Do CAB audits create fraud instead of stopping it?

In this guest post, Scott Lewis questions whether audit bureaus are keeping up their end of the trust equation.

That moment from the early 1990s, is one I’ve never been able to forget.

I had opened a spreadsheet that had been accidentally attached to an email to find it held data I’d never seen before – including the print-run of the B2B magazine I was editing. 1200 copies. Which was a bit of a problem. Mainly because we were telling everyone its distribution was 8500.

So unless there was some serious loaves and fishes action going down somewhere, I was an unwitting party to a fraud.

After that I stuck to working for magazines that did have auditing from the Circulation Audit Bureau (CAB). It wasn’t perfect. Many publishers used bought-in lists to boost more genuine distribution.


This meant the actual readership, in terms of recipients who didn’t just bin the unopened magazine, would often be less than 60% of circulation. But at least the number of magazines printed and mailed out was guaranteed.

Fast forward 25 years to today, and I’m publishing my own B2B magazine, all digital, distributed via PDF. Our print competition is a monthly magazine that virtually defines ‘old school’.

One day at the start of this September, I am glancing through this publication’s media kit, and I notice something odd. The circulation numbers seem very familiar. When I look closer I see that they are indeed familiar, because, in its FY2016/17 media kit, this title is using numbers from its March 2014 CAB audit.

The Australian Media Auditing Association (AMAA) provides access to where you can look up current audited circulations. Sure enough, the circulation published in the media kit is about 8% above the real circulation. So I send an email to the CAB, attaching screenshots and providing links. After a few days I get a polite email back, saying it will contact the publisher.

About two weeks later, the changes appear in the media kit.

I’m more curious now. I start looking through the media kits for the other magazines from this publisher. The next publication I look at is obviously doing the same thing, quoting old CAB numbers. But when I go to look up its audited circulation, there is no entry. The publisher has deregistered the magazine from CAB auditing altogether.

It gets better.


When I look at the masthead of this magazine, I see it carries the official CAB authorised logo and circulation statement. Or appears to. In fact, what is printed there is the statement not for that magazine, but for the magazine I’m competing with.

Why would anyone do that? Is it possible that these genius criminal minds have decided that if they print the CAB notice from an audited magazine in an unaudited magazine, they won’t get into trouble?

It’s a little unbelievable.

Of course I wrote to the CAB. Again.

But the point is this: in terms of the magazine I compete with, there were some 16 months when that company misrepresented its circulation numbers, with the apparent authority of the CAB backing them up.


Not only have the advertisers suffered, through trusting the CAB numbers to be accurate, and therefore paying more for less, but I have suffered as well. I’m an effective competitor, and I’ve taken enough advertising revenue from them that the company can no longer afford a larger print run.

The CAB is effectively helping shore up a magazine that really needs to fail.

With the second magazine, advertisers are relying on it to be CAB audited when that is not the case. Who knows what the real circulation numbers are? 1200?
The AMAA seems to have become the one thing that is worse than a toothless tiger, and that’s a tiger that wears dentures.

It looks like it has teeth, but when it comes to the crunch, the most it can do is to administer a good gumming.

It’s just an obvious fact that without active enforcement and sanctions, circulation auditing is going to do more harm than good. And that harm is to everyone involved in the media industry: publishers, advertisers and, ultimately, readers.

Scott Lewis is a writer, editor and programmer 


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