Category Archives: Journalism

Trump epitomizes the “charismatic leader” where power is personal

By Christopher B. Daly

Nothing so aptly captures the phenomenon of Donald Trump as the social theory laid out more than a century ago by the German social thinker Max Weber. In Weber’s scheme of understanding power, Trump epitomizes a type known as the “charismatic leader.”

American politicians are sometimes described as charismatic by people who really want to use a word more like “charming.” But leaders like Trump are actually pretty rare in American political history.

Which means, in turn, that Trump is likely to present challenges to the journalists trying to cover him. Most of the national political press corps has never seen the like. On the one hand, Trump is a gift to the news media because he’s exciting; on the other, he does not fit nicely into any conventional category or narrative.

According to Weber, “charismatic authority” is different from traditional or legal sources

max weber

of authority. As the great German sociologist argued in “Politics as a Vocation,” the charismatic leader is followed because of his personal qualities. His success depends on “devotion to the exceptional sanctity, heroism, or exemplary character of an individual person, and of the normative patterns or order revealed or ordained by him.” In essence, a charismatic leader is endowed with special qualities because his followers believe he has those qualities. He is powerful because people think he’s powerful.

Trump’s authority is entirely personal. It is not connected to a party or a movement or a set of policies. It is all about him. His subliminal message to the convention and the television audience was: I will make you safe. It’s the rough equivalent of saying “I will walk you to school so no one will scare you.”

As a businessman, he is the “Lord of the Tower.” High inside Trump Tower, he rules over a privately held company. He is not like a CEO of a big publicly traded corporation. The modern corporate executive is a cog in a giant machine – made up of corporate boards, executive committees, finance committees, legal counsel, giant organizational charts, rules, policies, and guidelines. This environment produces CEOS who are risk-averse and who know that their time at the top is limited to about four or five years.

os-pictures-donald-trump-rally-in-tampa-20160212

credit: Orlando Sentinel

None of that pertains to Trump. He trusts only those people who work for him in Trump Tower. Any authority they have flows from him directly, in proportion to how close they are to him or how trusted. No one in the Trump camp exercises power independently or by virtue of a place in a bureaucracy. It’s all about personal relationships, as in a royal court or a cult.

♦        ♦        ♦       ♦

While Trump was rising last week, another career in American conservative politics was ending. Roger Ailes, the founding chief of Fox News, was ousted from his powerful position by his only boss, media mogul Rupert Murdoch.

Like Trump, Ailes was a charismatic leader in the Weberian mold. For decades, Ailes ruled Fox News by fear, bullying, helping favorites, and attempting to exercise the droit de seigneur by “flirting” with the many attractive news readers he hired.

Trump and Ailes also shared a masterful instinct for managing the public’s resentment. Even if you never watch Fox News, you have probably heard phrases like these:

  • “liberal elites”
  • “the War on Christmas”
  • “mainstream media”
  • “radical Islamic terrorism”

These and similar conservative tropes (or “memes”) are all hobgoblins intended to amplify the fear and loathing felt by some Americans. Such memes reinforce the fear that something is slipping away and reinforce the loathing of those responsible – smart people, immigrants, jihadis, liberals.

Ailes toiled for decades inside the conservative meme factory – generating, refining, and broadcasting the idea that America used to be a great country until _______________________  (fill in the blank: secularism, feminism, political correctness, elites, blacks, gays, immigrants) came along and ruined everything. Like Trump, Ailes practiced a politics of restoration.

♦        ♦        ♦       ♦

Trump had a successful convention in one sense: he managed the almost impossible task of making a modern convention interesting. For decades, the national conventions have been highly scripted, fully produced pageants made for television. No surprises – and no real politics, either. Everything is decided beforehand.

As the Democratic National Convention unfolds in Philadelphia, watch for a dramatic contrast from last week’s show in Cleveland. Hillary Clinton is the opposite of a “chaos candidate” like Trump. He huddles with a small team of political novices and makes decisions at the last minute. In Hillary’s approach to politics, by contrast, professionals are respected, and qualities like steadiness, consistency, and predictably (which Trump disdains) are considered virtues.

