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The Rise and Fall of the American Paperboy

I have a short essay in the next issue of Time magazine (it will be online a week later) looking at the historical career of the American paperboy. Due to the vicissitudes of publishing, the piece had to be rather severely cut, but here is the longer, original version.

* * *

Walking downstairs the other morning to retrieve the newspaper, I realized I was the last person in my Brooklyn apartment receiving the daily New York Times and Wall Street Journal. The number swells a bit on weekends, but Monday through Friday find me alone in my ritual.

Trudging back through the snow, thinking about the future of this physical object and its delivery, I suddenly wondered: Were there any paperboys left in America? Certainly not on my block: The Times shifted to all-adult carriers over a decade ago. Mine wasn’t the image of Norman Rockwell and Leave it to Beaver — a boy on a bike — but a guy in a van from Staten Island. But did this once familiar cultural icon still exist? Where had he gone? And why should we care?

The paperboy has been subject to two distinct forces. The first is the newspaper business: Not just circulation — which peaked in 2000 and has been dropping since — but when papers were delivered. 2000 marked the first time there were more morning than evening papers. This helped accelerate a shift begun a decade previously, when from 1980 to 1990, the number of adult carriers had risen by 112 percent, while youth carriers had dropped by 60. Most children either could not or were not willing to get up and deliver papers by 6 a.m.

Cost-conscious newspapers shifted to large “distribution centers,” meaning carriers needed to distribute bigger bundles of papers across a wider area — via car. To entice adults, newspapers changed the name: The “paperboy” became an “independent delivery contractor.” They changed the job: Few carriers today do collections. And they changed the delivery experience: In what’s referred to as the “controversial tube-vs.-porch delivery dilemma,” instead of a kid putting it on your porch (or in the bushes), an adult in a car would put it in your roadside mailbox.

The larger culture around the paperboy also changed. Kids stopped delivering papers for the same reason they stopped walking to school — since the early 1970s the percentage has from over 50% to just 11%. Stranger danger, for one. In a high-profile case in 1982, a 12-year-old Iowa boy named Johnny Gosch disappeared while on his paper route in West Des Moines. But as Free Range Kids author Lenore Skenazy notes, stranger abductions haven’t been rising, and violent crime involving children has been dropping (lest you think it’s because we stopped letting children be paperboys, she notes all violent crime rates have dropped). “If we only focus on the rare and horrible,” she says, “we will be too scared to let our kids do anything.”

People also began moving to exurban regions that were simply too spread out for kids on foot or on Scwhinn Stingrays, where streets were deemed unsafe for anything but the inside of a car (even if that’s where most accidental injury occurs to children, as Skenazy notes). From 1981 to 1997 youth participation in organized sports doubled; where nearly half of 16 year-olds had a summer job in 1978, just above 20% did by 2008.

But so what? Why should we lament the passing of an entry-level, low-skilled job? Do jobs for kids actually do any good? Interestingly, Bureau of Labor Statistics research shows that men who worked in high school earned more than a dollar more on average at age 27 than those who did not. Was it the job, or were those kids simply more motivated? History teases suggestively: Benjamin Franklin delivered The Boston Gazette, Thomas Edison sold papers at the age of 12, and Warren Buffet, long before he was trying to buy the Washington Post, was delivering it.

Ask a former paperboy about the job and you’re likely to summon a misty-eyed recollection of predawn bundling and knee-high snow. “Today it’s basically something that doesn’t exist,” said Today host Matt Lauer. “It’s a bit of innocence lost — and it meant a lot to me as a kid.” Clarence Eckerson, a filmmaker (and former paperboy), describes it as “an amazing responsibility to have as a teenager, to essentially be a private business, collecting money and paying a weekly bill.”

After these ruminations, I was admittedly pleased to find that there are still paperboys — and girls — in America (even if, in 2008, they made up only 13.2% of all carriers, down from nearly 70% in 1990). As Fred Masenheimer, publisher of The Times News, a newspaper with roughly 14,000 subscribers (“in central eastern Pennsylvania, just north of Allentown”) told me, the daily paper not only employs an all-youth carrier force — it’s resisted shifting to morning distribution precisely so it could keep those carriers.

“I think it’s a vital part of a kid’s growing up and learning to be their own business person,” say Masenheimer. About half of the paper’s 100-plus carriers deliver papers alone, while the rest have parental supervision — particularly younger children. This is partially for safety, partly to ensure delivery. “When you put your reputation o the back of a 10 or 12 year old kid, you want to make sure that they’re doing the job properly,” he says. In 41 years of publishing the paper, he’s seen countless carriers go on to college, or routes change hands several times within the same family.

