Backstory: Return of the paperboy
A paper in Lowell, Mass., keeps a dying tradition going, delivering the news by 'youth carrier.'
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.Skip to next paragraph
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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."
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.