The Paper Trail

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

Olson and Fitzmaurice say charging for bags is unfair, since customers will complain if their papers get wet or blow away. And the carrier will be expected to pay the price. "If someone's not happy, I get charged a fine," Olson sighs, exasperated. "So if I don't want to pay a fine for a delivery complaint, I sometimes have to buy bags."

Ultimately, it was the fines that drove Fitzmaurice away from the Pi Press. And it is the threat of more fines at the Strib that makes him most nervous about McClatchy. Every time there's a delivery complaint--a missed, misplaced, or late paper--the Pi Press charges a toll: $1 per paper Monday through Friday, $3 on Sunday. This is especially maddening, Olson says, because management in St. Paul refuses to cut carriers a break if papers are late off the printing press, which they often are. No one gets cut any slack in bad weather, either. If the paper is late, it's late. (Daily papers need to be on the step by 6:30 a.m., Sunday papers by 7:00 a.m.) Carriers are also expected to pay a fine whenever a customer doesn't receive a paper. For Olson this is especially troublesome, since most customers on her route live in apartment buildings, where she says paper theft is commonplace.

The Strib's fines are lower by almost half (50 cents for a daily, $1.75 on Sunday), but since McClatchy bought the operation in 1997, carriers say the fines have become more frequent. Brian Eldridge, who delivered for the Pioneer Press for 15 years before defecting to its rival in 1993, claims it has gotten harder over the past two years to explain a fine, even when it may be clear the carrier wasn't at fault. "These two papers are so competitive they're copying each other at every level," he says. "If they're handing out a lot of fines in St. Paul, eventually they'll hand out more fines in Minneapolis. It makes me worry that [the Star Tribune] will eventually start to pay less."

Michael Dvorak

"I can't speak to the last two years," says Alexander, who left the Los Angeles Times to join the Strib's executive team six months ago. "I'm struggling with the characterization that we are somehow more stringent, though. My understanding is that there have always been charges." Alexander also denies that pay rates will go down. Rather, he says, to compensate for rising gas prices, the Strib plans to give its carriers gas coupons which they'll be able to use at select service stations this spring. (Frantzen says the price of fuel is being discussed in St. Paul, but so far the Pi Press has no plans to make up for the rising costs.)

One thing that both management and labor agree has changed at the Strib in the past three years--although there are different explanations as to why and to what effect--is their contractual relationship. Just before announcing their intention to sell the paper in November 1997, Cowles made all of its delivery people independent contractors (an arrangement that has been standard at the Pi Press for 151 years). In years previous, carriers were nonunion employees of Cowles. That meant they were entitled to health and life insurance, vacation pay, and discounts on newspapers. Now they function as freelancers: A carrier signs a contract to purchase a given number of papers from the Strib and is then reimbursed a set amount per paper. Among the carriers, the feeling is that Cowles made the shift to boost its bottom line, to make them more attractive to potential buyers. True or not (Strib spokesman Frank Parisi says it's not), Alexander points out that the industry trend is to keep carriers off the company payroll: "I can't think of a daily paper that doesn't hire out delivery service to independent contractors anymore."

"[The new contracts] have changed everything," Brian Eldridge concludes. "Suddenly people are being charged more for delivery errors. We have to buy our own insurance. We have no job protection. The worst thing, though, is that people have to walk around in fear, always scared they're going to lose their job."

Free coffee--blistering hot, served in small disposable cups, thick as printer's ink, up-all-night strong. For carriers who arrive between 2:00 a.m. and 3:00 a.m. to pick up their papers at one of the Strib's 52 depots or the Pi Press's 14 distribution centers, it's a staple. It's also the only time-killer that comes without a price. If you want a paper to read, take it out of your paycheck.

Still, Brian Eldridge--a 52-year-old man who knows all too well that nothing much comes free--prefers to drink Mountain Dew. Twenty-ounce bottles, sweaty and sweet. It's his poison--what keeps him wired while walking his four-hour route, what makes it possible to work another shift as a janitor, and a third as a mechanic. "This job is insane," he laughs, taking a swig. "It's just a bad habit."

Although most carriers arrive at their depot (or "distribution center," as the Pi Press calls it) at this time of the night to await the arrival of their papers from the printing plant, Eldridge usually shows up no later than 1:30 a.m.--another habit. While a handful of depot managers get the massive warehouse space ready for another morning's load-out, he props himself against one of the makeshift plywood tables, peers out above his oversize glasses to read the day's delivery sheets (which tell a carrier of customer additions, cancellations, and complaints), and sips his Dew. The scene is so lonely his every move causes an echo.

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