Those carriers still risk the occasional dog bite, and they still sling canvas bags across the handlebars of their bikes. Masenheimer himself was a paperboy, delivering The Hanover Evening News. “They used to tell us it was the last two-cent newspaper in America,” he says. “So you can imagine how much money we made in a week.” Nobody’s getting rich as a carrier, he concedes, “but nobody’s getting rich as a journalist these days either.”

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This entry was posted on Friday, February 4th, 2011 at 9:14 am and is filed under Uncategorized. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

23 Responses to “The Rise and Fall of the American Paperboy”

  1. Brent Says:

    My uncle will take the better part of a Sunday afternoon regaling you with stories about selling papers on Los Angeles streets in the 1940s. He had his “corner,” and when the signals (no lights in those days) would switch to stop, he’d dash out into traffic to deliver papers to drivers. He was a a car toreador. Eventually, he got his three brothers to occupy the other corners of that street, a complete and nepotistic monopoly. At nine or ten years-old, he says he made as much money as a working man.

    He also believes — and probably rightly — that a good part of today’s entrepreneurs received their early business education delivering papers.

  2. Jynet Says:

    We have also, in Canada AND the US lost the icecream vendors with thier cooler bikes.

    There is no one in the world who makes those bikes anymore, and a used one will cost you $10,000 now because not only are they a business on wheels, they have somehow become collector items!

    I remember the local “hoodlem” turning 15 and signing up with an icecream vendor for one of those bikes. He hauled that thing up and down the (very!) steep street in front of my house 4 or 5 times a week. I guarantee he was to tired to be getting into any trouble after that, lol.

    We are stripping our youth of important educational experiences, and vital physical educations experiences as well as loosing a great place to turn “bad” kids off thier self destructive path into something great.

    That kid is now a successful business owner in our city, with house and a wife and kids. Where would he have been if left to his own devices? Who knows :(

  3. Kim Says:

    @Jynet I think you are referring to cargo bikes which are increasingly popular in Europe, and I do believe have been sighted in Montreal

  4. Paul Souders Says:

    My paper route (1983) was not only my first job, it was my first BUSINESS.

  5. Doug Faunt Says:

    I had several routes at different times when young (late 50′s, early 60′s).
    But I had a BIG basket on my bike, not a bag.
    I discovered that I REALLY don’t like the administrative parts of business, but it got me out of the house, and a lot of exercise.
    And funded my electronics hobby, which has stood in good stead my entire life.

  6. BikesRUs Says:

    #2. Not true that ice cream bikes are gone.

    http://worksmancycles.com/shopsite_sc/store/html/vending.html

    (No financial interest in workman bikes. I just loathe internet wisdom that’s patently wrong.)

  7. Betty Barcode Says:

    That’s correct, BikesRUs. Buffalo has a bicycle ice cream vendor who has been so successful that he has added additional vehicles and staff. He uses Worksmans.

  8. Aaron Naparstek Says:

    I still have my Cleveland Plain Dealer bag around here somewhere.

  9. Amoeba Says:

    Ice cream bikes still cool and apparently available.

    http://www.pashley.co.uk/products/classic-no-33.html

  10. Bob Baxter Says:

    I carried a Denver Post route at age 13/14 and I carry a bunch of memories from that time. The paper had to go out and I had to be there to deliver it regardless of the weather or how I felt. The clearest memory is pedaling the streets of Denver hawking extras the afternoon of December 7, 1941. I still ride a bike because its fun.

  11. Thomas Says:

    In most of the suburbs around Atlanta, they deliver by car and they don’t put it in the mailbox. It gets put in a plastic bag and simply tossed onto your driveway. Unfortunately, there are a number of coupon circulars that get delivered the same way so everyone ends up with a driveway scattered with trash.

  12. 2whls3spds Says:

    I was one of the last generation of “paper boys” in Fayetteville, NC. They switched completely over to car carriers in 1975. I used a Schwinn Heavy Duty with the largest Wald baskets front and rear. On large paper days (typically Wednesdays and Sundays) I would have a carrier bag stuffed and sitting on top of the rear baskets. Interestingly enough my route intersected with several others, two of which were run by girls. We all helped each other out by substituting for one another, or when papers were running late, helping one another fold and deliver. I actually had a combined route that had been 3 smaller routes at one time. The best part was the high rise apartment they built, papers were included in the rent, you loaded a bag and walked the entire 40 units…easy money there.

