[Disclaimer: Get off my lawn!]
Much has been written and said about the decline of the daily newspaper. Mass layoffs at the Denver Post. Buyouts at the big newspapers here in Michigan. The outsourcing of layout and editing duties to corporate newsrooms in other states. Cutbacks on investing in the kind of reporting that might attract more readers. And all this at a time when some amazing reporting is happening on big, important issues (See: Lansing State Journal, Nassar scandal).
The business of newspapering is hard.
But do you know who is the lost voice in the requiem to the daily newspaper, the forgotten foot solider in the battle to bring us news and information each day?
I was a paperboy once, and it was the most important job I’ve ever had.
This last week, I attended something called “Middle School Move-Up.” It is exactly what it sounds like, a therapy session for the helicopter parents of the Class of 2025 in preparation for their child’s move from the snack breaks and carpet-sitting of elementary school to the simmering pubertal prison yard riot of middle school.
As we were “moving up,” one concerned mom asked if her daughter would be able to keep her books in a locker and retrieve the appropriate books between classes so not to have to carry 75 pounds of reading, writing and computing materials around in her backpack all day. She would get tired, after all, and it would be bad for her back. Don’t worry, she did preface her question with, “This is probably a dumb question, but….” And, spoiler alert: there are lockers in middle school.
See where I’m going here about paperboys?
When I was in middle school, I longed to have a paper route. Each night, our evening paper would come (in Fort Wayne, IN where I grew up, we actually had a morning and an evening paper. Still do, I think, and my parents were evening paper people. The evening paper made for better box scores, too.) I would spread out the classified section of the paper on the living room floor and lie on my stomach in search of the daily advertisement of city paper routes that were open. I would move my finger up and down the list like Rudy looking for his name on the “dress list” hoping to find my neighborhood listed.
For a couple years I did this and my mom would pose questions like, “Are you sure you want to do this? If you got a morning route, it would be every day, every morning, very early. If you got an afternoon route, it would mean no after school activities, ever. You have to go door to door and collect money to pay your newspaper bill. Did I say you might have to get up early, every day?”
I heard her questions, but never really listened, as Sidney Deane might say. I wanted a paper route and one day, around the start of 7th grade, Coach Devine put our neighborhood in the game. The Eastbrook and Irvington neighborhood was on the list.
Now, go figure, these jobs weren’t in high demand. I got my route pretty easily, as I remember, once I applied. Then, every morning around 4:30 a dark brown conversion van with a bad muffler pulled up in front of our house and dropped off 40 Journal Gazette newspapers; 75 on Sunday.
Mondays, Tuesdays, Fridays and Saturdays were cake, if cake at 5 a.m. is good. Wednesday was grocery ads day, the mother of all Wednesdays coming the day before Thanksgiving. That one was stuffed ;). Thursday usually had a special insert I resented, and I would read it over while assembling the paper to see if it was worthy of me carrying it around in that morning’s elements. And Sunday. Sunday was when the real work happened. Ads. Comics. Special sections. A rubber band-breaking beast. Those Sunday mornings in the late 80s are why my thighs remain perfectly sculpted to this day.
And—go figure—my mom was right. I got up every single day at 5 a.m. Rain, snow, and heat. Sick or well. It was always dark. Only in the summer did it start to get light before I was done. I walked the route.
On weekend afternoons, I road my bike and entered strangers’ homes trying to collect money from the holdouts who refused to pay their newspaper bill via check and the mail so I could pay their newspaper bill via check and the mail.
It was really an awful job and, like I said earlier, the most important job I’ve ever had.
Responsibility up the wazoo. Remarkable independence for a 13-year-old kid. Physical labor and hard work. Accounting, kinda. Managing and earning money. Dependability. Courage (walking up and down dark streets at 5 a.m. can be spooky). Time to walk and think about things that only a 13-year can think about. And I did it all on my own.
In reminiscing about all this the other day from my rocking chair, I commented to my wife that I couldn’t begin to fathom how my parents let me do all this at that age. Maybe even more surprising is that an entire industry used to rely on an army of sleep deprived middle school kids as the final link in its supply chain. But think about it, 2018. Would you let your kid wander your neighborhood alone at night and stop at the doors of strangers to collect money they owe someone else?
My paper route was a Sunday coupon section full of life lessons and skills, and it’s too bad they aren’t really around anymore. My sons could each use one. Everyone’s probably could, if for no other reason than when they remove the lockers from middle schools our kids will have the dreamy thigh and back muscles needed to carry their backpacks from room to room without getting tired.