She makes plans and sticks to them.  She limits access. Everything is vetted. There is a structure with veteran professionals staff all key positions, from speechwriting to finance to policy.

Not so with the charismatic candidate Trump. He harkens back to political insurgents like Huey Long or George Wallace – not (just) in his bigotry but in his personal approach. Trump has no bureaucracy around him. A reporter cannot go seek out Trump’s “foreign policy shop” and get briefings on his approach to the Mideast. First of all, there is no “shop.” Second, even if there were a shop, there is no policy. There will be a policy when Trump makes one up, and it will change when he feels like it. He may meet with Netanyahu, for example, and if they hit it off personally, then Israel is under U.S. protection. If they don’t hit it off, then all bets are off. What are Trump’s budget plans? Who would make up the Cabinet? No one has a clue. Reporters are hard pressed to find reliable sources.

In covering Trump, the media have a further problem: they feel obligated to treat Trump with a straight face. Their professional code prevents them from writing and saying many things that they know to be true.

Moreover, the press gets no down time with Trump. Even when he has retreated to Trump Tower, he could still feel the urge to tweet out some message or insult or provocation at any time, creating a brand-new controversy and “winning” that news cycle.

Trump likes to talk about law and order. But in his style, he is the candidate of chaos. Fasten your seatbelt.

Leave a comment

Filed under broadcasting, Donald Trump, Fox News, history, Journalism, journalism history, media, meme, Politics, Trump

Media Earthquake: the end of the Roger Ailes era at Fox News

By Christopher B. Daly

“If you would strike at a prince, you must kill him.”  –Niccolo Machiavelli

The fall of Roger Ailes is an ephocal event in the history of modern news media. For a man who delivers more than $1 billion in annual profit to his boss and who delivers the top viewer ratings in cable TV news to be fired certainly marks the end of an era.

Carlson : NYDaily NewsHis departure today was brought about by the charges of sexual harrassment filed in court by Fox News on-air star Gretchen Carlson. (Before there was Megyn Kelly, there was Gretchen.)

Variety's Power of Women New York luncheon - Arrivals

Megyn Kelly Credit: Dennis Van Tine

 

Ailes was a king-maker who became a powerful prince himself within the kingdom of American conservatism. By assembling a loyal audience for Fox News, Ailes performed several important services for resurgent conservatism:

–Fox News attacked the rest of the news media

–Fox News provided an outlet for conservatives (including climate deniers, conspiracy theorists, and conservative ideologues who could not get on the air otherwise)

–Fox News hounded the Clintons and Obama while endorsing and defending George W. Bush

–Fox News cultivated and sustained Bill O’Reilly (and stood by him when O’Reilly had his own problems with a sexual harrasment claim).

–Fox News, by selling ads for gold bullion, attorneys for the plaintiff’s bar, and many other products, delivered a consistent profit stream to Murdoch’s News Corp.

The back story is well told in the 2014 biography of Ailes by the journalist Gabriel Sherman. The book is titled “The Loudest Voice in the Room” and subtitled “How the Brilliant, Bombastic Roger Ailes Built Fox News and Divided a Country.” Sherman, a national correspondent for New York Magazine whose recent daily reporting has driven and shaped the coverage of Ailes, lays out the rise of Ailes from the day the young tv producer met Richard Nixon in 1967 and lectured the veteran politician on the power of television.

Ailes went on to work for Nixon, then became an impresario of conservative media. He had a big role in the rise of conservative talk-show champ Rush Limbaugh, then teamed up with conservative media mogul to found Fox News in 1996.

Fox News is the embodiment of Roger Ailes. He is responsible for the shrewd and deeply cynical slogans “Fair and balanced” and “We report/you decide.” Never mind that neither slogan was true. They served the purpose of assembling an audience of American conservatives who consider Fox a national message board.

Ailes harrangued the mainstream media for being liberal, while building the most ideological news operation on the air, all the while denying that he was doing so.

