ABC reviews way to count circulation for newspapers

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Audit Bureau of Circulations moved a step closer to significantly changing the way it counts and reports newspaper circulation as its board granted "first passage" to a proposal that would subdivide newspapers' paid circulation numbers.

The new reporting system, should it meet with final approval at the next audit bureau board meeting in March, will divide paid circulation into three categories: copies sold at 50% or more of the basic price; those sold at 25% to 50% of the basic price; and "other." The last category will include frequently derided "hotel circulation"-newspapers supplied free to hotel guests. National newspapers brought the debate to a head last year as Gannett Co.'s USA Today and Dow Jones & Co.'s The Wall Street Journal squabbled over how to count bulk circulation.

Should the changes be approved, the new paid circulation details will be seen on the audit bureau statement for the period ending Sept. 30, 2001.

The proposal is a compromise measure, two years in the making, between advocates of open pricing who wanted any non-free copies counted as paid circulation; publishers who wanted no change at all; and advertisers who have pressed for more detailed data.

"A lot of big metros wanted a laissez faire approach," with no restriction on counting paid circulation, while smaller papers wanted to maintain status quo, said Jay Smith, president of Cox Newspapers and chairman of the liaison committee between the audit bureau and the Newspaper Association of America. He believes internecine battles over circulation definitions are over: "My hunch is what we see now will last."

"What we have done," said Frank Whittaker, a prominent opponent of rule changes and VP-operations for McClatchy Co., "is raise the question in advertisers' minds" whether the new circulation figures have the same value as the previous ones.

But Mr. Whittaker, whose company publishes the Minneapolis Star Tribune and The Raleigh News & Observer, conceded he was "happy to abide with the decision," even if he was "fed up" with the time-consuming process.

On the magazine side, the audit bureau board approved a measure that would have a proposal based on open pricing submitted for first passage at the March meeting. Should that measure pass, changes in magazine reporting would be effective with the reporting period ending Dec. 31, 2001.

Prospects for passage on the magazine side may be complicated by publishers' competitive concerns. Whereas most newspapers' markets don't overlap, magazines compete for national ad dollars within tightly contested niches.

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