    Aaron

  13. dwainedibbly Says:

    I delivered for the Naples Daily News from age 11 to 14 (1969 – 1972). I had a 3-speed Schwinn Typhoon with the biggest rear baskets I could find. For the “Sunday” paper (actually delivered on Saturday) I also used a canvas bag on the handlebars. I wasn’t a big kid, at least until I hit a growth spurt in 8th grade. I must’ve looked funny, such a little guy on a big overloaded bike. Naples was very seasonal in those days. My route would grow from a very manageable 50 papers ever summer to over 100 when the snowbirds arrived for the winter.

    Several other kids in my neighborhood also had routes. The paper dropped bundles at my house for all of us. My little sister & I were latchkey kids. I suspect that my single-parent mother liked the fact that there was a positive activity waiting for me when I got home from school.

    It really was a business, but also a lot of fun. I really was acting as an independent contractor. I think my paperboy years are responsible for my love of bicycling even today. (Mrs Dibbly refers to those years as my “Professional Cycling Career”.) It makes me a little sad that kids today don’t get the chance to have this experience.

    For some fantastic really old newsboy photos, search shorpy.com.

  14. Tony Says:

    I had an afternoon Cleveland Press route (no Sundays) for 4 years in the early ’70s, one of two routes kept in the family for a dozen years between me and my two older brothers (my folks must have felt that it was inappropriate work for girls at the time, because none of my four sisters ever had a route).

    “Collecting” was definitely the hard part of the job, sometimes having to go back two or three times to a single house (usually the same ones week after week). I used a Raleigh 26″ single speed, usually with two canvas bags, one over each shoulder, through snow and rain and sleet, up hill both ways! And yes, I attribute my long-standing commitment to transportation cycling to my early years delivering papers.

    When I return to visit my parents, I’m always tempted to start reciting names and paper locations: McNeelys, front door; Suschecks, side door; Hansons, front door mail slot, etc…My route ended with one house on the main street, a block from Dairy Queen, where way too much of the profits were traded for milk shakes.

    I had the financial misfortune of delivering papers during the period when the weekly cost went up from $0.60 to $0.75 to $0.90, with an inversely proportional decrease in “keep the change” tips. Perhaps that was the beginning of the demise of local newspapers (the Cleveland Press has been long out of business).

    I wonder if anyone has ever tried to quantify the environmental costs of the demise of paper boys. There’s the obvious increase in VMT (pollution, GHGs, oil consumption, etc.) with all those adults driving around in slow circles in the middle of the night. And then there are the millions of rubber bands and plastic bags that get used every day to protect the papers so they can be tossed randomly onto driveways, lawns and into bushes instead of being carefully placed in screen doors, paper boxes and mail slots.

  15. Rick Former Paperboy Says:

    It is funny because my father, my brothers and I all had paper routes. I couldn’t deliver on bicycle because the route had hills I could not ride up on my bicycle, especially with papers on it.

    Rick

  16. David Hembrow Says:

    FWIW, paper deliveries by bike are still going strong in the Netherlands. Indeed, my daughters have both done this, and one still does.

    They load the kids up here. No-one could carry the weight over their shoulder so instead enormous especially made panniers are used, which can hold a lot of papers.

  17. Yoginama Says:

    My four brothers and I (the only sister) had between us 3 paper routes for two companies over 12 years. I started subbing for my oldest siblings when I was 6 years old so that they could go to boy scout camp for the weekend.

    What an experience, what a responsibility to not only distribute a product, collect money and pay bills, but to learn customer service, timeliness, handle disgruntled customers (it happens occasionally) and to find “subs” and train them when you are on vacation – and the planning – to make sure your bill is still on time and all the money is collected – not to mention having to warn the late payers, or actually drop a bad customer.

    I agree that this “first job” is formative and nostalgic. Were there times I hated it? Sure! But how many 12 year olds can buy their own pianos and pay for lessons.

    It’s a great piece of culture that is slowly fading.

    @ tony – did they have the double bag that you stuck your head and neck through? I remember delivering 5-10 papers, turning the bag, deliver 5-10 papers, repeat until the last one is delivered!

