Fresh newspaper circulation figures to be released by the Audit Bureau of Circulations will show for the first time how many copies Australia’s major newspapers give away for nothing. Which means the “actual” circulation figures for some papers just got a whole lot skinnier.

Crikey understands that between 8-9% of The Sydney Morning Herald’s circulation is distributed free at schools, universities, airlines, hotels and events. The Australian follows closely on its heels, feeding around 7% to freebie outlets, while The Age and The Financial Review are pushing some 3% into hotel lobbies, departure lounges, schools, unis and so on.

If you take the daily circulation of the SMH to be around 211,000, that means almost 18,000 copies each day are complementary, while The Oz, with an approximate daily circulation figure of 135,000, is giving away close to 10,000 copies. Interestingly, the Weekend Australian, which appears to have picked up a few thousand readers since this time last year (now nudging the 300,000 mark), only sends around 4% (12,000) out gratis.

By comparison, the Murdoch press appears to give away a minuscule proportion of its flagship titles. The Daily Telegraph, with a daily circulation in the vicinity of 393,000 (down on close to 400,000 this time last year), sends less than 1.5% out free, while the Herald Sun, with a total daily sales figure of around 540,000 (down on last year), sends less than 0.5% out for nix.

Queensland’s Courier-Mail gives around 3% away, with the declining Adelaide Advertiser around 1.5%.

The figures also show who has gained readers and who has lost them – and broadly the numbers are down. Papers to have lost circulation include The Australian, Daily Telegraph, Sunday Telegraph, Herald Sun, West Australian, Canberra Times, Adelaide Advertiser, Northern Territory News and Hobart Mercury.

Crikey understands that of the 35 major newspapers surveyed, 26 have a lower circulation than a year ago.