Monday, January 10, 2005

De-fib-rilating newspaper circulation

After crunching some numbers, the New York Times today enterprisingly exposed the extent of a phenomenon well known to anyone who has tripped over a copy of USA Today on the threshold of her hotel room.

Several of the largest newspapers in the country hand out unsolicited copies of their publications under the sponsorship of third parties like hotels and advertisers. Thanks to a three-year-old change in the standards by which newspaper circulation is audited, newspapers now can count discounted, third-party "subscriptions" in their tally of paid circulation, thereby increasing the numbers presented to the advertisers who buy media by the bellybutton.

The largest exponent of this dubious (albeit legal) practice is USA Today, which plumps its stated daily circ by 18% to 2.6 million through third-party programs. Next most ambitious is the Denver Post, which has used more than 100,000 third-party readers to inflate its Sunday circulation 13.2% to 783,274. They are in good company with such heavyweights as the Wall Street Journal, the Boston Globe and the Miami Herald.

A third party has to pay at least 25% of the value of each paper if giveaway circulation it is to be deemed legal by the Audit Bureau of Circulation, the industry-funded industry watchdog. So, it was surprising to read in today's NYT that one major Denver advertiser said it was "not exactly accurate" to characterize as a "cash transaction" his sponsorship of the giveaway of several thousand unsolicited Sunday papers over several weeks.

The use of legal third-party subscriptions to fluff flaccid circulation contrasts with the out-and-out fakery that last year embarrassed the Dallas Morning News, Hoy, Newsday and the Chicago Sun-Times. Although newspaper executives will tend to make much of the distinction between kosher and un-kosher number puffing, the long-term value of their franchises will not be sustained through Talmudic discourse, but, instead, through the delivery of efficient, quantifiable and credible results.

Anyone ever hear the one about "truth in advertising"?


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