Will Unwound #829: “Read All About It”August 6, 2013
In this age of Oprah, when it has become a national pastime to divulge all the secrets of your abusive childhood, I feel almost guilty confessing that my boyhood was wonderful. One of the things I loved about growing up in Pitman, NJ, was my paper route.
I suppose you could say that my paper route was the beginning of my career as a librarian. You young librarians may find it hard to believe but back in the late 50s and early 60s when I “pedaled papers,” the paper boy was an important link on the information food chain. In those days there were no 24 hour news stations and the internet was a good 30 years away. The newspaper was king.
You rode a sturdy 26 inch cruiser with an oversized steel basket on the front handlebars and a couple of steel “saddlebags” on the rear tire. My route, which wandered all over town, encompassed 60 customers. I had one of the larger routes in Pitman. I delivered the Philadelphia Bulletin, the afternoon paper that served the information needs of all of Philadelphia, its suburbs, and my home turf of South Jersey. A lot of people got the afternoon Bulletin instead of the morning Inquirer because the afternoon paper carried the late night baseball box scores from the West Coast.
The key to delivering papers was: Be On Time! I had customers who waited on their front stoop to get their news. If you were prompt, they tipped nicely when you went around on Friday night to collect your subscription fee. But if your punctuality was spotty, you had trouble just recouping the fee. I loved the hot fudge sundaes at the downtown Woolworth’s so I was always on time.
In the early 70s when I worked the reference desk at an urban library in the Chicago area I often thought back to my newsboy days because the motto here was: Be On Time! The patrons, typically an eclectic array of old men, would line up at the front door and wait for the library to open. Then they would head directly to the newspaper rack. One of my jobs was to get the newspapers on the rack before the stampede began. Good luck if you didn’t. There were these wooden rods and you had to carefully put each section of each paper on its appropriate rod. Sometimes the old boys would fight over the papers and the rods would become fencing foils. Problemactic too, was the old man who would fall asleep on the sports section of the Trib and slobber on it.
Now the stampede is for the computer room. Yesterday I read on the Internet, that the Boston Globe newspaper was sold to the owner of the Boston Red Sox for 70 million dollars. This may seem like a ton of money until you consider that 20 years ago the New York Times bought the Globe for over 2 billion dollars. That is how much newspapers have been devalued. You wonder how long the New York Times can stay in business with the kind of capital loss it just took.
Today the news for the newspaper industry became even grimmer. The Washington Post was sold by the legendary Graham family to Amazon impresario Jeff Bezos for 250 million. I never thought I would see the day when traditionalists like the Grahams would sell out to a dot com entrepreneur, but this is certainly emblematic of our transition from print to digital technology. Newspapers used to be a cash cow that raked in money from subscriptions, advertising, and classifieds. Now people get their news instantly on line. The weather, the stock quotations, the sports scores, the breaking headlines…everything is up to the minute, and the new classified section is Craig’s List.
I suppose I would still get a newspaper at home if it would help some boy or girl build up a paper route, but those days too are over. Sadly, the paper boy has gone the way of the golf caddy.