or not release its results, but the research company refused. Until recently, newspapers in the five markets also were unaware of the study, Cohen said. He declined to name the five affiliate markets other than to say they were "major markets." Sources said they were New York, Los Angeles, Detroit, San Francisco and Philadelphia. The readership survey was conducted by sending a page of questions, inserted into questionnaires for Scarborough's syndicated research, to telephone respondents. Because of the "level of discomfort on the part of newspapers," Cohen said, the information collected during the study would be released to the industry "so they can see for themselves what those measurement numbers were." Measuring section readership is a particularly contentious and controversial issue for newspapers because the data can be used by television and radio to undermine total newspaper readership statistics because not all readers look at all sections. As a service to some newspapers, Scarborough, in its syndicated study, measures section readership on a proprietary basis for an additional fee. The information is reserved for newspapers exclusively, and isn't released to competitors in other media. But Cohen said that Scarborough may have reevaluate that service in an effort to remain "media-neutral." "The dilemma that I face is that the newspapers want it both ways, in some cases," Cohen said. "They want us to measure [section readership] on a proprietary basis for several of the newspapers, but at the same time they object when we measure it for broadcast." "I can't have a double standard. And whatever policy we evolve towards has to be the same policy for all clients. . . . If I discontinue that policy for a broadcaster, I have to discontinue the same practice for newspapers." Part of the solution may be to completely sever Scarborough's syndicated data from proprietary studies, he said. In fact, Cohen said Scarborough and NAA's research council are developing a policy requiring that any type of proprietary information, "including but not limited to section readership," be measured outside of the formal scope of Scarborough research. The new policy would require "everybody to measure anything proprietary outside of the syndicated part of the study itself, which includes not using any type of insert," Cohen said. Clients from any media sector could then commission a section readership study, or any other topic that they wished. The studies likely would be conducted by Belden research, a Scarborough sister organization. "Essentially, it would be a respondent-recontact study," Cohen said. "We would have to go back in a separate, dedicated effort, entirely apart from the syndicated part of what we do, to make it a level playing field."