The Paper Trail

What you won't read in the morning paper about how the news gets delivered

As the sky lightens, so does Taylor's Malibu. By 5:30 he has finished the day's route, comfortably ahead of the 6:30 deadline (the fog will keep a number of his fellow carriers out an extra hour). He has tossed 200-odd papers, at 18 cents per. Before subtracting the price of gas or factoring in complaints each of which can cost Taylor up to 50 cents on weekdays, that adds up to a little more than nine bucks an hour. Ready for what he says are his three hours of daily
sleep, Taylor turns on his lights and follows an exit sign to the highway.

"I know what you're thinking," he winks, clearing his throat as much out of habit as need. "You're thinking that I drive around in the dark so I won't wake people up when I pull up to their house. Well, that's exactly what I tell the cops when they stop me. But all I'm really trying to do is save some money. If I kept my headlights on all the time, I'd burn through a set every three months. That's, like, 12 bucks a month. And let's face it, I deliver newspapers for a living. I'm not exactly Steve Forbes."

 

If you're over 30 and can remember spending your allowance on comic books or magazines like Boy's Life, then you've seen the want ads. Maybe you answered one. In the late Seventies and early Eighties, if a kid wanted a new bike (complete with banana seat), or, say, a transistor radio with leatherette carrying case, a football (official NFL size and weight), a calculator watch, or a newfangled fiberglass fishing pole, all he or she had to do was deliver papers for GRIT, the free weekly featuring more coupons than editorial copy; in today's vernacular, it would be known as a "shopper."

"Join the thousands of others who earn FREE prizes and make cash profits every week introducing GRIT to friends, relatives, neighbors and others," the quarter-page ads read. Line drawings of the prizes were usually accompanied by portraits of beaming boys and girls, fanning wads of cash and shouldering a white cloth delivery bag. "GRIT, 'America's Greatest Family Newspaper,' will help you get started in a profitable business of your own by sending you papers, all the supplies you'll need to be successful, and suggestions on how and where to begin." The kicker? If you were a Boy Scout, taking a route would earn you a Salesmanship Merit Badge. Who could resist?

Daily newspapers attempted to entice young workers with similar promotions. In the mid-Eighties newsboys and newsgirls for the Pioneer Press or the Star Tribune were still being invited to picnics, given the chance to win Twins tickets, offered cash prizes, even lavished with letter jackets and baseball hats featuring the papers' logos. In many American families, delivering papers was more than a first job; it was a rite of passage, a sign that you had the mettle to pull up by your own bootstraps.

Today both dailies in the Twin Cities use many of these time-tested methods of recruitment. The job of newspaper delivery is presented as "an easy way to make extra cash" in half-page Help Wanted classifieds that stress that the work takes but a few hours a day.

"What we're looking for are people looking to make enough money for a car payment or a boat payment or some spending money," explains Scott Frantzen, vice president of circulation at the Pioneer Press. "We have people from all walks of life--district court judges, homemakers, teachers. We've got people who do it because they want exercise."

The want ads also promise that those who become carriers will be paid hundreds of dollars biweekly and will have the chance to compete for bonuses (when applicants call the Pi Press, for instance, they're presented with the possibility of making $500 just for signing up for a route). There's also a conscious effort at both papers to borrow an ink-stained page from the past, when bag-toting youngsters were featured in Norman Rockwell paintings. "Those folks are the real heroes working at our newspaper," the Strib's vice president of circulation, Steve Alexander, says about today's troops. He dubs the act of paper delivery "the daily miracle."

Even editorial departments get in on the act. On Sunday, January 30, Amy Lindgren, a columnist for the Pioneer Press, penned the Job Hunter section's cover piece, titled "Paper Work," in which she waxed nostalgic for her days as a papergirl. "I read recently that three of the current presidential candidates list delivery as a first job," Lindgren wrote. "Is newspaper delivery for you? If you don't mind early hours and you could use extra cash, it's worth a try."

There is one telling difference between the ads that graced those classic comic books and today's notices in the classifieds, though. The pictures. Instead of corn-fed kids from the heartland, job seekers are treated to photos of responsible-looking adults; an ethnically diverse selection of men and women, somewhere between 20 and about 70 years old, smiling from ear to ear, proudly displaying their employer's newspaper. Delivery is no longer child's work, no longer a way for kids to supplement their allowances. For the past decade, 99 percent of the people who carry routes for the two Twin Cities dailies have been over the age of 18. Most of them need access to an automobile, and none of them is in it to win a new bike.

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