What brought him down was his failure to make an alliance with Murdoch’s sons, who are the future of News Corp. The sons may be less conservative than their father and, as members of a younger generation, they certainly have far less tolerance for the towel-slapping, know-nothing ethos of the Fox News morning show. On that show, whose co-hosts regularly humiliated Gretchen Carlson, who may have more i.q. points than Steve Doocy and Brian Kilmeade combined. They harped regularly on her looks, her wardrobe, and her hotness.

Under Ailes, Fox News had a history of hiring attractive women and placing them in front of the cameras in ways that displayed their physical attributes. Even in an industry like television, which is obsessed with visuals, Fox News stood out for its use of news babes. Turns out, Ailes — who resembles the late Sidney Greenstreet minus the charm — was “flirting” with them and implying that they should put out for him.

In the end, it would appear, the man who ruled by fear was brought down by one brave woman.

Screen Shot 2016-07-21 at 2.23.42 PM

 

Leave a comment

Filed under broadcasting, Fox News, Journalism, journalism history, media, Politics, Uncategorized

Where do you find the best criticism of journalism?

By Christopher B. Daly

Dear Readers: Please help me out. I am preparing a resource for the students I will have this fall in a course on the history of U.S. journalism. I want to help them find good sources of news about the news business as well as thoughtful analysis, vigorous denunciations, and heartfelt appreciations.

I have prepared the following (draft) document for class, but I am sure I am overlooking some terrific people or institutions. Who’s missing? Leave your thoughts in the comments.

Thanks,

Prof. Daly

 

On media criticism

Compiled by Prof. Christopher B. Daly

We are living in a “golden era” of media criticism. Yes, there have been critics of journalism in the past, some of them outstanding. It’s never too late to benefit from reading Walter Lippmann, for example, or the incomparable A.J. Liebling. But for at least a decade, the news media have been subject to closer scrutiny and more commentary than ever before. Let’s take advantage.

Students are encouraged to consume (and participate in!) the current flowering of reporting and analysis. Within the general heading of “media criticism,” we are concerned in JO357 with the study of journalism (as distinct from analyses of fiction, feature films, and other media).

Seek out the best sources of information and the most intelligent, penetrating analyses you can find.

Here are some recommendations: 

For reporting about news:

–CNN Reliable Sources (Brian Stelter)

–PBS Mediashift

–NPR “On the Media”

–Nieman Journalism Lab

–Columbia Journalism Review

–Maynard Institute

–Poynter Institute

–Romenesko.com

 

 

Individual analysts:

Jim Rutenberg, media columnist for New York Times.

Liz Spayd, public editor, New York Times.

Gabriel Sherman, New York Magazine

Jack Shafer, Politico

Margaret Sullivan, Washington Post

Ken Doctor, Newsonomics

David Folkenflik, NPR

Richard Prince, The Root.

 

 

Academics/theorists

Prof. Jay Rosen

Prof. Jeff Jarvis

 

Left/Right:

Media Matters

Accuracy in Media

 

Fact-checking:

PolitiFact.com

Leave a comment

Filed under Journalism, media, news, Uncategorized

Journalism jobs: Digital now outnumbers print

By Christopher B. Daly

Two important trend lines have recently crossed, probably forever. The number of jobs in the U.S. newspaper sector has now dipped below the number of jobs in the digital media. Newspapers are not dead, but they are no longer the center of gravity for the news business. Thus ends a dominance that began in the 17th century and reached a peak in the 20th century before cratering in the 21st century.

That is one of the major findings in a new study from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, documenting what many have long noticed: American newspapers are no longer the driving wheel of American journalism. The past belonged to the printing press, but the future belongs to the web.

Here’s the big picture:

Jobs in news

Here are some highlights:

–The purple line that starts so far above the others in 1990 represents all employment in the newspaper industry. It’s worth noting that the BLS counts everyone who works at a newspaper, not just the newsroom crew. So, this is just a rough approximation of the employment situation of journalists — reporters, photographers, videographers, podcasters, editors, producers, and others who are directly involved in gathering and disseminating news. That is a much harder number to track.

