Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Return of the Paper Route

Believe it or not, some people in this world still pay to get a newspaper delivered to their doorstep. It's far different than when I was a kid and had a newspaper delivery route for five years starting at age 11. Back then I had two homes on my route that did not subscribe to the local newspaper. They seemed like oddballs. By the time my kids started delivering papers a few years ago, fewer than half of the homes took the paper at all. Some only subscribed to weekend delivery, or even just Sunday delivery.

Another way that newspaper delivery differs from my youthful days is that deliveries now always occur in the morning. Back in my day I delivered newspapers in the afternoons six days each week. Early morning delivery occurred only on Sunday. All newspaper delivery jobs interfere with life, but having an after school job wasn't too bad. My family had one or two paper routes for a decade straight as the routes passed from brother to brother. We found by experience that morning news delivery can be pretty harsh on grades and schoolwork, but people want their news earlier nowadays.

In fact, people want their news faster. While that's the reason for morning delivery, it's also the reason that many people do not subscribe to newspaper delivery. Why go outside to get the paper from your porch when you can just step to your computer and see what you want with a few clicks? And why even do that when you can pull your phone from your pocket and see the latest news instantly?

National statistics show that the average age of newspaper subscribers is climbing. I have seen this in my own neighborhood. Younger families see no need for a newspaper, just as they see no need for a land line telephone in their home. The older and technologically less savvy generation tends to enjoy hard copy more. Although it may still take a couple of decades, home newspaper delivery is trending toward obsolescence.

Still another way that the local newspaper business differs from the old days is the reduction of actual news content. By going to the archives, it is easy to see that the newspapers I delivered contained far more actual news. There were more local stories and more in-depth stories.

By contrast, if you pull out the national stories that are already more than 24 hours old in Internet time and remove the ads, my local newspaper is astonishingly brief. It's more like a newsletter. Newspaper staffs throughout the nation are a mere shadow of their former selves. And those shadow staffs produce a mere shadow of the news that their predecessors produced.

News carriers today are also completely separated from the chore of collecting money for subscriptions. I had to go door to door each month to collect subscription fees. This was not my favorite thing to do. But I must admit that I gained a tremendous financial education from this unpleasant chore. I saw how different families managed money. I learned which patterns I liked and which I didn't.

Still, the home news delivery market isn't dead yet. So news carriers are still needed. And that is where my family comes in.

My two oldest sons each had a newspaper delivery route for a couple of years when they were younger. The smaller route eventually transferred to son #3 when son #1 got a real job. But the early mornings took their toll on our kids and on our family life. Eventually we decided to give up the routes—first the larger route and then the smaller one.

Over the past couple of years we have occasionally been pestered by our younger kids about getting a paper route. It's hard for kids nowadays to find a decent job. Some sources say that teen unemployment is presently even higher than during the Great Depression.

I am gratified that my children want to work to earn. That's a good thing. But I remembered how hard newspaper delivery was on our family. So I continually pooh-poohed the idea.

Then a couple of months ago, sons #3 and #4 broke the news to me that they had agreed to take on a paper route. Instead of having two routes, they were splitting the small route our family had had a few years earlier. These arrangements were made through the complicity of my wife.

I have discovered in a quarter century of marriage that my wonderful wife will occasionally circumvent my wishes when she deems it very important. Sometimes it ends well. Sometimes it doesn't. But I love my wife dearly, so I try to take these things in stride. Besides, as I age I become decreasingly convinced that my way is always the right way.

So, over my objections, the news delivery job began again last month. After a month of trial, it was determined that son #4 could not effectively manage the route three days per week. So this month son #3 is doing it daily. He is almost five years older than he was the last time he had this job and is a strapping specimen of young manhood. He gets tired some days, but he seems to be doing just fine. Presumably son #4 will begin helping again after school lets out for the summer.

Thankfully, the kids started the route during a relatively pleasant time of year. It's lighter and warmer in the mornings. We'll have to see how well they like the job later this year when November and December roll around.

I'm glad that my sons are learning work ethic. Maybe one newspaper route won't be that bad, especially given that we no longer have any very young children. I'm supportive of their efforts. But everyone knows that my wife is the main go-to parent on this job. As a couple, we each have our departments when it comes to home and family management. The newspaper route just happens to fall under her auspices. For that I am very grateful.

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