Hyping the Numbers: The Chicago Sun-Times and Some Tribune Co. Properties Acknowledge Reporting Inflated Circulation Totals

By Morton, John | American Journalism Review, August-September 2004 | Go to article overview
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Hyping the Numbers: The Chicago Sun-Times and Some Tribune Co. Properties Acknowledge Reporting Inflated Circulation Totals


Morton, John, American Journalism Review


Audited, paid circulation is the financial backbone of the daily newspaper business. It is why newspapers have continued to prosper despite the advent of other media seeking advertising--first magazines, then radio, television in all its forms and now the Internet.

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So it is a serious blow to the newspaper industry's credibility when the owners of major newspapers acknowledge publicly that the circulation numbers have been falsely inflated, as happened recently at the Chicago Sun-Times and at Tribune Co.'s Newsday on Long Island and at the company's Hoy Spanish-language dailies.

Inflating circulation is viewed as a form of theft from advertisers, since advertising rates are based largely on circulation. Indeed, the district attorney for Nassau County has initiated a criminal investigation into Newsday's circulation inflation. Some advertisers have filed a lawsuit against Newsday, and more such actions are likely.

These events have raised troubling questions about the veracity of all newspapers' circulation claims and about the authority of the Audit Bureau of Circulations, an organization created in 1914 by publishers, advertisers, advertising agents and others with an interest in bringing order to what then was a chaos of conflicting circulation claims by competing publications.

In light of these concerns, it is worth examining how the ABC goes about its work (for the record, my firm is a member of the ABC). But first, some observations about circulation fraud and the relationship between circulation and advertising rates.

Circulation fraud has been rare in the newspaper industry. In my more than 30 years of analyzing the business I can recall no more than a half-dozen instances in which it has come to light. There surely were more, but it's likely they were quietly resolved through negotiation and private arbitration.

A second point is that though circulation is the basis of advertising rates, it is not the only factor. Because a newspaper's circulation falls 10 percent does not mean that the newspaper should charge 10 percent less for advertising. For example, the Kansas City Star's circulation dropped 2.9 percent from 1999 to 2003, yet its open advertising rates over the same period rose 32.5 percent. The reason for this disparity is that many other factors besides circulation are involved in rate-setting, including actual and expected increases in the cost of newsprint, labor and benefits. Some of these cost increases are offset by circulation revenue, but newspapers are loath to raise the price of the paper for fear of driving down circulation.

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Hyping the Numbers: The Chicago Sun-Times and Some Tribune Co. Properties Acknowledge Reporting Inflated Circulation Totals
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