Independent Media has hit back at a report by TimesLIVE that its newspaper circulation figures were "inflated". The media company has said its newspaper titles did not "deliberately" submit "misleading data" of its circulation figures to the Audit Bureau for Circulations.
TimesLIVE on Thursday reported that Independent had been inflating circulation figures for more than one year. The period in question is between the first quarter of 2017 and the first quarter of 2018.
Fin24 has compared the revised figures to the original figures published by the Audit Bureau of Circulations (ABC) and circulation figures for several of Independent's titles differed. For example, circulation figures for The Star differed by more than 12 000 in one quarter. Circulation for Cape Argus also differed - by more than 3 000 over several quarters within the period. There were also differences in circulation figures for Pretoria News and the Diamond Fields Advertiser.
General manager of ABC Charles Beiles told Fin24 by phone on Thursday that it conducted a check audit on the circulation figures. According to ABC's website these checks are random. Beiles explained the check audit is done if the publisher or title relies on an external auditor to sign off on their circulation - as Independent Media did. The check audit is used by the ABC to assure what the auditor signed off and what the publisher submitted is accurate, he explained.
It was in this check audit that the ABC picked up a transgression of one of its rules and amended its previous report to accurately reflect Independent's circulation. A notice was sent to ABC members regarding the changes in July and the amended reports were issued a few days later, Beiles said.
He explained that ABC measures circulation according to various categories – for example sales or subscriptions – for advertisers and other stakeholders to use. In this case, Independent Media's sales of print media in education were affected. "Our rules require that there needs to be a sponsor - someone need to pay for those particular publications. We found the particular rule was transgressed," Beiles explained to Fin24.
Independent Media's Head of Circulation Anesh Ramjith told Fin24 in an emailed response that the ABC Board was "not happy" with the funding mechanism for these copies circulated to schools. These copies were sponsored by a group entity as it forms part of the company's corporate social investment initiatives, Ramjith explained. "ABC rules state such copies should be funded by third parties and not via the group," he said.
"We are fully aware of the ABC rule and have always adhered to that; however, we were not aware at the time, of the of the ownership of the sponsoring party being connected to Independent Media.
"Since then, we have acquired a new sponsor," Ramjith added.
Ramjith also said that even though ABC does not agree with inclusion of these copies in the figures Independent submitted, the copies were indeed delivered and "there is no question over the total number of copies delivered".
"There was no intent on the part of the affected titles to deliberately submit misleading data," he said.
Accuracy for advertisers
Marketing advisor and analyst Chris Moerdyk explained to Fin24 that it is important that the circulation figures are accurate, as advertisers rely on ABC's data.
Media can voluntarily sign up to be a member of the ABC, which means their sales will be audited for advertisers to know the extent of the reach of these publications, Moerdyk explained.
"They (advertisers) want to know how many potential customers are they reaching.
"They want to know how many people read newspaper every day on an aeroplane, how many people actually subscribe and have it delivered at their homes and offices every day and how many people go to a news vendor," Moerdyk said.
The problem with not being a member of the ABC is that advertisers will have to trust what a publication says are its sales. "It's like listening to a really slick salesman, they can do what they like, they can tell lies. Advertisers find that difficult to believe these figures or not," Moerdyk said.
However, Moerdyk pointed out that an audit is not a "perfect thing" but advertisers work with a "90%+ certainty" that the ABC figures are reliable.