–Newspaper employment took a hit in the early 1990s, then sort of plateaued, took a steeper hit when the “tech bubble” burst in 2001 (taking with it a lot of full-page ads), and then really dove in the Great Recession of 2008-9. Since then, the downward trend has slowed a bit, but the trend from 2009 to 2016 gives no reason to think that newspapers are coming back.

–The BLS also provides a helpful monthly chart of the data used to draw all those lines. Here are some salient details I found in the data tables.

Screen Shot 2016-06-09 at 11.23.24 AM

–Looking deeper into the numbers, it is heartening to see that the overall numbers of jobs in all these industries combined has not dropped very much, having fallen about 3 percent over 26 years. The biggest proportional hit seems to have occurred in “books” — which I take to mean the publishing industry as a whole. While a small number of journalists make a living by writing non-fiction books, it is probably a very small group that depends primarily on their book royalties.

–The big gainer is “Internet publishing and broadcasting.” It’s hard to imagine how 28,800 people made a living putting stuff online in 1990 (which was before the Web became ubiquitous), but there is no mistaking that web-based activities have been on a surge.

–The other big gainer in the last quarter century has been “Motion picture and video production.” It is unclear from the BLS definitions of its categories what fraction of all those folks could be considered journalists. Probably a lot of them work in Hollywood or other venues where they produce content that is fictional or promotional. Still, it is a rough indicator of where the growth is.

One question that these data raise is this: what will journalists of the future need to know and do?

About a decade ago, my colleagues and I began a deep re-think of our curriculum to bring it out of the days of print newspapers, glossy magazines, film-based photography, and broadcast television. We eliminated our separate, medium-based “concentrations” and decided that all our students should be educated as digital journalists. We tore out our darkrooms, converted to all-digital photography, and decided that all our students need to be competent in “visual journalism.” We ramped up our instruction in shooting and editing video. We converted our student radio station to digital and embraced podcasting. We decided that essentially all our coursework should be multimedia. Like other journalism programs in U.S. universities, we found that it was not easy, but it was a matter of survival.

As a specialist in the history of journalism, I spend a lot of time thinking about the centuries when the newspaper ruled the field. The newspaper had a good long run, but it is clearer every year that newspapers not only documented history, they are history.

cropped-stamp-tax-tombstone.gif

 

 

Leave a comment

Filed under Boston University, broadcasting, digital media, history, Journalism, journalism history, media, news, NPR, Photography, Photojournalism, press, publishing, Uncategorized

Trump is dangerously wrong on libel: Why journalists need Constitutional protections

By Christopher B. Daly

In his recent remarks, Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump issued a thinly veiled threat to the news media: if he’s elected, he will (somehow) change the country’s libel laws to make it easier for him and others to sue the news media. It’s an issue with a history that is worth remembering.

Here’s Trump (from CNN):

“One of the things I’m going to do if I win… I’m going to open up our libel laws so when they write purposely negative and horrible and false articles, we can sue them and win lots of money,” Trump said during a rally in Fort Worth, Texas.

“We’re going to open up those libel laws so when The New York Times writes a hit piece, which is a total disgrace, or when the Washington Post, which is there for other reasons, writes a hit piece, we can sue them and win money instead of having no chance of winning because they’re totally protected,” he said. “We’re going to open up libel laws and we’re going to have people sue you like you’ve never got sued before.”

imgres

Trump in Fort Worth (Getty)

 

Trump, who has lost a libel suit in the past, took his usual menacing tone and framed the issue as a conflict between himself and the media. The party that is missing from that formulation is the American people, who are the real clients of the First Amendment. That is the amendment that says, in part: “Congress shall make no law abridging the freedom of the press.”

And that press freedom extends into the realm of libel, as I explained in my history of 51zTMdE6eDL._SX342_BO1,204,203,200_this country’s journalism, Covering America. Trump is not the first public figure to try to use the libel laws as a backdoor way to achieve the ultimate goal of intimidating and controlling the news media. Here’s an excerpt from Covering America:

 

One of the greatest potential threats to the national coverage of the South arose in 1960 in Montgomery, Alabama. The means of intimidation was not the usual one—violence or the threat of it—but the legal system itself. At risk was the ability of the news media even to cover the movement in an honest, independent way.

