Last year, The Tennessean reported that it was distributing more than 20,000 Sunday newspapers in Brentwood and Franklin. There’s only one problem with that figure: There are just over 17,000 occupied households in Brentwood and Franklin, combined.
Prompted by a complaint in April, a national auditing firm has been investigating the newspaper’s circulation claims, the Scene has learned, and The Tennessean has agreed to refile corrected numbers.
A report released by the Audit Bureau of Circulations, a Chicago-based firm that audits circulation figures of virtually every major newspaper in the nation, indicates that The Tennessean reported distributing 13,252 Sunday papers in Franklin on Sept. 24, 1995. But in 1995, the report estimates, there were only about 10,100 occupied households in Franklin. The paper also claimed to be distributing 7,467 Sunday papers in Brentwood, while Brentwood had only approximately 7,000 households.
Tennessean publisher Craig Moon acknowledged that the paper’s distribution figures, as originally reported to the Bureau, “are not right” and that the paper recently submitted lower, revised figures of 6,241 for Franklin and 6,601 for Brentwood. Moon said the higher numbers represented newspapers distributed in unincorporated areas of Williamson County. He also said The Tennessean was not aware of how the Bureau “broke down the numbers.”
The Audit Bureau report also shows that The Tennessean claimed to have distributed 7,848 Sunday papers in Smyrna, even though Smyrna had only about 6,200 occupied households. Moon said the correct number of papers is 5,896.
The Bureau’s rules require Moon to file a certified report showing newspaper distribution figures “by towns.” Moon said The Tennessean has been filing its reports for several years based on delivery routes, not town lines. The morning paper will change its figures now that the Audit Bureau has pointed out the problem, Moon said.
The Audit Bureau of Circulations “is the Bible we all use,” said one local media buyer. Jointly controlled by newspapers and advertisers, the Bureau issues annual, audited reports of newspaper circulation. The Bureau’s figures are widely relied upon in the industry and are used to attract major advertisers. “If you don’t know the local market, the Bureau’s numbers are what you rely on,” the media buyer said.
Officials at the Audit Bureau won’t publicly discuss The Tennessean’s figures, but a source familiar with the situation said that the Bureau was asked, shortly after the release of its report, to explain the apparent discrepancies between The Tennessean’s figures and the numbers of households in those three communities. Moon said that, within a few weeks, the Bureau will issue a revised audit report with corrected figures.
The Audit Bureau has also not yet released The Tennessean’s most recent circulation figures, which were reported to the Bureau in early October and are normally available to other newspapers by mid-month.
“There’s a hold on those numbers,” said a Bureau staffer who tried to look up The Tennessean’s most recent figures. “That usually means there’s a discrepancy between the paper’s reported numbers and our figures.” Mike Moran, senior vice president of field audits at the Bureau, said the Bureau will not discuss ongoing investigations.
Moon said The Tennessean did not intend to mislead anyone and that the Audit Bureau is paying for the cost of the revised report.
Lost and found
According to last week’s Nashville Banner, Columbia/HCA head Richard Scott “has not been seen publicly in months” and “didn’t even appear” at the company’s annual stockholder meeting in May. The front-page story by reporter Trebor Banstetter said Scott is lying low to avoid a 60 Minutes camera crew that has been trying for months to interview him.
The Columbia CEO may be avoiding 60 Minutes, but he hasn’t disappeared. According to a company spokesman, Scott ran in the highly publicized Corporate Challenge race on Oct. 5, walked for the Juvenile Diabetes Foundation on Sept. 25, and recently spoke to large audiences in San Diego and Akron.
60 Minutes is “just trying to rattle the cage and is using the local media to do it,” complained Columbia spokeswoman Eve Hutcherson. “That is a common tactic the show uses when someone doesn’t want to be interviewed.”
Banstetter also goofed when he wrote that Scott missed the company’s annual meeting. According to a May 10 story in the Banner, Scott sat through the shareholder meeting but “did not address shareholders and did not stay to answer questions afterwards.” Banstetter should have remembered that story. He wrote it.
“I was there,” he admitted. “If I had to do it over again, I’d have written that Scott has not been accessible to the media” during the past few months. The reporter said he had called Columbia more than once last week to ask about Scott’s public appearances. Banstetter says no one returned his calls.
After Banstetter’s story ran, however, the reporter’s boss got half-a-dozen calls from Columbia’s head flack. The paper printed a front-page correction that talked about the shareholder meeting but did not mention Scott’s other appearances.
Media sources say Banstetter’s mistakes and the angry calls that followed are symptomatic of the mutually suspicious relationship between Columbia’s public relations staff and local reporters who cover health care issues.
“It’s a frustrating experience,” said a veteran business writer. “Before Scott and his people came, it was easy to interview Clayton McWhorter or Tommy Frist. Now it’s hard to get anything.” Another reporter who writes regularly for industry trade magazines said she has “given up” trying to arrange interviews through Columbia’s public relations department. “And, frankly,” she said, “I think that’s what they want me to do.”
To comment or complain about the media, leave a message for Henry at the Scene (244-7989, ext. 445), call him at his office, 252-2363, or send an e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org.