The hardest working person in the news business


Only two pieces of evidence proved that the hardest working person in journalism stopped by today: Tracks in the driveway, and a newspaper on the doorstep… or at least close to it.

Few American workers get as little recognition as the newspaper carrier, a job that — like newspapers themselves — may be disappearing. They do their work while we get our beauty sleep.

Even with a lousy economy, this is the worst and best time of the year for the carrier. There’s nothing worse than a thick Sunday newspaper and during the Christmas season, the inserts add hundreds of pounds to the carrier’s load. The Minnesota winters, of course, are a horrible time to be out on the pre-dawn streets and the unshoveled walkways.

But it’s also tip-time, or didn’t you notice the Christmas card mixed in with the ads? Occasionally there’s a note with it from your carrier. Sometimes they ask for a tip, most of the times they don’t. Send them the money.

I worked as a newspaper carrier for 10 years, up until around 2004. I usually don’t sleep very well after 3 in the morning and I decided one day I might as well get up and be productive. I delivered the Pioneer Press and Wall St. Journal and here’s what I learned that most people don’t know:

  • Carriers don’t get any days off. They have to work seven-days-a-week. With the big payday on Sunday, they don’t get weekends. Think about that! If you’re a newspaper carrier, you don’t sleep in, ever. No vacations. The Star Tribune, however, has two carriers per route, one for weekends, and one during the week. That’s a luxury.
  • Carriers get up earlier than you think. I missed a lot of T-ball games because I had to be in bed by 8 or 9 p.m., to get up at 2:30 a.m. during the week and around midnight on Sunday. Carriers assemble multiple sections into one. On Sundays, that process can take a couple of hours. The carriers are required to finish deliveries by 6 a.m. most days. Seven on Sundays.
  • Carriers pay for their own supplies. That plastic bag? The rubber band? The newspapers make carriers pay for them. It might be only a penny each, but that’s important because…
  • Carriers don’t get paid much. When I was delivering, a daily paper netted the carrier 10 cents (the penny bag represented a 10-percent drop in profit) and the Sunday paper netted 34 cents. All of the profit could be easily wiped out because…
  • Carriers are penalized for mistakes. At the St. Paul paper, a missed delivery, a wet newspaper, or a late delivery (even during snowstorms) costs the carrier $1, even though he/she only made 10 cents on the delivery, and the newspaper only charged 25 cents. So for the next 10 days, the carrier wouldn’t make any money delivering a newspaper to a particular address. On Sunday, the penalty was (and maybe still is) $3.
  • Carriers come from all walks of life. In the early ’90s, most seemed to be people doing it to make a few extra bucks. I met lawyers, journalists, and farmers. I also met single mothers who’d have a baby sleeping in a cradlette on the assembly table while she worked. Occasionally, you’d see teams of college kids working on one route who thought it would be a good idea to go party, then head straight for the newspaper depot. They usually lasted about a week. Sometimes, I’d see entire families. It always seemed sad to me that young kids were forced to put newspapers together and then deliver them; but they were. And still are. On one morning, a carrier in the depot had a heart attack while carrying a load of newspapers to his car. He stumbled back inside, collapsed near a door, and died. For over an hour, some supervisors grumbled that his body blocked the door.
  • You can tell a lot about people by delivering their newspaper. In Woodbury, I’d find an inordinate number of McMansions with two Lexuses parked in the driveway. Occasionally, they’d leave the garage door open. The three-car garages were filled with more “stuff” and a boat. I still wonder how many of those people are the same people who are having mortgage problems now. Those people never tipped, by the way.
  • A nice customer brightens up a dark morning, especially in the winter. I had one customer who’d leave a Thermos full of hot chocolate on cold mornings. But…
  • Most customers don’t give a rip. Carriers depend on the Christmas tips but don’t get them from most people. Marian Gaborik was on my route. He never tipped, even after his holdout years ago when he ended up making millions of dollars. After that, I just threw his paper in the driveway.But the little old man living in a mostly-senior-citizen complex left a nice note and $3 at the end of every month. I loved that guy and not because of his money. He died a few years ago and I felt like I lost a close friend, even though I only met him once or twice. He left me nice notes, and I’d scribble a message at the top of his morning paper each day.

Judging by the help wanted section these days, there aren’t many carriers needed anymore. In the ’90s, the Sunday jobs section was four sections big. Today, the Star Tribune’s is four-pages long, and there are no ads in there for newspaper carriers. In a good economy, newspapers have a difficult time recruiting people for a difficult job. In a bad economy, they don’t.

The hardest-working person in the news business, is the person who brings you the newspaper.