A national advertising consultant says he is concerned advertisers may not be getting the whole story when it comes to the plummeting circulation figures at the Press-Register and other Newhouse-owned newspapers, particularly where preprinted advertisements are concerned.

Jay Schiller, who has decades of experience in the newspaper circulation business, wrote a column on the subject for Editor & Publisher magazine and now consults for advertisers, says his research shows the P-R’s circulation for home delivery and single-copy sales has fallen 40 percent in the past two years. It’s a plunge he says is also being experienced by other Newhouse-owned newspapers cut from daily publishing to three times a week.

Circulation figures at the Birmingham News and Huntsville Times have plummeted 39 and 32 percent, respectively, over the past two years according to his calculations. Looking at another market outside the region, Schiller said the Newhouse-owned Cleveland Plain Dealer is down about 30 percent as well over that time. Across the country, Schiller said such declines are well out of line even in an industry that’s seen very hard times lately.

“I haven’t seen 40 percent for two years,” he said. “I’ve seen 8 percent. Forty percent is a lot to lose in two years.”

He said new circulation figures are expected to come out soon and the decline is expected to continue, especially after the three Alabama papers raised the single-copy costs a few months ago.

Right now, Schiller says, the Press-Register’s circulation, based upon an examination of documents provided through the Association of Audited Media and their own publisher statements, is roughly 37,000 on weekdays and about 54,000 on Sundays. At its apex, the paper boasted a circulation of 120,000-plus on Sundays.

What is more troubling to Schiller than just the loss of circulation is how the Newhouse newspapers are responding to the situation by starting to provide numbers that are less about how many newspapers are distributed and more about giving advertisers an idea that readership remains very strong. Trying to read the circulation numbers has become much more difficult in the past few years, he said.

“I believe the intent is to spin-doctor and confuse,” Schiller said.

Where this is particularly problematic is in the area of preprinted or inserted advertising — those loose advertisements that come inside or alongside the paper. Preprinted advertising is certianly one major source of advertising income left at the Press-Register and its sister papers in the state. As many of the advertisers or agencies buying such ads for their clients exist out of town, they may not be fully aware of just how much circulation has plunged, Schiller says.

In such cases, advertisers could very likely be sending far more preprints than necessary, which would mean the paper is overcharging and the customer is being gouged, he says. Schiller says when he called the Press-Register last week and asked for a quote on how many preprints would be needed for a full run, he was told 73,000 for Sundays and 55,000 Wednesdays and Fridays, numbers 19,000 and 18,000 higher than current home delivery and rack sales.

Schiller said even if the preprints were included in “qualified home and delivery targeted” copies — free papers that go to non-subscribers — Sunday would only be 61,000 and weekdays 39,000.

“Still appreciably less than what I was quoted,” he said.

A study Schiller did in 2009 found dailies across the country routinely overcharging preprint advertisers by 10 to 20 percent. Recently, he says, he represented an advertising client with the New Orleans Times-Picayune — another Newhouse paper — about pre-print overrun concerns. He said the T-P ended up issuing that client a $150,000 credit. Schiller said he could not divulge the advertiser’s name. He said he’s also done work for advertisers in another non-Newhouse newspaper who were being overcharged $15 million a year.

Ricky Mathews, who has overseen the T-P and NOLA.com, and recently was placed in charge of the Southeast Regional Media Group that will control the T-P, NOLA.com, al.com and Newhouse’s Alabama Newspapers, rejected Schiller’s comments completely and said his statements about the company’s handling of circulation numbers is wrong.

“Mr. Schiller’s business model seeks financial gain by stirring up questions about pre-print advertising arrangements between advertisers and publishers. The statements you attribute to him are completely inaccurate. There were no issues with any advertiser at the T-P involving any allegation of circulation improprieties. Nor has the T-P ever paid an advertiser back for charges on overruns for preprint advertising. Over a year ago, Mr. Schiller threatened to spread similar stories to others. We informed Mr. Schiller at that time that his allegations were false and that he proceeds at his own legal risk if he repeated them. We have not heard from him since,” Mathews wrote. “Mr. Schiller is equally inaccurate with respect to his allegations about the Press-Register. Mr. Schiller’s ‘calculations’ about the Press-Register’s circulation declines are off-base. The Press-Register works with its advertisers on a quarterly and monthly basis to make the advertisers aware of the most currently available circulation figures to jointly determine preprint quantities.”

Schiller says with some newspapers losing circulation so quickly, it is up to advertisers to stay on their toes and ask questions in order to keep from being overcharged.

“If a newspaper is getting extra preprints, it’s getting extra money. Is it the responsibility of the paper to tell advertisers? Is it the responsibility of the agencies buying them?” Schiller said.

Edited 10/22/15 at 11:50 a.m. to clarify Schiller’s comment that the Times-Picayune did not write a client a physical $150,000 check, but instead issued that client a $150,000 credit.