No wonder the media is not trusted by the public when our biggest newspaper company can’t even play it straight with something as basic as circulation figures.

Now its not often you get to read a classic press release. But lately we’ve seen two penned by the same bloke.

I refer to Greg Baxter, spinner in chief at News Ltd. He’s issued several major contenders during the shift of domicile campaign, and there is his best effort, the February, 2001 effort for James Hardie, which was nicely critiqued by the Jackson Commission of Inquiry into James Hardie’s handling of its asbestos claims.

The following statement, quoting News Ltd Chief, John Hartigan isn’t in the class of Greg’s work at Hardie, but it’s a noble attempt at spin as you can see from this SMH story.

It’s Harto commenting on the performance of some of News Ltd’s papers in the September six months. And with all classic spins, there’s enough in them that’s accurate to give them a certain veracity. But then, what you don’t see is often as important, if not more.

Harto said newspapers are holding readers and its circulation figures over the past year were stable while adults watched less commercial free to air television.

Notice all those wonderful qualifiers. Exclude children from the equation so far as free to air TV is concerned and you get a different sort of audience. But people of all ages watch free to air TV and while some children or young adults read newspapers, papers are mostly read by older viewers.

That’s the plain fact of life.

Notice Harto’s use free to air TV. Hmmm, what about pay TV giant Foxtel, 25% owned by News Corp? Still stuck at a nine per cent share of the total Australian TV audience, despite all sorts of claims to the contrary from its team of spinners.

And like newspaper circulations, pay TV figures are a bit of a mystery. Yes, the Pay figures are measured, but they do not issue or allow to be issued actual viewer numbers for each of the channels on the same basis as free-to-air.

And as Crikey pointed out last week the lack of transparency in newspaper circulations is appalling: http://www.crikey.com.au/media/2004/10/15-0001.html.

Look again at the figures given by News, and carried in the News Ltd papers. The gospel went out. All those nice zeros, such as The Australian, 133,000, the Weekend Australian 292,000. They are publishers’ estimates provided to the Audit Bureau of Circulation. Rival Fairfax provides circulation figures accurate to the last copy.

Quaint, isn’t it, that News Ltd view of accuracy and transparency about its circulations! Just imagine is News Corp accounts were reported in the same way! Which is probably what Rupert really wants. No independent audits for News, thank you very much. Trust me, I’m from News Corp.

You know the definition of the mushroom club. Locked in a dark space and fed bullshit.

But Harto and Baxter were also a tiny bit selective about which News Ltd publications they chose to highlight. Yep, the positive performance in Melbourne was discussed. That was a good performance, and with The Age also up, it seems newspapers are a bit more popular in Melbourne than in Sydney.

Ahh, Sydney, what a heartbreak town it is. The Daily Telegraph’s weekday edition was down 1.2% to the very round 400,000 copies a day. The Saturday edition down 0.9% to 332,000 and The Sunday Telegraph’s sales off 1.2% to 725,000. All those zeros!

Nor was the Saturday edition of The Courier Mail highlighted with a 1.7% slide, or the weekday, down 0.6%. The Sunday Mail in Brisbane was up 1.3%.

But makes you wonder about that $2.95 billion price for the asset shuffle in the News Corp domicile switch doesn’t it? After all, it’s a monopoly in Brisbane and South-east Queensland as Queensland Press also owns the Gold Coast Bulletin.

Just what are the people running Queensland Press doing allowing circulation to slide in a monopoly. Of course, The Courier Mail had shed thousands of copies a day since Rupe owned it. Its not been a star performer. But $2.95 billion?

So Harto was being selective as usual, the very thing some of his journos accuse politicians, business people and rivals of doing.

But his claim that newspapers are holding readership is the dodgiest claim of all. You see, the statement refers to circulations, not readership figures. They are two entirely different beasts whose measurements are vastly different.

Circulations involve checking physical things like copies, print runs and returns. Readership involves asking people questions and asking them to remember if they read certain papers and then trying to fit that across the whole circulation of the publication. A very imprecise procedure.

There is absolutely no transparency in measuring the readerships of newspapers or magazines for that matter. Absolutely none!

Compared to the disclosure and amount of information TV companies and their measurement groups have in the public arena, the measurement of newspaper circulations and readerships are little better than the divining of chicken entrails or tea leaves (for readership figures in particular).

There’s an old saw in the media, measure like with like. Harto and Baxter not only failed that one, but were a bit selective and used their own, unverifiable figures.

And finally Harto said the Oztam figures for TV viewing showed that over the past year “total commercial free to air viewing by adults fell by two per cent to 136 minutes in peak time viewing between 6pm and midnight across the five capital cities, Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane, Adelaide and Perth.”

Now two minutes as a percentage of the previous figure of 138 minutes is equal to 1.4%, That’s about the size of the circulation drop in the Saturday Courier Mail.

But note again the weasel qualifiers. “commercial free to air by adults”. What about SBS, that’s a mixture of commercial and public? Its viewing audience is up over the past year. And of course, the ABC. Its audience is up over the past year as well.

And that two minutes. An interesting figure. It’s about the time it takes to read the Harto’s old paper, The Daily Telegraph. Can’t have a few stray facts like those to undermine the spin, can we.

Oh, that other great News Ltd monopoly paper, The Advertiser in Adelaide, shed 0.7% of its week day sales and 0.8% of its Saturday sales. Oh, and The Sunday Mail in Adelaide shed 0.9% of its sales.

Now what was that again Harto and Baxter? Of the major markets where News operates (and not regions like Cairns), newspapers lost circulation in Sydney, Brisbane and Adelaide, gained in Melbourne in a good performance, and made a small gain with The Sunday Times in Perth.

What’s that say about the quality of newspaper managements. Now what was the old line about statistics?

Peter Fray

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