A group of 51 newspaper publishers -- including The Washington Post, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Boston Globe, the Chicago Tribune and The Dallas Morning News -- released a statement today opposing an effort by Rosslyn-based Gannett Co. Inc. to organize an "alternative" to the Audit Bureau of Circulations (ABC).

ABC is the cooperative of advertisers, advertising agencies and newspaper publishers that has provided the newspaper industry with a standard, independent measure of circulation for 72 years.

Gannett, the nation's largest publisher of newspapers, including USA Today, recently has pulled some of its newspapers out of ABC, calling ABC's rules for measuring newspaper circulation outdated.

Following published reports that Gannett is leading an effort to organize an "alternative" to ABC, 51 newspaper publishers issued the following joint statement:

"We support the Audit Bureau of Circulations and intend to remain members. Although we may disagree with some of the ABC rules, it is our intention to work toward resolving these problems within the established framework. It is our firm conviction that publishers and advertisers need a strong, independent guarantee of standardized circulation data."

Washington Post publisher Donald E. Graham, one of a half-dozen publishers who organized the statement in support of ABC, said in a telephone interview that industrywide efforts to develop standard production formats for national advertising would be hurt by formation of a rival to compete with ABC. Graham said it is in the "best interest" of the newspaper industry to develop standard marketing practices, through ABC, that facilitate placement of national advertising in different newspapers.

Graham also said that he is in favor of reader research for advertisers, but does not believe that ABC is the correct organization to do this research.

Gannett has said that ABC's circulation measurement ought to be expanded to include data about the income and life styles of readers, rather than relying solely on tabulation of the number of newspaper subscribers.

"You've got to do something more than just count newspapers," said Gannett's Vincent Spezzano, publisher of the company's Rochester, N.Y., newspapers, which recently pulled out of ABC. "ABC ought to provide not just circulation data, but readership profiles . ABC could work with one of the marketing research firms to provide this data for the industry."

Most of the newspaper publishers interviewed said they believe the main reason Gannett is pulling some of its newspapers out of 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 newspaper and ABC cannot verify whether the newspapers actually are distributed.

ABC officials also have said that because 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 recently said ABC uses outdated, arcane methods to measure circulation, adding that Gannett will continue to press ABC on the "bulk sales question."

USA Today's Sept. 29 publisher's statement indicates average, paid bulk sales of 182,338 out of total paid circulation of 1,352,897. Gannett, which continues to lose money on USA Today, would benefit through higher advertising revenue if bulk sales were included in regular, paid circulation, rather than listed separately, industry observers said.

Gannett has said USA Today will continue to belong to ABC, and interviews with a variety of other newspaper publishers indicate ABC has strong industry support, although publishers may disagree with certain ABC rules.

For example, Times Mirror Co., publisher of the Los Angeles Times, chose to issue its own statement supporting ABC, instead of signing the joint statement, because of recent difficulties the company has had with ABC over counting circulation of its Denver Post newspaper.

"We support the ABC and intend to remain members," Times Mirror said. "It is our strong belief that ABC needs to be more receptive and flexible to innovation in the marketing of newspapers. There are difficult questions to be faced in an increasingly complex, competitive climate for newspapers. It is our hope that these problems can be resolved within the framework of ABC."

Knight-Ridder Newspapers Inc., which also did not sign the joint statement, said it agrees that the industry should stick with ABC, but that ABC needs to be flexible in applying rules.

Knight-Ridder, for example, supports Gannett's position that bulk sales should be counted as paid circulation, said Donald A. Nizen, vice president/circulation.

Roger Parkinson, publisher of the Minneapolis Star and Tribune, said disputes over rules should not be allowed to destroy ABC. He said ABC meets the needs of advertisers who want circulation numbers they can trust.

"ABC has done a good job over the years, and it is our advertising customers who want it," said Parkinson, who works for a company that is partially owned by both the Washington Post Co. and Gannett. "It would be a shame if members of our newspaper community undermined its ABC's efficiency for their own perceived individual gain. We plan to stay and be members and support ABC very strongly."

Roy Megarry, publisher of The Globe and Mail in Toronto, disagreed. Megarry recently withdrew The Globe and Mail from ABC and called ABC circulation rules "archaic and stupid."

"The big problem with me is that ABC has become the Holy Grail," Megarry said. "Even within the sphere of measuring circulation, ABC does a lousy job. They count sales to mental institutions and prisons and school children as circulation, and then they say you don't count sales to people who travel first class on airlines or who stay in four- or five-star hotels."

Walter E. Mattson, president of The New York Times Co., said newspapers need ABC to win advertising dollars from rival media. "This is an era of tremendous competition for the advertising dollar," Mattson said. "Newspapers have a fine story to tell, and they need the ABC to verify that story."

"The Wall Street Journal is very satisfied with the current mission of ABC measuring paid circulation," said Ken Burenga, vice president of circulation at Dow Jones & Co. "Where total audience measurement or demographic measurement is concerned, we have found there are other equally reliable methods to get that, whether it is individual publication subscriber studies or syndicated research. We see no compelling reason for a change."

"I would be very, very surprised to see significant support for another organization to replace ABC," said Jeremy L. Halbreich, senior vice president of The Dallas Morning News.

Gannett's Spezzano, who is leading the effort to form an alternative to ABC, said he is waiting to hear from several firms that could provide both circulation data and reader profiles. Spezzano said an alternative to ABC will be formed because "those of us who are not members of ABC need an audit by someone." He added that he believes some of the publishers who signed the joint statement supporting ABC privately are pleased with his actions and "would like to see there is another rock to step on."