The Paper Trail

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

The circulation heads at both the Star Tribune and the Pioneer Press say that a bulk of their adult work force is made up of professionals hoping to squirrel away a nest egg. But more and more, modern-day newspaper delivery "boys" and "girls" are living on the edge, struggling just to make ends meet. While economists complain of a labor shortage, a growing number of low-skilled workers are finding that the jobs for which they're best qualified are not keeping pace with the stock market. For these people, newspaper routes aren't a vocational hobby, they are a way to keep the bills paid and the lights on.

"It's a fairly well-kept secret, typically by the mass media," observes Peter Rachleff, a professor of history at Macalester College. "We've had an enormous proliferation of low-wage jobs. There's this joke: A guy says, 'I hear the economy is creating a ton of new jobs.' And his friend says, 'Yeah, there are so many, I can have two of them.' I think the invisibility of these types of low-wage workers is a big part of the problem. For instance, most of us have no idea who delivers our newspapers. They work in the dark. No one ever meets them."

It is possible, of course, that if you got up early enough to meet your delivery person, you'd find he or she is a freelancer saving up for the newest iMac. But chances are just as good that the person pitching your morning news looks a lot like Chris Taylor: short on job security, tight on cash, and more than a little fed up with living hand to mouth, door to door.

 

A mild concussion, three fractured ribs, a fractured tailbone, and a broken wrist. These are Owen Fitzmaurice's merit badges, earned while braving unshoveled sidewalks and cluttered driveways as a newspaper delivery man. The wrist is still healing, so when he works St. Paul's Highland Park for the Star Tribune from Monday through Friday, he has to wear a brace. It's an inconvenience, especially when he's trying to maneuver his bright-red Mazda pickup around the tree-lined streets of his 28-mile route. But he has compensated by learning a new toss. Like Taylor, he can hit the front steps from the edge of the longest driveway. Nowadays he just needs a little more arch.

Fitzmaurice also has worker's compensation, for which he is thankful. A four-year veteran of the Strib, the 67-year-old divorcé says his current employer is far superior to the Pioneer Press, where he had worked in 1996. "They are the absolute worst," he snaps when asked about the St. Paul daily, which does not provide its independent contractors with worker's comp. "They work you like a dog, pay next to nothing, and when you get hurt they say, 'Tough luck.'"

Fitzmaurice is slow to take shots at the Strib, in part because he believes his employer deserves credit for helping to pay for his latest injury, in part because he has the same fears as Chris Taylor. "If I didn't have Social Security, I wouldn't talk to you at all," he says. "They can fire you right on the spot, for no cause. And don't think they won't." After emphasizing again his belief that the situation for carriers is much better at the Strib, though, Fitzmaurice does allow that there have been a number of recent changes that suggest the McClatchy Co., which bought the Minneapolis paper two years ago, is more cutthroat than its predecessor, the Cowles Media Company. In other words, more like Knight Ridder--which owns the Pioneer Press, pays their carriers half as much, and fines them more often for customer complaints.

According to the Strib's Steve Alexander, pay rates for his carriers range from 15 to 20 cents a paper from Monday through Saturday, and 28 to 35 cents on Sunday. Workers can choose between daily routes or weekend routes, or take on both. "There are a number of conditions that dictate the rate," he explains. "It depends on the kind of route it is, the amount of driving, and the degree of difficulty. It would also depend on how long you've been on a route."

These same conditions apply to Pi Press carriers, says Scott Frantzen, Alexander's counterpart in St. Paul. But the pay scale is significantly lower. Frantzen is unwilling to divulge how much money one of his employees can expect to make for each delivered paper. He guesses, though, that the average worker--who, unlike his or her peers across the river, must work seven days a week--makes somewhere in the neighborhood of $700 a month. Jan Olson, who has delivered the Star Tribuneand is now a carrier at the Pi Press, says that breaks down to between 8 and 9 cents a paper on weekdays, 30 cents on Sundays.

The economic disparity doesn't end there. When there is a special insert on weekdays from a department store such as Dayton's, Olson (who asked that her real name not be used) says the Strib typically pays its delivery force an extra three cents per paper for the inconvenience. The Pi Press doles out only a penny. When a sampler of, say, soap or candy is included with the paper, the Strib lays out a nickel per, the competition just two cents. And if carriers at the Pi Press want to wrap their papers in rubber bands or stick them in a plastic bag, they're required to pay three cents for the supplies. The Strib provides the materials for free.

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