I’ve just returned from the the world editors’ forum in Vienna where delegates were intensely interested in the News International phone hacking scandal.
Those journalists who live in countries where press freedom is under consistent threat were, unsurprisingly, scornful of the News of the World’s activities in order to publish tittle-tattle.
But what really fascinated many of them was The Guardian’s revelation of tthe Wall Street Journal Europe (WSJE) circulation scam..
They could understand well enough that a newspaper publisher (and/or publisher’s employee) might get up to no good in order to boost sales.
What amazed them, however, was the “official” acceptance that copies sold at a fraction of their cover price should form part of the audited circulation figures.
I explained that ABC (NYSE: DIS) had sanctioned that ruse long ago and the practice was accepted across the British newspaper industry.
After all, I said, multiple copies (aka bulk sales) were recorded separately so that media buyers could see what was a genuine sale and what was not.
But several delegates who approached me following a session entitled “Profit, public interest, ethics – where to draw the line” were sceptical about the system.
It reminded me that I was critical of the bulk sales business way back, which is why I always presented the monthly ABC chart in The Guardian by omitting the bulks.
I remain convinced that, despite the separate listing by the ABC, it artificially inflates a paper’s “headline” circulation total.
I was delighted when The Guardian dropped them and pleased that The Times and Daily Telegraph did too. The Sun never relied on them. Both the Daily Express and Daily Mirror gave them up some time ago.
It was tough for those papers because bulks are a drug. Once publishers do say “no” they are aware of the side-effects – depressed overall sales figures.
But three daily nationals are still addicted. In September, the Daily Mail (LSE: DMGT) recorded an average of 119,241 bulks. But that was only 6% of its 2,008,817 headline sale.
Much more worrying was The Independent’s 75,795, which represents almost 43% of its 176,983 headline figure.
And the Financial Times reported 32,368 bulks, 9% of its 344,583 total.
I know that the publishers will say these are read copies and therefore as valid as those delivered to homes or bought across the newsstand. They also argue that they are valuable sampling exercises.
There is precious little proof of readership, however. And the drug certainly helps to conceal the reality of distressed circulations.
The ABC council should surely reconsider the whole business. Mind you, it has other work to do first, as its statement last week on the WSJE allegations indicated.
For the record, the last audit of the WSJE showed that its headline sale over the first half of this year totalled 74,800.
Of those, only 10,377 – just 14% – were sold at the basic cover price. I think News Corporation (NSDQ: NWS) shareholders may reasonably ask whether it makes financial sense to go on publishing a paper with so few buyers in a circulation area of 850m people.
This article originally appeared in MediaGuardian.