The threat first arose in April 1960 as an unintended consequence of a decision by a group of civil rights activists to place a full-page advertisement in the New York Times decrying the “unprecedented wave of terror” being imposed on the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and student activists. The ad stated: “Again and again, the Southern violators have answered Dr. King’s peaceful protests with intimidation and violence. . . . They have bombed his home almost killing his wife and child. They have assaulted his person.” For good measure, the ad charged “grave misconduct” on the part of Montgomery officials as a group.

The city’s police commissioner, L. B. Sullivan, was incensed and decided to sue the Times for libel. (It didn’t matter that the offending passages were in the form of an advertisement and not a news story produced by a Times journalist; under U.S. law, a publisher is equally responsible for all content. It also didn’t matter that Sullivan was not singled out by name in the ad; under U.S. law, if an individual can reasonably be identified, that is enough.) Sullivan sued for $500,000 in an Alabama state court, charging the Times with publishing damaging falsehoods about him. The threat was clear: if Sullivan won, no paper could afford to cover the civil rights movement. “Silence, not money, was the goal,” as one recent history puts it.

For the Times’ Southern correspondent, Claude Sitton, the suit meant that he had better hightail it out of Alabama to avoid being subpoenaed, so he headed straight for the Georgia line, leaving Alabama essentially uncovered for the next two and a half years. For the paper’s lawyers, however, fleeing to another state was not an option, though they tried. It was difficult even to find a lawyer in Alabama who would agree to represent the Times. When one was finally found, the lawyers decided that their only recourse was to argue that the suit did not belong in an Alabama court, since the paper did hardly any business in the state. The jurisdictional argument didn’t work. The paper lost in the circuit court in Montgomery (where the judge criticized “racial agitators” and praised “white man’s justice”), and Sullivan was awarded the full $500,000—the largest libel judgment in that state’s history. The Times appealed, only to lose again. Further appeals did not look promising, since the U.S. Supreme Court had held that journalists had no constitutional protections against libel claims. So far, the use of the courts to silence the press was working.

The passage through all those courts took years, but the Times did not give up. Whatever the publisher and editors thought about civil rights, they were professionally committed to upholding ournalistic principles and prerogatives. The final appeal was argued before the U.S. Supreme Court on January 6, 1964. The stakes were high. “The court would decide nothing less than how free the press really could be,” one observer has noted. “If the decision went against the Times,would reporters be vulnerable to every libel claim filed by a ticked-off sheriff?”

And it wasn’t just the Times that was at risk. All told, Southern officials had filed some seventeen libel suits against various news media, seeking damages that could total more than $288 million. If they succeeded, the cost of covering race in the South would be so prohibitive that even the wealthiest national news media would have to pack up and go home.

On March 9, 1964, the Court issued its unanimous ruling in the Sullivan case—in favor of the Times. The ruling, a milestone in expanding press freedom, rewrote many of the rules under which journalism has been practiced ever since. The key finding was that the law of libel had to yield to the First Amendment. The Court held that if the award to Sullivan were allowed to stand, the result would amount to a form of government censorship of the press, tantamount to a de facto Sedition Act, forcing every journalist to prove the truth of every statement, which would in turn lead to self-censorship. Instead, the high court said that “debate on public issues should be uninhibited, robust, and wide-open, and that it may well include vehement, caustic, and sometimes unpleasantly sharp attacks on government and public officials.”

To make sure that journalists had the breathing room they need to report on and editorialize about the performance of public officials, the Court determined that libel should not be used to trump press freedom. Public figures like Sullivan, who voluntarily enter the public arena by seeking office, must expect to take some criticism. Henceforth it would not be enough for a public official who wanted to win a libel suit just to prove that the published material was false and defamatory. Plaintiffs would have to meet a higher burden of proof, which the Court defined as “actual malice,” a legal term meaning that the material in dispute was published with the knowledge that it was false or with “reckless disregard” for the truth.

