Newspaper obituary

Seth Godin asked, “When newspapers are gone, what will you miss?“  Then he proceeded to dismiss the missing of everything about newspapers from content to delivery mechanisms, because the web does it all better.  You know what I’m going to miss?  A twelve-year-old’s only chance for a regular job: delivering the paper door to door.

My neighbor Phillip was getting tired of delivering the paper.  He paid me 50 cents to take his place for a day, and he even let me use his bicycle.  It was a Schwynn with high rise handlebars and a sissy bar, very much in style at the time.  My bike, on the other hand, was a Frankenstein’s monster that my Dad constructed out of parts from two bikes that had belonged to my mother and her sister — so besides being big and ugly, it was also a girl’s bike.  Man, I sure had fun riding Phillip’s new Schwynn all over the neighborhood that day!

When I told Phillip how much I had enjoyed delivering the papers, he asked me if I wanted to take over the route for good.  I checked with my parents, and they said I could — but I wouldn’t be able to use a bike.  They didn’t like the idea of me riding on US 29 (a four lane highway) with cars going 60 mph.  I’d have to do it on foot.  Phillip countered with how much money I could make — he collected more than $5 a week from customers!  I had rarely seen $5 all at the same time, so I agreed.  I discovered later that I hadn’t fully grasped the distinction between gross receipts and net income.  It hadn’t occurred to me that I would have to pay for the papers I delivered (albeit wholesale).  So $5 a week gross yielded only about a dollar net per month, if I could get everyone to pay on time.  It was obvious to me that I needed more customers.

My father had delivered newspapers in Queens, New York back in the early ’50s — and he had lots of advice on growing the business.

“The most important thing is Service with a Smile, Son,” he said.  “Don’t throw the paper at the house — walk up to the door and leave it inside the screen” (most houses had screen or storm doors back then).  “Always smile, wave, and say hello when you see your customers.  And don’t let them see you walking — run from house to house.  Impress them with your efforts.  Always collect on the same day of the week, so they don’t have an excuse for not having the money.  Once every couple of weeks or so, buy an extra paper – then go up to one of the houses that isn’t on your route and ring the doorbell.  Tell them that you have an extra copy that you’d like for them to have, free of charge.”  I got quite a few new customers that way.

These strategies eventually grew my route from the ten daily customers Phillip had (with only two Sunday deliveries) up to 24 dailies, with most of them receiving the Sunday paper as well.  This was in rural Virginia, so those customers were spread out over a four mile round trip.  Running that every day improved my health significantly, and led to later successes on the track team.

My money management skills being somewhat derelict, my mother took on the role of Chief Financial Officer of the business.  Times were often tight for us then, and my parents regularly borrowed from my profits to pay the bills.  But my Dad kept track of the amount owed, and when I was 18 he paid me back in full: $360, which I used to finance a trip to visit my college of choice.

I ran the paper route for a total of about four years, until I was sixteen.  It wasn’t much money for all that effort.  But it was a great lesson in business, and excellent exercise to boot.  That’s the part of the newspaper business that I’ll miss.

Actually, I miss it already — everyone I see delivering papers nowadays is an adult, driving a car (that’s got to cut into the profits).  The distribution areas are too large to do it on foot anymore, or even on a bike.  And the dangers for children out on the open road are too great to ignore these days.  The archetypal ”my first job” has already faded into the mists of our memories.  Today’s youth no longer have this opportunity to learn the value of working hard to build a business.

I guess they’ll have to become web entrepreneurs instead.

Tags: bicycle, business, delivery, exercise, memories, newspapers, schwynn, sethgodin


View more posts from this author