Orange County Register executives celebrated their biggest financial event of the year when the paper's 10th annual "Best of Orange County" issue grossed the company a reported $750,000 in a single day. But the celebrants might be excused for failing to note that the Register lured advertisers to the special section by grossly inflating circulation numbers. According to Register sources, the county's largest daily newspaper quietly distributed its Sept. 19 "Best of Orange County" special edition to only about one-tenth of its weekday circulation of 306,000. In fact, if our spot checks of neighborhoods in Irvine, Laguna Beach, Costa Mesa, Stanton, Westminster, Garden Grove, Huntington Beach and Santa Ana were any indication, a majority of the Register's residential subscribers never received a copy. The paper also failed to include the issue in all of its news racks–a profitable move no doubt for the Reg when you consider the cost of printing the inch-thick supplement, but one that eliminated as many as 64,000 more potential readers.
Missing papers weren't the only problem. Register officials created an advertising kit for the special issue that curiously did not mention circulation numbers, although the per-inch rates quoted were similar if somewhat less than rates an advertiser would pay to reach the paper's entire weekday daily readership. Several local business owners–who advertised in the supplement–said they were told the distribution would be 360,000, a figure that represents the Register's peak Sunday circulation. The "Best of Orange County" was published on a Friday, when normal circulation is almost 60,000 less.
The numbers game includes a cover-up, according to Reg sources. When a subscriber calls to ask why she didn't receive the supplement with her Friday-morning paper, employees have reportedly been instructed to act surprised. "We tell them, 'Oh, sorry, distribution must have missed your street,'" a Register sales rep told the Weekly. Some of the paper's subscribers who did not get the special issue and who called to complain say they still have not received the issue and don't believe they ever will.
Attempts to get an explanation from the Register–which is owned by Irvine-based media giant Freedom Communications Inc.–were unsuccessful. N. Christian Anderson III, publisher and chief executive officer of the Register, declined to return several telephone calls over a three-week period seeking comment. An aide to Anderson hinted they would wait for this story's publication before deciding whether or not to comment.
According to the Register's "customer bill of rights," the paper maintains the "highest standards of accuracy, credibility and integrity." Officials say they conduct business ethically.
"We firmly adhere to a personal code of values," according to the corporation's annual report. "These values are the bedrock of our relationships, both personal and professional. Our integrity develops out of respect for ourselves and others, and it carries with it a strong sense of moral responsibility. We demonstrate integrity by striving to do what is right."
Locked in a circulation war with the Los Angeles Times a decade ago, another scandal rocked the Register. An outside audit found that distribution of the paper had been exaggerated by as much as 20,000. Two officials were fired, and Register executives promised to behave ethically in the future.
The Sept. 19 supplement was hailed by Register editors. "Best of Orange County . . . Now that's really saying something, isn't it?" they wrote in the supplement. "We're known around the country, if not the world, for having the best in so many things. To paraphrase that most famous civic boast–if you can be the best here, you can be the best ANYWHERE. [Their emphasis.] Are we wrong?"
Register officials have always struggled with irony, and the supplement was no different. After celebrating Orange County's uniqueness, they named the Florida-based Olive Garden restaurant chain as Best Italian Food and Seattle-based Starbucks as Best Coffeehouse.