ABC Considers Free-Paper Audits

By: Mark Fitzgerald

Advertiser and ad-agency members who dominate the Audit Bureau of Circulations (ABC) board of directors are alarming many newspaper publishers with their latest trial balloon: They want ABC to offer its prestigious auditing services to any free newspaper.

ABC already audits about 100 free-distribution total-market-coverage (TMC) products — but each is eligible only because it is published as part of a member’s paid newspaper. The current proposal would extend the ABC seal of approval to the biggest local print competitors of paid newspapers: shoppers, alternative papers, and other niche publications.

That’s the wrong way to go, many newspaper executives say. “I am against giving our competitors ABC credibility,” said Steven Hesse, MediaNews Group Inc.’s circulation vice president. “I’m also concerned about the possible loss of the ABC brand, which is built on paid circulation.”

He’s not alone. Cox Newspapers Inc.’s vice president of circulation, Jay Campbell, surveyed all of the chain’s 18 dailies and 30 weeklies — and every one of them did not want ABC auditing nonpaid papers.

“How many ways can you say, ‘No’?” asked Corporate Circulation Director Doug Sumrell, who added that all 29 papers in his group, Morris Communications Corp., were opposed to the idea.

But for all their misgivings, many of the same ABC newspaper members are reluctant to flatly reject a proposal made by advertiser or ad-agency members — whose representatives make up two-thirds of the ABC board. (Newspaper and magazine executives make up the other third.)

One clout-heavy proponent of expanding into free-paper auditing is Larry Berg, who, as vice president of newspaper sales and purchasing for Valassis Communications Inc. oversees a budget of about $400 million — much of which goes to place newspaper inserts and run-of-press ads. Berg is also an ABC director. “This will provide us with additional tools that will make newspaper buying easier,” Berg said. For instance: “Assembling an accurate database [of circulation and distribution] assures we are not wasting our resources — and will let us send any incremental increases your [newspapers’] way.”

Some advertisers said newspapers should accept ABC audits of free papers as inevitable. “Free papers are taking money away from the newspapers you print. Going forward, there is going to be a need for an ABC audit of these publications,” said Terry Prill, newspaper strategist and special projects, for Target Corp.

Wisconsin State Journal Publisher James W. Hopson, a Lee Enterprises Inc. vice president who is also an ABC director, said his Madison paper would welcome the change: “Having ABC [audit] would level the playing field so all free papers, ours and those who publish only free papers, would be measured on the same rigorous standards we adhere to. And, frankly, knowing what I know about the quality of free-paper competitors, I’ll take my chances with that measurement.”

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