  18. Omri Says:

    The end of the evening newspaper dealt a hard blow to the paperboys, but I wonder if we’re really going to stick to morning papers over evening papers for long. Everything that I must know in the morning I check online, so an evening paper would suit me fine.

    The local paper in Los Alamos, NM, still uses paperboys, by the way.

  19. didrik Says:

    I was cycling to work in the wee hours about 6 years or so ago when I noticed a car a few blocks away swerve violently from one side of the road to the other and back again. When he passed me I realized that it was a person delivering papers from his car. He had momentarily lost control while reaching under the dashboard of the passenger seat to get more papers. It was then that I realized that I hadn’t seen a kid on a bike delivering papers like I used to back in the late 70′s — early 80′s.

  20. Steven Says:

    Being a paperboy was the single most important job I ever had. I pleaded with my Mother to let me deliver the local Daily Herald in Pass Christian, MS way back in 1966. My first week, the newspaper price increased from .30 to .35 cents/week. Yes, that’s correct. My patrons complained to me like it was my fault! (Like I do now, 45 years later, with the price of gas!)

    I learned how to deal with people, run my own business, pay for my product and collect from people to pay my bills. I was making about $8.00/week (not a misprint) and had more money that any kid my age. I would make a huge payday around Christmas and my customers, with some exceptions, loved me.

    In 1969 Hurricane Camille wiped out the town and although we lost our house, the then Daily Herald contacted me to put a route together. They offered to give me the paper free of charge for 30 days to establish a new route. I told them to give me 200 papers a day for six months for free and we had a deal. At 15, I had was already quite the entrepreneur. I worked hard to establish a new route and sold the remaining newspapers at a soup kitchen set up by the U S Army Corps of Engineers to feed the townspeople. It was .10 a copy by then and I was making a lot of money (for the times).

    Most of my customers loved seeing me every day. One in particular was an elderly lady who was confined to a wheel chair. Every day, I would ride my bike up her long driveway, over 100 yards and bring her the paper and hand it off to her. She was such a sweet lady and was so appreciative. After Camille, her health worsened and she was moved to a Nursing Home also along my route. She found out and asked me to deliver the paper to her there. This was despite there being a newspaper box on the premises. About three years later, I arrived to deliver the paper and found out that she had passed away. She was over 90 years old. I spoke to the nurse and said, I really liked that old lady. The nurse replied, “Son, she must have liked you too, she’s been blind for over two years!” I didn’t know it at the time. It still chokes me up.

    Yes, being a paperboy molded me, and was probably my most important job! It was five years well spent.

  21. Debbie Says:

    It was so interesting to read the comments, especially those from Steve. From a young girl (back in the late 60′s) viewpoint, the most exciting thing about paperboys was going to my Aunt’s local corner grocery store every afternoon about 3:00 p.m. We would watch the paperboys “roll” the papers. Those guys were so cute, particularly the bad boy who delivered from his Honda motorcycle! It was a different, better time and I did help my brother on numerous occasions deliver his route.

  22. Chris Says:

    I delivered an afternoon paper, The New Britain (CT) Herald, from 10 to 14 years old, and a morning paper, The Hartford Courant, until I was 16. I liked the feeling of getting up before anyone else and seeing the sun come up on a new day. I also liked being the first person to check late baseball scores. Then there was collecting. Mrs OBrien would invite me in and play the piano for me. Mr B, an ex-Marine, would warn me to get his paper to him by 5:45 AM – he lived just across the street, so there was no excuse for being late. There were the guys who called me ‘chief’ or reached for their wallets and asked ‘what are the damages?’ I learned so many great lessons from being a paperboy and am thankful I grew up in a time of paperboys. Those cold mornings, those long walks, all the young thoughts that swirled in my head as I tossed papers with a smooth wrist are still with me now and have made me who I am today.

  23. john presutti Says:

    I was a paperboy from 1968-1971 I delivered the Hartford times which closed in 1976 my friend had the Hartford courant which is the oldest continual newspaper in the country. We knew each others paper route and many a time collect the money from the customers together on Fridays after school. The customers were not happy when we both showed up together. In my day customers wanted the paper in the storm door none of this throwing from the sidewalk or street. I even had customers wanting the paper in the back porch. I never used a bike but walked. yes I was bitten by a dog and even fell down icy stairs my parents never sued and I survived. I had 55 customers and always had money in my pocket. being a paperboy showed me responsibility and respect for people which carried me through my working years and finally retirement. ode to the paperboy an American institution

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