Last Thursday the Audit Bureau of Circulations released its latest round of circulation figures – figures which showed that nearly all of the publications in the Fairfax stable have gone up, while nearly all the News Ltd papers’ circulation have slipped.

Saturday’s Age dubbed itself “Australia’s fastest growing newspaper”, The Sunday Age circulation boasted it has hit an “all-time high”, Saturday’s SMH also devoted space to smirking, and the Sun Herald was over the moon about its 0.5% circ increase while sales of rival The Sunday Tele had its “biggest fall in a decade.”

So what’s going on? Does this mean that Australian readers have selectively avoided News Ltd newspapers while just reading more Fairfax papers?

News Limited Circulation Director Mark Webster says that the 4.3% drop at The Sunday Tele was due to massive giveaways of the Sun Herald.

“We have been keeping track of huge numbers of Sun Heralds being given away every Saturday night in Greater Union cinemas all over the Sydney metro area,” Webster told Crikey this morning. “This excessive giveaway tactic has clearly damaged the sale of The Sunday Telegraph as consumers who are given a free copy after a movie late on a Saturday night are less inclined to make a trip to the newsagent the following morning to buy one or both Sunday newspapers.”

“Noting The Sun Herald‘s sale has only increased by 2548 copies using this tactic, the giveaways are possibly damaging their normal retail sale, and not just the sale of The Sunday Telegraph. If 20,000 free copies are given away every Saturday night, this would represent 3.8% of The Sun Herald’s sale. This is clearly not within the spirit of product sampling.”

“I’d like to say that all publishers are entitled to sample their newspapers at special events, but systematic and substantial weekly free giveaways at Greater Union Cinemas, Fitness First Gyms, Taronga Zoo, car service centres, museums etc is not good for our industry,” says Webster.

The ABC’s new rules, to come into effect on 1 July will retain the 1% cap on promotional copies in audited figures, but for the first time will disclose the total number of papers given away – including to schools, universities, hotels and airlines.

Meanwhile, the Fairfax Up, News DOWN story remains more of a mystery than a trend.