Either way, public figures would have a much harder time winning such suits. The Times—and the rest of the media—were free to go back to Alabama and wherever else the civil rights story took them. . .

For more on these issues, see the classic work by NYT journalist Tony Lewis, Make No Law. There is also a very worthwhile discussion in The Race Beat, by Gene Roberts and Hank Klibanoff.

 

1 Comment

Filed under Donald Trump, history, Journalism, journalism history, libel, media, New York Times, Uncategorized

Is the New York Times building a digital ark?

By Christopher B. Daly

What’s going on at the most important institution in American journalism?

Hard to say, but let’s engage in a bit of speculation.

Recently, the New York Times announced two developments, which the paper reported in a single story, giving rise to the notion that they are somehow linked.

Item #1: An earnings report. As usual, the Times reports about itself in a glass-half-empty way.

Buoyed by strong digital growth and cost savings, The New York Times Company reported on Thursday an increase in quarterly profit but said revenue was flat as its print business continued to decline.

There is not all that much news there — just a continuation of two long-running trends. Digital revenues (the money that comes in from online advertising plus the money from digital subscriptions) continues to rise. Print revenues (the money that comes in from display ads in the printed newspaper, plus money from people who subscribe to the print edition) continues to fall. The digital revenue is rising pretty briskly, but from a small base. The print revenue is dropping relentlessly, but from a large initial base. Someday, those trend lines will cross, but not just yet.

Later, the story added this:

Digital revenue remained an area of growth. Digital advertising revenue increased 11 percent during the fourth quarter, to $70 million, a number representing about a third of the company’s total advertising revenue.

And this:

The company said it added 53,000 net digital subscribers in the quarter, the most added in a quarter in three years. The Times now has close to 1.1 million paid digital-only subscriptions.

So, that’s the good news. All those digital ads are starting to add up, and the blessed new digital subscribers are finally pitching in and paying a greater fraction of the cost of delivering all that journalism. All told, the digital revenue is approaching $400 million a year, or about a quarter of total current annual revenue. The paper has set a goal of $800 million in annual digital revenues by 2020.

The existential question for the Times is this:

NYT newsroom

Is that enough money to sustain the newsroom?

In other words, if the newspaper got out of the paper business altogether (as it one day must) and laid off all those printers, truck drivers, and others who are linked to the print edition, could it survive on a budget of digital-only revenues?

That’s an open question, which brings us to . . .

Item #2: Announcement of a team charged with conducting a “sweeping review” of the Times‘ own newsroom — staffing, procedures, everything. It will be led by David Leonhardt, the fair-haired boy who created The Upshot. Clearly, he’s a figure on the rise. The paper’s top editor, Dean Baquet, framed the undertaking this way:

He said The Times would always have a large newsroom, but it was “not going to get any bigger” and “we’re probably going to get a bit smaller.” He added that some areas of the newsroom, including those focused on multimedia and international coverage, could grow.

He did not rule out layoffs, but said he did not expect any in the immediate future.

So, my hunch is that Leonhardt is really charged with figuring out how the legacy newsroom could live within its digital means. Can the paper afford its traditional system of strong desks (especially if they slow the transmission of news onto the web)? Does the paper need to keep spending so much time and energy figuring out how to lay out Page 1 of the print edition? How many jobs could be pared out of sections like the Book Review, the Magazine, and T, if they were online-only?

Clearly, the Times cannot afford to haul the entire apparatus of printing a newspaper into the digital future. At some point, it will have to jettison some or all of its print operations and live entirely online. Any guesses as to when?

[Don’t take my word for it. Here is another take, by Michael Calderone at HuffPo Media.]

Leave a comment

Filed under Journalism, New York Times, Uncategorized

Not all change is progress: Bring back Paperboys (and girls)

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 0106_paperboy_cog-592x324my 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.

2 Comments

Filed under Journalism, news, Uncategorized