ABC makes start on circ inflation

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The Audit Bureau of Circulations is putting publishers on notice that it will hammer anyone who willfully overstates the numbers. This aggressive action is the right move for ABC, print media and advertisers.

ABC's board has had the authority since at least the 1930s to censure members, but it hasn't done so in decades. The board this month acted forcefully, censuring three newspapers for circumventing rules so as to boost circulation figures.

The three papers-Tribune Co.'s Newsday and Spanish daily Hoy, and Hollinger International's Chicago Sun-Times-last month admitted to inflating circulation. It also happens in magazines; Gruner & Jahr USA Publishing last year acknowledged it had substantially overstated circulation at YM and Rosie.

Isolated examples? Good question. But the answer to such lingering questions is for ABC to intensify its audits and to issue harsh penalties on those who violate the rules. Print-media accountability to advertisers is on the line.

ABC's board-comprising publishers, advertisers and agencies-vows to censure and penalize members who circumvent the rules. Under the board's new edict, censured publications will face more-frequent audits, temporary exclusion from the closely read FAS-FAX report and possible cash fines. ABC's board also adopted the accounting profession's post-Enron guidelines on detecting fraud.

More can be done. The Sarbanes-Oxley Act, for example, requires CEOs and CFOs to certify financial statements to the SEC; ABC could piggyback on that by requiring similar certification of circulation statements. The SEC, meanwhile, should follow up on ABC censures by reviewing financial reports of publications' parent companies to see if investors were misled by hyped circulation claims.

We hope ABC will get even tougher, but we applaud its resolve to root out the wrongdoers. Print media face serious challenges in attracting an audience and proving readers' worth to advertisers. The market demands accurate, truthful statements of circulation.

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