Sunday, July 3, 2011

...With every paper I'd deliver...

I was home on Saturday when my paper man showed up. He delivers the local daily (except Sunday) newspaper with a bike and a bike trailer. We had spoken months ago. He was fired up then about being a paper man and was especially proud of the tow behind contraption he had built himself to carry the papers. The key to the trailer, he said, were the oversize wheels.

“Got them off a little kid’s bike,” he said. “It tracks great.” He seemed to have his own small world by the tail. The key to his success, he explained, was that he rode a bike and didn’t spend money on gas while the other paper people drove cars, wore out their brakes, and barely broke even. That day he was out delivering papers in the early morning, with his bike and his two wheel trailer, and life was good. This past Saturday was another story.

“I’m quitting the paper business and going back to Clarksburg Tennessee,” he told me. He seemed a little contrite, as if he were letting the neighborhood down. “Going to get back on working at the base, Ft. Campbell Kentucky.”

“Doing what?”

“Maintenance. Painting, roofing, whatever they need done.”

“Why the switch?” I asked.

“Can’t make no money anymore. When I started they gave me routes that totaled 210 papers. I got a dime a paper, so that was like $120 a week, except when it rained.”

“Rain matters?”

“Yeah rain matters. You know how rainy it’s been this spring. Rain matters cause they charge me two cents for each of those plastic bags I got to put on when the paper might get wet. Eats into my profits. Then they told me I couldn’t have all these routes. Cut me back to 120 papers is all. Can’t make no money doing that.”

“How about the trailer you built?”

“Can’t take it. I did find a guy whose gonna give me a hundred bucks for it. I was going to ride my bike down there and tow it behind but my girlfriend said that was stupid so she’s coming up to get me. No room for that little trailer with my bike and stuff in her car.”

“Well, we’ll miss you. You’ve been good. You were the first delivery guy who got the paper here early.”

“Thanks. I’ll miss it too. Nice job, going through neighborhoods, delivering papers, meeting people.” He seemed wistful. A business plan on the rocks is a sad thing to behold.

Until he began delivering our paper early in the morning we believed it was an afternoon edition. Evidently, they print the papers in the Quad Cities during the night, truck them to Ottawa, and have them ready for our guy to deliver them by 7:30. Realizing that sort of took the breaking news concept out of the newspaper. It made us realize how old the news really is. Not that it matters much. We get the Chicago Tribune in the morning. We’ve got NPR during the day. We’re online quite a bit. We watch TV news at night. If something important happens in the world we know it quickly rather than finding it out through the local paper. For us the local paper is all about obituaries, the police report, and city and county politics. They evidently think we’re interested in the slick sale flyers they stuff in the middle. Sometimes there’s more ad inserts than news. I pick up the paper and read the headline above the fold while walking to a corner of the kitchen. There by the recycle container we have a wooden wine box. Every day I shake the flyers into the wooden box without reading them. We recycle them every week. I probably shouldn’t be saying this. If they knew how low the readership is on those things they’d surely stop paying the paper to include them.

Out of nostalgia I check the classified ads. I used to be an ad taker at The Pantagraph in Bloomington when classified and display advertising were the money makers. I worked three evenings a week and Saturdays when people had to call in their ads. No internet. No Craig’s list. I wore old style headphones with a cord attached to a rotary dial phone and typed their ads on a carbon form in an old Royal manual typewriter. We sent the ads upstairs to the printers in a dumbwaiter. Classified ads took up major space. If you were selling a car or a house it was the way to go. It’s amazing how far those ads have sunk. They can’t last much longer. If they ever remove the requirement that legal notices be published in the paper, especially those ridiculously long legal descriptions of property to be sold for back taxes that no one can read or understand, classified advertising may well be over. And how long can that requirement stand up? Legal notices could easily all be posted on a web site now, and the costs of those transactions could be reduced by the fees charged by the papers to comply with that outdated rule. Want to start a pool to guess when that legal notice requirement changes? I pick June 30, 2015 at the latest.

As for my paper man leaving, he’ll no doubt be replaced by another adult. We had a long string of paperboys and girls before the adults took over a few years ago. It’s the economy I guess. My son who is now 26 was a paper boy. He delivered to a neighborhood close to ours, about forty papers, and it was great for him. I used to help him on Saturday and when the big and heavy commerce or farm editions came out. Those seem to be gone now too. Surprisingly my son saved most all that money and bought a good personal computer when he was finished. We found out our son was frugal and dependable from watching him carry out his paper boy role. So did he. Are paper boys a thing of the past?

The bigger question is: are newspapers a thing of the past? If every paper costs a dime a day to deliver, and your newspaper has a circulation of 30,000, that’s $3000 a day not counting the paper, ink, and labor to print it, stack it, and haul it. And if you put the same news on an internet edition? Correct me if I’m wrong but don’t all those costs disappear?

When I was a kid in Danvers my Dad would drive to the restaurant in town after church where they sold the Sunday edition of the Chicago Tribune. He’s send me in with a quarter and I’d come struggling out with a Sunday paper that resembled a small suitcase. Now the Sunday paper comes folded over in a blue plastic sack on my driveway. Folded over. I swear the travel section of the old Sunday Trib was bigger than the whole paper is now. I would lay the travel section out on the living room rug and fantasize about where I could travel after I got off that dairy farm. It was an all afternoon deal, reading the Sunday Trib. The Trib is making a bit of a comeback but they are still in bankruptcy court. I’m pulling for them, and my local paper, but I’m not optimistic. If you run the numbers the future looks dim.

And that’s the news from Ottawa. Free I might add.