The Paperboy: A Lost Profession

I live in a quiet neighborhood of ranch-style homes, most of which were built in the 1950s. It has the ambiance of a typical American suburb. And when I stand in my driveway on these summer afternoons, I half-expect to see a kid riding past me on a battered, old bicycle, tossing newspapers toward each house.

But it will never happen. The local paper here is delivered early in the morning, by adults riding in cars. The declining number of paperboys (and girls) around the US isn't a secret. Four years ago, The Wall Street Journal ran a front page story about the trend, and why it's probably irreversible. I clipped that article, and it still irks me to think that such a useful experience of growing up will eventually disappear.

I shared a paper route with a friend in junior high for about a year. It was my first real job and seemed like a major output of labor at the time. But compared to other routes, I had a pretty soft life. My hometown daily, The Palo Alto Times, was an evening paper, so I didn't have to wake up before dawn to make the deliveries. There was no Sunday edition, and the weather never got worse than a brisk rain shower during winter.

My dad could easily squelch occasional complaints by recounting tales from his own paperboy days during the 1920s. He grew up a few miles north, in Redwood City, Calif., and had to cover a much larger area than I did. His route also included three different newspapers: The San Francisco News, The Call, and The Bulletin. The notion of having to memorize which subscribers got each paper made me shudder.

One aspect of the job we both had to deal with was satisfying the customers who wanted their daily edition 'porched.' Making an accurate throw from a moving bike without breaking flower pots or other decorative items is an athletic, and artistic, endeavor.

Such skills are more difficult to master when newspapers ally themselves with other marketing campaigns. These days, many carriers end up delivering packets of shampoo or boxes of breakfast cereal along with the Daily Bugle. The load factor, plus safety concerns and rules that limit early-morning work for minors, all favor the shift toward motorized, grown-up delivery crews.

But when I stand in my driveway, I can't help thinking that some ambitious 12-year-old would have considered this area a plum paper route assignment. Car traffic is minimal. Residents are friendly. Most of the houses are single story and not too far from the sidewalk. With a halfway decent arm, you could porch every throw.

* Jeffrey Shaffer, a regular Monitor contributor, lives in Portland, Ore.

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