By Christopher B. Daly
[I am posting a longer version of an essay I wrote this week for Cognoscenti, the public discussion page run by the terrific Boston NPR affiliate WBUR.]
Lately, the Boston Globe has earned some unwanted headlines for problems with a new home-delivery service. Reporters, editors, and other Globe personnel have left their warm beds and leapt into the breach, using their cars to deliver the print version of the paper to their precious regular subscribers.
I can sympathize.
I delivered the Globe for nearly eight years, six days a week, in my old neighborhood in West Medford. By my reckoning, that was nearly 2,500 days of delivery without a miss – with help, occasionally, from members of my family who filled in (thanks, Monica!). It was a robust business that helped put me through college and taught me a number of life lessons – all in an era before corporate out-sourcing and sub-contractors.
I began my career as a paperboy (alas, no girls in those days) for the Globe in the winter of 1965. Back then, paper routes were coveted, and almost the only time of year when a route became available was during the week or two after Christmas. The reason was simple: paperboys all tried to hang in there and keep their routes through December so as to reap the traditional Christmas tips. Once they had collected that windfall, they would quit. That’s how I got my break.
The delivery system was simple. Sometime during the overnight hours, a Globe truck would slow down outside our house and someone would toss out a bundle of newspapers equal to the exact number of my customers. When my alarm clock went off, I would get up and get dressed, stuffing my feet with extra socks into the green rubber boots I wore most days in those snowy winters. I would bring the bundle of papers into the house, cut the string, and place them into a giant canvas bag that would hang from my shoulder.
On my very first day, I ventured out into the cold, dark morning, lugging my load of Globes like a tiny peddler. I had not memorized my route yet, so the first days took a long time. I had a paper list of my customers and their addresses, but it was still so dark out that I had to stop under a streetlight, read the next few names, try to memorize them, then trudge along making deliveries until I needed to check the list again.
My goal: get every paper safe and dry onto each front porch and get back home in time for breakfast and the walk to school.
Eventually, I got the hang of it and became more and more efficient. First step: memorize the route, so I would not have to keep checking “the list.” Second step: get a bike, which really speeded things along. Third step: learn to fold the papers so that I could toss them onto porches from the street rather than walking up each front walk.
Weather permitting, these simple steps greatly increased my delivery speed, to the point where I was able to take on a second, adjoining route. Now my customers sprawled over an area from the far reaches of Pine Ridge Road almost all the way to just short of West Medford Square, about a mile from end to end.
With the larger territory, I was keen to step up my pace. So, I mastered the ultimate in suburban paper delivery: I slung the canvas over my shoulder and hopped on the bike. While riding “no-hands,” I would fold the papers as I went and toss them up onto the porches. Now, I could get through my whole route in no time and focus my attention on the revenue model.
The revenue model was pretty straightforward. I charged my customers whatever rate the newspaper established for home delivery. I was entitled to a share of that base figure, plus regular tips, and the Christmas bonuses. It was a pretty good business for a kid who could not even legally get a real job.
Yes, it was child labor, and it would have been illegal if the nation’s newspapers had not exempted themselves from all such legislation. Legally, I was considered an independent contractor. All I knew was that it put money in my pockets.
Besides, I started to get interested in the contents of all those papers. I started with the “funnies,” which were usually printed on the back page. As I got a little older, I moved forward through the paper, discovering sports and then general news. By the time I was a teenager, I
kept reading about Yaz and Russell and Orr, but I also included a pretty steady diet of news about Vietnam, protests, and the Beatles. This was, no doubt, the genesis of my life-long career in journalism.
But as good as it was, the paperboy business had its downsides. For one thing, I saw more sunrises than I care to remember, and to this day, I hate getting up in the morning. And there were the occasional disasters, such as when I would toss a folded paper onto a front porch only to see it crash through a glass storm door. Most of the time, I had to pay to replace them.
Another problem was on the customer-relations side. It was part of the paperboy’s responsibility to visit every house every Friday afternoon to collect that week’s subscription money. By going door-to-door to collect, I couldn’t help but stay in touch with my customers. I learned who really cared about getting the paper inside the storm door, who left for work early, and who tipped well.
Collecting also required me to learn a bit about book-keeping, because an astonishing number of my fellow suburbanites somehow couldn’t manage to scrounge up 50 or 75 cents at the end of the week. They seemed to be under the delusion that information should be free, or else they just couldn’t be bothered. So I had to keep track in a little ledger book of who was paid up and who was delinquent.
Then, there were the dogs. A mutt named Tammy seemed to be put on Earth just to torment me, chasing me every morning for the sheer malicious pleasure of it.
Plus, there was one special horror on my route. That was the Emery Nursing Home, a huge house set back from the road. I had about half a dozen customers in there. Delivering the papers was tolerable. I would just hop off my bike, leave a short stack on the front desk, and skedaddle. I hated the smell of the place, and I would often hear shrieks or moans coming from the upper floors.
But on Fridays, I would have to actually go in there and collect the week’s subscription money from each customer. This meant getting my courage up to walk upstairs and go room to room, hunting down those nickels and quarters that were owed to me and the Globe. For some of the inmates, I was their only visitor all week, month after month. Others were in various states of undress, dementia, or problems I could only imagine.
So, seeing as how I was an independent contractor, I made one more change in my small business: I hired a sub-contractor. My friend Bob Gillingham wanted a paper route, but I had the two routes in our area locked up. Eventually, I made a deal with Gilly: if he would take over the collections for me on my routes, I would split the week’s earnings with him. (I forget the details, but I’m pretty sure the split was in my favor.)
Despite all the problems, my route became so easy and so lucrative that I hung onto it all through high school. I would say the experience had a major formative influence on me, and I always thought it was a shame when the newspaper industry moved away from having paperboys (and girls) in favor of grown-ups driving around in cars and never stopping by to chat.
Not all change is progress. As the Globe struggles to tweak its home-delivery service, I might suggest that the newspaper’s executives consider recruiting a small army of boys (and girls!) on bikes. Globe readers would be delighted at the high level of customer service, and those kids would learn a thing or two about perseverance, efficiency, thrift, and record-keeping. They might even develop a real interest in the news.