NY tabs muddy their own waters?

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If you read any of New York City's tabloids these days, you might think there's something very fishy going on-again-in newspapering.

In late October, the New York Daily News was subjected to an atypically lengthy investigative story courtesy its longstanding hometown rival, the New York Post. Said piece alleged the News "has engaged in several practices that suggest the tabloid's circulation figures may be inflated." One day later, Tribune Co.'s Newsday leapt in, quoting a lawyer associated with an existing suit against the News filed by home-delivery distributors as saying "this is a breach of contracts suit, but it also is about inflated circulation."

full coverage

The Long Island-based Newsday, of course, this year admitted to overstating its circulation by, in one recent six-month period, 60,000 copies on weekdays and over 100,000 on Sundays. (Newsday's reported daily circulation topped a half million.) This protracted and painful saga was-surprise!-fulsomely covered by the other tabloids.

At the time, the News issued a fierce defense, contending in a statement that the only on-the-record distribution sources quoted in the Post piece were involved in that suit, and that they'd unsuccessfully sued twice before. (Les Goodstein, president-chief operating officer of the News, referred all questions about the story's claims to the statement.) The statement also said all such programs were in compliance with Audit Bureau of Circulations guidelines.

Confused yet? Imagine how those divvying up ad dollars feel.

Thus far, executives at the Post and the News say no ad dollars have shifted thanks to the latest scrum of accusations. (A Newsday spokesman did not comment by press time.)

"It's just been business as usual," Mr. Goodstein says.

The bigger issue, though, is what sort of drip-drip effect such stories have on all of them-and whether or not slinging mud at one paper means none splashes back on the others.

"I haven't heard any advertiser saying, `There is a problem with the whole industry,"' says Geoff Booth, VP-general manager of the New York Post. He also downplays the Post's upside in publicizing such stories, saying "some businesses" that formerly advertised with Newsday had "come to talk to us about placing ads," but that any actual ad pick up thus far was "nothing substantial."

Media buyers express extreme caution in believing reported charges not backed by legal action-but it's also clear that their radar for circulation misdoings are set on high alert.

"It's hard to react to the claims the newspapers are firing against each other," says Peter Gardiner, chief media officer, Deutsch, New York. Still, he concedes, the wave of confirmed circulation sins means "we're raising both eyebrows" over the issue.

cause for concern

"We look to invest our clients' money in very reputable print vehicles," said Brenda White, director-print investment, Starcom USA, Chicago. "When we are seeing magazines or newspapers having circulation issues-absolutely, that's cause for concern."

Ms. White added "there are many vehicles in the New York market, and you may see advertisers start to expand into them."

This scrutiny may bring to light gray-area or technically-legal circulation practices that don't bend rules but may raise an eyebrow among the likes of Mr. Gardiner.

To take but one example: One resident of a New Jersey town over 60 miles from New York tells of receiving a de facto, unrequested subscription to the New York Post, and being greeted by a substantial pile of the New York dailies on the front stoop until the scrappy New York daily was told to stop.

"I'd like to know about that. That's not a practice, as general manager of this paper, that I condone," Mr. Booth says. He's quick to add that he welcomes extra scrutiny. "Several months ago, we published an editorial" requesting the Audit Bureau "come in and audit all" of the New York dailies.

"We need to show the advertisers that what they are buying is what they are getting."

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