By: Robert Neuwirth

How ABC Adjusts Circulation Claims

The Audit Bureau of Circulations (ABC) does not comment on individual newspaper audits, so it’s hard to get a sense of whether newspapers deliberately inflate their circulation numbers. ABC, however, does issue “variance” reports three times a year, listing the papers that had the most severe adjustments after their circulation claims were audited. Executives at these papers commonly cite clerical errors, not deliberate falsehoods, for their problems.

Last November, ABC forced the West Memphis, Ark., Evening Times to take a 7.4% cut in circulation, according to variance reports obtained by E&P. “It’s my fault,” says Mac Holmes, circulation manager of the 7,900-copy daily. “I forgot to take returns into account. I just keyed in some wrong numbers. I did it, and I accept the blame, and I’m moving on.”

ABC also forced four MediaNews Group Inc. papers in California – the Long Beach Press-Telegram, the Pasadena Star-News, the San Gabriel Valley Tribune, and The Whittier Daily News – to endure cuts of between 6% and 10% off their circulation claims. Executives of the papers inevitably blame clerical mistakes, such as those linked to switching to a new circulation billing system. “We had a period of time in which circulation bills were not issued properly, and while the newspapers were delivered, received, and read, we didn’t get paid, so we got dinged,” says Jack Findley, publisher of the Long Beach paper.

Among the repeat offenders were The Arizona Daily Sun in Flagstaff (docked 2.2% in 1998 and 7.4% last year), The Herald in New Britain, Conn. (slashed 7.7% in 1999 and 4.7% last year), and the Potomac News in Woodbridge, Va. (chopped 4.6% both in 1999 and last year.)

The problem at the Flagstaff paper, part of the Pulitzer Inc. chain, resulted from inflated use of the Newspaper In Education (NIE) program, says Circulation Director Ken Bohl, who was newly arrived at the paper when ABC uncovered the problem. “Procedures were not properly followed,” says Bohl. “Affidavits weren’t filed, and there were not enough available funds to pay for it.” The NIE program allows papers to collect money from local businesses to pay for copies provided to schoolchildren. The papers can be counted as paid only if the newspaper can prove that the children received them and that the money to pay for them was collected.

At New Britain’s Herald, part of the Journal Register Co. chain, Circulation Director Larry Rhodes insists the repeat problem was, again, “clerical error.” He adds, “The administrative assistant was putting wrong numbers in, and we didn’t check properly.”

Executives of the Potomac News could not be reached for comment.

Finally, the dubious distinction of receiving the largest circulation cut in the last three years belongs to the Times West Virginian in Fairmont. In 1999, ABC sliced its circulation by more than 20%.

The Times West Virginian has been sold twice since the circulation smackdown, and is now part of Community Newspaper Holdings Inc. chain. Publisher Andy Kniceley was not at the paper when ABC ordered the cut, but, like any good executive, he knows what happened. “Basically, the circulation wasn’t paid for,” he says. He notes, however, that the paper accepted the circulation hit, made good to advertisers, and cleaned up its act. “There are checks and balances in place against these things,” he points out. “Our circulation is clean as a whistle now.”

Robert Neuwirth is a frequent contributor to E&P.

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Copyright 2001, Editor & Publisher.

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