Archant sacks circulation boss for fiddling figures

The circulation director of Archant newspapers in Norfolk has been sacked for gross misconduct — falsifying sales figures. Don Williamson was about to retire and had enjoyed his farewell party before going on holiday. On his return, presumably to clear his desk, he was called in by chief executive Adrian Jeakings and fired.

 

Advertising rates are a reflection of circulation figures which are audited by a national body.

 

There has been puzzlement for a considerable time about Archant daily newspaper circulation figures which seemed to be holding steady when those of other companies were declining. It became widely discussed in March when figures for second half of 2011 were released.

 

This chart shows the Eastern Daily Press figures for three years

EDP circulation chart for three years

EDP circulation record for three years

A more typical pattern is shown by the Western Daily Press in Bristol which is owned by another group.

Western Daily Press circulation chart for three years

Comparative chart for the Western Daily Press

A memo to staff yesterday said the only titles where sales had been overstated were in Norfolk.

 

The next chart, for comparison, is for Archant”s East Anglian Daily Times in Suffolk.

EADT three year circulation chart

Comparative figures for the East Anglian Daily Times

In his memo to staff (reported by Press Gazette and Hold the Front Page) Jeakings said:

The only titles where sales have been overstated are in Norfolk.

We believe that this activity started in the second half of last year and we are working with ABC to review some bulk copies recorded in our ABC returns for the second half of 2011. These will be reported on in due course.

He added: “This does not change our strategy on circulation. We will continue to aim to maintain and grow circulation by all legitimate means possible.

It is likely that after criticism of Archant, when the figures for the second half of 2011 were published, the Audit Bureau of Circulation (ABC) was looking at the numbers submitted by the publisher for the first half of this year with care.

 

In March, media commentator Roy Greenslade said in his Guardian blog: “I know I’ll be taking Archant’s PR claims with a pinch of salt when the next set of ABC figures are posted.”

 

Those figures appeared at first sight to suggest the EDP, the EADT, the Evening News in Norwich and the Star in Ipswich, had all bucked the trend of falling circulations.

 

It was only when the figures were dug into to show the numbers of papers Archant was giving away (bulks in trade jargon) meant that in reality the trends were in line with other regional dailies. Greenslade dissected the figures for the four papers and said of the News:

[It} had boasted a 7.5% year-on-year increase. But once the bulks were removed we discover that it sold 15,399 copies at full price compared to 17,839 before. That’s a decrease of 13.7% before

In his memo to staff Jeakings said the figures for the first half 2012 had been corrected before submission, so “the numbers to be reported next week will be clean.

 

“We can’t yet say what the numbers will be, but we do not expect circulations to be out of line with others in our industry.”

 

What raised alarm bells in March was the numbers of bulks in the Archant figures compared with other regional publishers which have been not give away many papers.

 

While not being open about it in a press release was dubious spin, bulks do contribute to the total figures given by ABC and are shown in the circulation certificates.

 

What is against the rules is to overstate the numbers of bulks and that is what is likely to have happened.

 

Archant is working with ABC to review last year’s figures, so when restated ones are available we will see the extent of problem. But it is clearly not one that could be swept under the carpet and required an instant sacking to demonstrate the company was taking it seriously.

 

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