Trading Standards and the Advertising Standards Authority are investigating readership claims made by Trinity Mirror for its Southport Visiter and Formby Times weekly titles.
It follows a complaint by a rival publisher that Trinity was claiming readership gains when circulation at the papers was down.
In March, Trinity’s north Merseyside free titles published a wrap, stating the Formby Times readership was 23,000.
But Phil Lilley, director of rival Champion Newspapers, said the claim was made at a time when the Formby Times’s circulation had dropped to an all time low of 4,508.
Lilley said that when he challenged Trinity over the claim, it said 10,000 readers were outside Formby, which has only 20,473 adults in the 15-plus age group.
He also claimed that Trinity had told the Newspaper Society all of its circulation was inside the town, and was displayed as such on the database of JICREG (the Joint Industry Committee for Regional Press Research).
Champion is Trinity’s main competitor in the Southport and Formby areas.
He told Press Gazette: “We asked local trading standards to ascertain how TM could square the circle with their contradictory positions.
“The answer given by TM was that all of its circulation is in Formby, but then residents pass copies on to others outside of the area, who again pass them on until we reach 10,000 readers outside of Formby.” Citing a Press Gazette report on the Birmingham Mail that said the Mail had increased readership, but lost paying readers according to a GfK NOP survey, Lilley said: “This is also a TM title that has experienced a sharp fall in circulation, while readership has increased by 8,000. Readers per copy (RPC) have gone up from 2.5 to 2.9 for both the Birmingham Mail and the Formby Times.
The Southport Visiter has climbed to 3.68 RPC from 2.85.
“How is it that in all the TM titles on Merseyside, circulation has gone down, in many cases to record lows, yet readership has increased — and alarmingly so in some cases?” He added: “The only way publishers can try to maintain readership in a marketplace where fewer people are buying newspapers is to increase readers per copy.
“The increase in RPC is astonishing given that, due to family break-ups, fewer adults reside per household.
“TM has somehow managed to attract almost half a reader per copy sold for the Formby Times and Birmingham Mail (from approximately one quarter of a million copies), and almost a full reader per copy for the Southport Visiter over a 12- to 18-month period.” Sefton Metropolitan Borough Council Trading Standards confirmed it was investigating the Southport Visiter and the Formby Times, while the ASA confirmed it was investigating the Southport Visiter, the Formby Times and another Trinity Mirror title, the Ormskirk Advertiser.
A Trinity Mirror spokesman said: “The figures quoted in the campaign were based on a wider research area than the one represented on the JICREG database.
“These figures were taken from the Trinity Mirror BEAMER readership survey. BEAMER is the biggest piece of media face-to-face research ever conducted in the UK, with a total sample of 36,000 interviews across the UK.
“BEAMER researched an area larger than the one represented on the JICREG database. We therefore have two separate figures which we can legitimately quote with different sources.
“However we are currently in the process of reviewing the area represented for these titles on the JICREG database in view of the research findings, with the full support of JICREG.”