What was last year believed to be an isolated case of the virus known as SICS (Seriously Inflated Circulation Syndrome), now appears to be spreading like wildfire across America's media landscape.

Although there have been isolated cases reported since the Boston News-Letter published its first issue in April 1704, the most serious recent occurrence happened in 2002-03, infecting Gruner + Jahr's ill-fated Rosie magazine when it emerged that the company's treatment of circulation data had been rather more creative than advertisers and agencies considered appropriate [WAMN: 21-Nov-03].

SICS struck again last week with news that Lord Conrad Black's Windy City organ, the Chicago Sun-Times, had been smitten with the dread virus. Following Black's enforced departure last fall, Hollinger International discovered the paper had been overstating circulation figures of 486,000 daily copies for "several years" [WAMN: 17-Jun-04].

And now the latest flare-up, this time from within America's second largest publishing chain, the Tribune Company. The publisher admitted Thursday that circulation figures for two of its properties -- Newsday and the Spanish-language Hoy -- were improperly inflated in 2003 and early 2004.

Newsday, currently under investigation over its circulation numbers by the Securities and Exchange Commission, has admitted it actually sold 7% fewer daily papers last year than the 579,729 reported to auditors -- and 9% less than its claimed Sunday' circulation of 671,819.

Inflation ran even higher at Hoy, which overstated by 16% its daily circulation of 92,604; while Sunday numbers were pumped-up by 12% to 33,198. At the time, Hoy was published only in New York, but since the turn of the year it has launched editions in Chicago and Los Angeles.

Warns Jack Fuller, president of Tribune Publishing: "We will be taking action to discipline anyone who acted improperly and are instituting new safeguards within the circulation departments of Newsday and Hoy."

Meantime, in an effort to halt the epidemic scientists are working on a new anti-SIRCS vaccine, to be adminstered intravenously and provisionally named jugular anti-inflammatory linctus. JAIL for short.

Data sourced from: The Washington Post Online; additional content by WARC staff