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Exclusive: Thousands of unread Sydney Morning Herald copies at university

Video footage shot by Mumbrella has raised a series of questions over the distribution of Fairfax Media’s Sydney Morning Herald.

Yesterday afternoon, Mumbrella discovered thousands of unread copies of the SMH at the University of Sydney’s Wentworth Building.  

Mumbrella understands that more than 3,500 copies a day of the paper are delivered to the university throughout the year, with a large number of those copies not being removed from their pallets until being taken away for recycling every Friday. It is not currently term time at the university, meaning there are few students around.

Mumbrella understands that around 500 copies of News Ltd’s The Australian, and a small number of The Daily Telegraph, also go to the site every day.

Although the Audit Bureau of Circulation allows for distribution of educational copies, the number being delivered to just that one site is greater than the number of educational copies on the SMH’s last audit.

However, a major issue for advertisers is that the ABC’s current definition of a paid sale includes subscribers who pay any amount for an annual subscription. Mumbrella understands that the number can be as low as $20, and no evidence is required that copies are collected from the newsagent.

The current audited Monday to Friday circulation of the Sydney Morning Herald is 207,013, with just 1.25% currently declared as educational sales.

The issue moved up the agenda after an internal Fairfax memo was leaked to Crikey regarding its Melbourne newspaper The Age. As part of a discussion about launching a separate education publication, the email warned colleagues:

“We would make the total volume of copies going through these channels a matter of public knowledge … we would effectively write down the value of advertising in weekday editions from 200,000 circulation to 160,000 circulation, causing a pretty hard sell for the advertising team.

“The flow-on effect would also affect the Sydney Morning Herald and probably every major masthead in Australia in a similar way — not so bad for your publication if you aren’t quite so reliant on advertising revenue (aka News Ltd) but a big problem for Fairfax.”

About three hours prior to publishing this story, Mumbrella invited Fairfax to comment, asking the following questions:

  • Is it correct that roughly 3,500 copies of the SMH a day are being delivered to the University of Sydney?
  • How many newspapers go to other similar educational institutions in NSW?
  • Do those copies appear on the SMH’s audit? If so, do they appear as general paid sales or educational subscriptions?
  • Is there a mechanism to assess whether they end up in the hands of readers? If so, what is that mechanism?
  • As it is not currently term time why are those newspapers still being delivered?

At the time of posting, Fairfax had not formally responded.

There is no suggestion that Fairfax’s distribution of the SMH in this manner breaches the current ABC rules.

Update: a statement from Lloyd Whish-Wilson, chief executive, Sydney publishing for Fairfax Media says:

“Copies of The Sydney Morning Herald were mistakenly delivered to Sydney University this week. It is normal practice that deliveries of The Sydney Morning Herald to universities are reduced significantly during semester recess. This did not happen in this instance and, as a result, we are now examining our internal processes.

“Copies of The Sydney Morning Herald are delivered to universities as part of our Tertiary Card subscription program. Under the program, university students and staff pay for an annual subscription to The Sydney Morning Herald.”

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