SAY goodbye to the paper boy. The era of American children delivering newspapers is coming to a close.
"I hate to say this, but the days of what we refer to as `the little merchant those days are numbered," says Rex Ledo, circulation director for the Tribune Company, Tampa, Fla.
Paperboys and papergirls won't disappear completely, adds Joe Forsee, executive director of the International Circulation Managers Association. But increasingly, newspapers are turning to part-time adult carriers. If this shift is closing one era, it is opening another that may well determine the future of newspapers. The latest evidence of this change comes from Pittsburgh. Pittsburgh strike leaves readers without news
On May 18, the Press Company planned to replace up to 450 of its 605 drivers and coordinators and all of its 4,000 youth carriers with a new work force of 1,000 adults. Adults will be able to pick up and deliver four times as many papers per carrier. Seeing their jobs threatened, the drivers, represented by Teamsters Local 211, went on strike. This has shut down the city's two major dailies - the Press and the Post-Gazette. The newspapers have the same business operations.
Local attention has focused on the absence of the daily papers. Post-Gazette reporters are writing two-page news synopses, faxing them to subscribers, and handing them out on buses. Sports reporters, anxious to cover the Pittsburgh Penguins in the finals of hockey's championship series, twiddle their thumbs.
But the long-term significance of the strike lies elsewhere.
By revamping its distribution system, the Press Company is following a long line of newspaper publishers.
"The drivers are one of the last dinosaurs of the newspaper industry," says John Polich, media consultant and professor of media management at Fordham Graduate School of Business in New York City. "You've got an industry that's managed to eliminate a lot of jobs in other parts of the operation but which is still tied to this antique way of delivering newspapers."
The drivers say they're willing to make changes.
"They understand that they can't protect jobs that aren't needed," says George Curtin, an AFL-CIO field representative working with the union. But "there certainly could be some sort of phase-in of the process."
So far the company has held firm in negotiations.
By moving to a part-time adult work force, the company would save money, media experts say. But it would also be acquiring a work force that could handle more complex jobs. These experts suggest a newspaper's delivery system will become key to its survival. "It's a real period of exciting transition," says John Lavine, director of Northwestern University's Newspaper Management Center in Evanston, Ill. One option: delivering sweaters as well as papers
Instead of delivering just a newspaper, publishers are beginning to look at delivering magazines and product samples, he says. Eventually, a newspaper might run the ad of a local clothier, take the company's phone orders, and deliver the clothes to the customer.
"Outside of the post office, they [newspapers] are the largest delivery system in America," he says.
In the past month, for example, the Tampa Tribune delivered a list of tax delinquents to 50,000 county residents and 250,000 sample packets of Pert Plus shampoo to its subscribers.
The company also delivers a national business newspaper and is working hard to convince national magazines to use its delivery service instead of the mail. It has even sat down twice with Home Shopping Network to consider coordination, Mr. Ledo says.
"We really feel the future of this company depends on us being a little more diversified," he says. In addition to its regular force of part-time drivers, the company three years ago formed another company to handle deliveries of goods to nonsubscribers.