Are Newspaper Carriers An Endangered Species?

NO wonder kids join gangs. Now even the newspaper industry has given up on them.

Last summer a number of newspaper carriers and their parents picketed the home of San Francisco Examiner publisher Will Hearst, protesting the San Francisco Newspaper Agency's plan to end the Youth Carrier program that employs around 900 boys and girls between the ages of 12 and 16.

Newspapers would rather hire adults to deliver papers. They're more reliable, and adults with automobiles can deliver more papers across sprawling suburbs in a shorter time.

Children are undervalued in our culture. If the African adage is true that it takes a village to raise a child, more and more of our villages don't want that responsibility.

Newspapers need to make money; they want satisfied customers; they'd prefer to put energy into improving their product so more people will read it. They don't want to go into the social work business.

But can our culture afford to be without the benefits of paper routes for kids? Many successful business owners and CEOs will confide that they got their first entrepreneurial oomph from a paper route. A paper route was my first brush with real-world economics. I learned, more than in any classroom, about profit and loss, supply and demand, customer service, labor relations. I also learned about my neighbors and about feeling useful.

In young adulthood I supervised ``carrier salesmen'' in a low-income section of Minneapolis. I spent a good deal of time sitting in kitchens with welfare mothers, who tearfully explained why they had spent the boy's, and the company's, profits to put food on the table. I could see how difficult it was for newspapers to make money in some neighborhoods, but I didn't foresee the end of paper boys and girls altogether.

NOW I work with children in a journalism program, and I recognize how ready most children are to take on responsibility. They crave it. McDonald's offers one form of responsibility, but it's not the kind young people get when they manage their own business. Newspapers were among the few institutions willing to offer real responsibility to a 12-year-old. Now gangs offer that feeling of power and commitment.

We need to find ways to integrate kids into society, to give them responsibilities, to help them, and to allow them to fail and take the consequences (without assuming the company, or the government, will bail them out).

I don't expect the newspaper industry to come up with a solution. I do expect them to be part of society's solution to the problem of youth anomie. They might invite kids to write for the paper; they can convene intergenerational dialogues. Each community - each ``village'' - needs to figure it out, soon.

Young people need to find a sense of belonging, of excitement, of productivity. If adults don't work with them to create community, kids will be forced to create it themselves. The Opinion/Essay Page welcomes manuscripts. Authors of articles we accept will be notified by telephone. Authors of articles not accepted will be notified by postcard. Send manuscripts by mail to Opinions/Essays, One Norway Street, Boston, MA 02115, by fax to 617 -450-2317, or by Internet E-mail to OPED@RACHEL.CSPS.COM.

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