Rosslyn-based Gannett Co. Inc. is organizing an "alternative" to compete with the Audit Bureau of Circulations, the cooperative of advertisers, advertising agencies and publishers that has provided the newspaper industry with a standard measurement of circulation for 72 years.

While declining to say who is leading the effort, Gannett Chairman Allen H. Neuharth disclosed in an interview last week that such plans are being drawn up. His remarks followed Gannett's announcement that its 11 Westchester-Rockland newspapers in New York were withdrawing from ABC. Gannett, the nation's largest publisher of newspapers, including USA Today, recently pulled its Rochester, N.Y., newspapers and the Des Moines Register out of ABC.

Neuharth declined to give any details about the new organization or to disclose which other newspapers might participate. But Toronto Globe and Mail publisher Roy Megarry, publisher of the only non-Gannett newspaper to announce recently that it is leaving ABC, said yesterday that he has been invited by Gannett officials to attend a meeting to discuss alternatives to ABC.

Gannett officials say the methods that ABC uses to count the circulation of USA Today and its other newspapers are outdated and ought to be expanded to include profiles of readers, rather than relying solely on tabulations of the number of newspaper subscribers. However, industry observers claim the main reason Gannett is leading the fight against ABC is that ABC refuses to count paid "bulk" sales of USA Today to airlines and hotels as regular, paid circulation.

Gannett argues that the sale of USA Today to airlines and hotels, which then give the newspaper away free to travelers, should be counted as regular, paid circulation because those newspapers are read by a desirable audience. But ABC, which counts those newspapers separately in a category known as "bulk sales," argues that they should not be counted along with regular, paid circulation because individuals do not pay for the paper, and because ABC cannot verify whether the newspapers actually are distributed.

ABC officials said that since an individual who buys a newspaper is more likely to read it than someone who receives it for free from an airline or hotel, the two categories should be reported separately. USA Today Publisher Cathleen Black said in an interview that ABC uses "outdated, arcane methods and Gannett will continue to press ABC on the bulk sales question." She said Gannett has no plans to pull USA Today out of ABC.

Bulk sales to airlines and hotels are more important to USA Today than to other newspapers. USA Today's Sept. 29 ABC statement indicates average, paid bulk sales of 182,338, out of a total paid circulation of 1,352,897.

Donald E. Graham, publisher of The Washington Post, said in a telephone interview yesterday that he supports ABC.

"ABC is vitally important to newspapers and advertisers," Graham said. "To destroy it would be a big mistake. It makes our circulation figures credible. It was created because without it, advertisers didn't believe our numbers. ABC was created to audit paid circulation, not audience. There are many [other] companies that provide audience data. The magazine industry, for example, uses Simmons audience figures, but all major magazines also subscribe to ABC to give their advertisers the paid circulation data they need."

When asked to comment on Gannett's decision to pull some of its newspapers out of ABC, Chuck Bennett, ABC's vice president of communications, said, "We're disappointed whenever a publisher resigns his membership. It is unfortunate these publishers are not planning to continue making comparable circulation data available . . . "