Backstory: Return of the paperboy

A paper in Lowell, Mass., keeps a dying tradition going, delivering the news by 'youth carrier.'

By , Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

Chris Kirby is the master of the quick fold and toss. He creases the newspaper with origami precision, opens the metal storm door, and drops the paper on the threshold - right where the customer wants it.

At the next home, he deposits the paper on the front porch, under the mail slot. Chris knows all the preferred locations, and he accommodates customers with the attentiveness of a concierge. Chris does get his rewards in return, of course: cookies, nice tips during the weekly collection on Thursday or Friday, big bonuses at Christmas - $50 once - and all the conversation he wants.

"I know a lot of these people," says the 15-year-old. "They all talk to me."

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Chris is something of a dinosaur. As a paperboy, he is carrying on a tradition that in most of America has gone the way of the milkman, the door-to-door salesman, and the soda jerk.

It's not that you can't get a daily newspaper delivered at home. It's just that, if you do, it is usually done by an adult in a minivan who leaves it on your lawn - somewhere - before dawn.

Not in Lowell, Mass., a working-class city 40 minutes north of Boston. Here, some 700 youths ages 9 to 15 (and occasionally older) deliver copies of The Lowell Sun to duplexes, senior-citizen centers, and small homes across the city.

The reason isn't that the Sun, a 50,000 circulation afternoon paper, is interested in creating an Andy of Mayberry kinescope of America's past. Managers there simply believe that it makes good business sense. And the readers, most of whom are over 50, seem to appreciate it, too.

***

On a rainy day, A.J. Dias, 15, is completing his midafternoon deliveries at the Father Morrissette Manor, a four-story residence for the elderly. He places his papers in a shopping cart and takes the elevator from floor to floor, shuffling purposefully down the hallways. Like Chris, A.J. is careful about placing the newspapers exactly where customers want them, which here is on a shelf outside their door near a small statue of Jesus. When the deliveries are finished, he steps into the lobby, where he's greeted by a chorus of five ladies shouting, "You're a good boy!" A.J. smiles shyly.

A.J. has a Cheshire cat grin and a fondness for pets. He trudges around with a sack on his back so he can make money and because the job ends early, by 4:30 p.m. That leaves him time for after-school activities like soccer and baseball, as well as giving him cash for supplies like "my bat and glove."

In his six years as a paperboy, he has used his money to buy an English springer spaniel puppy, Oreo. He was once paid by a customer with cash in one hand and a kitten in the other, which he kept and called Chelsea. A.J. brings home about $70 a week, delivering 49 papers.

Yet, for him, it's not all about the money. A.J. likes talking to people on his route - those at Father Morrissette, in particular. He's interested in joining the military someday, and many of the residents are veterans. "Some say, 'Anytime you want to talk, just knock on the door.' "

In many ways, A.J.'s routine is like that of generations of paperboys before him. It's down the street, up the walk, and deliver the product. Then back up the other side of the street - either on a bike or on foot. One of the only differences is that they're no longer called paperboys. In these post-feminist times, they're called "youth carriers." About half the Sun's carriers, in fact, are girls.

Another difference may be the delivery aids. When I was a paperboy in the late 1960s in Orono, Maine, it was a Schwinn with wide tires. Today it's apt to be a mountain bike with more gears than a Peterbilt. We used our money to play pinball or to buy Lickamade. Today they spend it on iPods and Gameboys.

The rewards can be the same, though. I was once given a kitten by a customer on my route, which I named Clyde (after Bonnie and Clyde). And, more important, the fundamental lessons of the job endure - a way to take on responsibility as a youth and earn some money in the process. "The old basics haven't changed," says Ben Sawyer, The Sun's zone manager.

***

The demise of paperboys across the country can be traced in part to the demise of afternoon newspapers. Few kids are willing to get up early enough to deliver morning papers, and there aren't as many afternoon dailies to sling after school. Some states even prohibit youngsters from working early: In Massachusetts, for example, no child under 18 can work before 6 a.m. Many newspapers, too, have centralized their distribution.

As a result, the paper route - once walked by such notables as Harry Truman, John Wayne, and billionaire Warren Buffet - is now being taken over by adults. As recently as 1994, according to the Newspaper Association of America, some 57 percent of paper carriers were under 18. Today it's fewer than 19 percent.

As an afternoon paper, the Sun is a convenient outlet for kids looking for jobs - and the paper enthusiastically endorses using them. Though it still employs about 125 adult carriers, the paper has been shifting more deliveries to neighborhood kids in recent months.

"We never did abandon the kids," says Circulation Director Michael Sheehan. "It connects the paper to the community, and it's far better to have a connection to the neighborhoods. The majority of the kids do a fantastic job, because their parents are behind them. It becomes a family event."

There's no shortage of kids wanting to deliver the Sun. Whenever the paper posts an ad for carriers, it often gets five responses for every slot. Of course, it doesn't hurt that the paper often offers incentives, as they do now, that reward the carrier who signs up the most new customers with an Xbox. The carriers, too, are as diverse as the city: African-American, white, Puerto Rican, Portuguese, Cambodian, Laotian, and Vietnamese.

Chris Kirby, who hauls the most Suns of any carrier (120), is making a tidy sum - about $200 a week. "I have a lot of money in my bank account," he says proudly. He has saved $2,000 in just the past four months, which has put him well on his way to his ultimate goal - buying a used Subaru.

Recollections on being a paperboy

I was a paperboy, too, for about four years in the late 1960s and early '70s. I guess you could say it was my first job in this biz. It was in Orono, Maine, and in the winter it was cold, snowy, and icy. I often wondered what I was doing out there, up before 6 a.m., schlepping 50 or so papers a mile-plus.

Well, like the kids who do it now, I was learning responsibility, how to run a business, and stay in shape. I learned that money was not just something doled out by parents just for breathing, but something to be earned. And when you earn it, you become more aware of why you spend it, and what you spend it on.

Hey, it might still be spent on pinball and soda pop, but at least they were my earned quarters.

As mine was a morning route, it woke me up and got me going before school started. And because the delivery part of the job could be done on automatic pilot, I got to plot and daydream, create little fictions.

More important, I really did get to know my own mostly middle-class neighborhood - the people on the two-plus streets I covered. (Some of them weren't as middle-class, so I learned about the concept of "floating'' a payment.) I didn't see many humans - just lots of dogs and cats - in the morning, but I got to know the people when I collected. I could probably name at least half of them, even today.

I'd get snacks, conversation, and time to play with their pets. At one house, the Mooses, I was given a small Maine Coon kitten, which I named Clyde, after Clyde Barrow. ("Bonnie and Clyde" was hot and I loved Warren Beatty's portrayal of the gangster.) Clyde was my best friend for nine years. He used to follow me on my route some days. Occasionally, he would precede me to the house I was delivering to, and when he came across a house that didn't take the paper, he'd skip it. I swear that's true.

Now and again, I dream about that route. Invariably, I'll have forgotten a house or not collected from somebody for months. But I'll wake up - put my alarm at bay - and go out to grab the paper from wherever the delivery guy has tossed it.

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