The Rise and Fall of the American Paperboy

I have a short essay in the next issue of Time magazine (it will be online a week later) looking at the historical career of the American paperboy. Due to the vicissitudes of publishing, the piece had to be rather severely cut, but here is the longer, original version.

* * *

Walking downstairs the other morning to retrieve the newspaper, I realized I was the last person in my Brooklyn apartment receiving the daily New York Times and Wall Street Journal. The number swells a bit on weekends, but Monday through Friday find me alone in my ritual.

Trudging back through the snow, thinking about the future of this physical object and its delivery, I suddenly wondered: Were there any paperboys left in America? Certainly not on my block: The Times shifted to all-adult carriers over a decade ago. Mine wasn’t the image of Norman Rockwell and Leave it to Beaver — a boy on a bike — but a guy in a van from Staten Island. But did this once familiar cultural icon still exist? Where had he gone? And why should we care?

The paperboy has been subject to two distinct forces. The first is the newspaper business: Not just circulation — which peaked in 2000 and has been dropping since — but when papers were delivered. 2000 marked the first time there were more morning than evening papers. This helped accelerate a shift begun a decade previously, when from 1980 to 1990, the number of adult carriers had risen by 112 percent, while youth carriers had dropped by 60. Most children either could not or were not willing to get up and deliver papers by 6 a.m.

Cost-conscious newspapers shifted to large “distribution centers,” meaning carriers needed to distribute bigger bundles of papers across a wider area — via car. To entice adults, newspapers changed the name: The “paperboy” became an “independent delivery contractor.” They changed the job: Few carriers today do collections. And they changed the delivery experience: In what’s referred to as the “controversial tube-vs.-porch delivery dilemma,” instead of a kid putting it on your porch (or in the bushes), an adult in a car would put it in your roadside mailbox.

The larger culture around the paperboy also changed. Kids stopped delivering papers for the same reason they stopped walking to school — since the early 1970s the percentage has from over 50% to just 11%. Stranger danger, for one. In a high-profile case in 1982, a 12-year-old Iowa boy named Johnny Gosch disappeared while on his paper route in West Des Moines. But as Free Range Kids author Lenore Skenazy notes, stranger abductions haven’t been rising, and violent crime involving children has been dropping (lest you think it’s because we stopped letting children be paperboys, she notes all violent crime rates have dropped). “If we only focus on the rare and horrible,” she says, “we will be too scared to let our kids do anything.”

People also began moving to exurban regions that were simply too spread out for kids on foot or on Scwhinn Stingrays, where streets were deemed unsafe for anything but the inside of a car (even if that’s where most accidental injury occurs to children, as Skenazy notes). From 1981 to 1997 youth participation in organized sports doubled; where nearly half of 16 year-olds had a summer job in 1978, just above 20% did by 2008.

But so what? Why should we lament the passing of an entry-level, low-skilled job? Do jobs for kids actually do any good? Interestingly, Bureau of Labor Statistics research shows that men who worked in high school earned more than a dollar more on average at age 27 than those who did not. Was it the job, or were those kids simply more motivated? History teases suggestively: Benjamin Franklin delivered The Boston Gazette, Thomas Edison sold papers at the age of 12, and Warren Buffet, long before he was trying to buy the Washington Post, was delivering it.

Ask a former paperboy about the job and you’re likely to summon a misty-eyed recollection of predawn bundling and knee-high snow. “Today it’s basically something that doesn’t exist,” said Today host Matt Lauer. “It’s a bit of innocence lost — and it meant a lot to me as a kid.” Clarence Eckerson, a filmmaker (and former paperboy), describes it as “an amazing responsibility to have as a teenager, to essentially be a private business, collecting money and paying a weekly bill.”

After these ruminations, I was admittedly pleased to find that there are still paperboys — and girls — in America (even if, in 2008, they made up only 13.2% of all carriers, down from nearly 70% in 1990). As Fred Masenheimer, publisher of The Times News, a newspaper with roughly 14,000 subscribers (“in central eastern Pennsylvania, just north of Allentown”) told me, the daily paper not only employs an all-youth carrier force — it’s resisted shifting to morning distribution precisely so it could keep those carriers.

“I think it’s a vital part of a kid’s growing up and learning to be their own business person,” say Masenheimer. About half of the paper’s 100-plus carriers deliver papers alone, while the rest have parental supervision — particularly younger children. This is partially for safety, partly to ensure delivery. “When you put your reputation o the back of a 10 or 12 year old kid, you want to make sure that they’re doing the job properly,” he says. In 41 years of publishing the paper, he’s seen countless carriers go on to college, or routes change hands several times within the same family.

Those carriers still risk the occasional dog bite, and they still sling canvas bags across the handlebars of their bikes. Masenheimer himself was a paperboy, delivering The Hanover Evening News. “They used to tell us it was the last two-cent newspaper in America,” he says. “So you can imagine how much money we made in a week.” Nobody’s getting rich as a carrier, he concedes, “but nobody’s getting rich as a journalist these days either.”

This entry was posted on Friday, February 4th, 2011 at 9:14 am and is filed under Uncategorized. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. Both comments and pings are currently closed.

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Traffic Tom Vanderbilt

How We Drive is the companion blog to Tom Vanderbilt’s New York Times bestselling book, Traffic: Why We Drive the Way We Do (and What It Says About Us), published by Alfred A. Knopf in the U.S. and Canada, Penguin in the U.K, and in languages other than English by a number of other fine publishers worldwide.

Please send tips, news, research papers, links, photos (bad road signs, outrageous bumper stickers, spectacularly awful acts of driving or parking or anything traffic-related), or ideas for my Transport column to me at:

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Upcoming Talks

April 9, 2008.
California Office of Traffic Safety Summit
San Francisco, CA.

May 19, 2009
University of Minnesota Center for Transportation Studies
Bloomington, MN

June 23, 2009
Driving Assessment 2009
Big Sky, Montana

June 26, 2009
PRI World Congress
Rotterdam, The Netherlands

June 27, 2009
Day of Architecture
Utrecht, The Netherlands

July 13, 2009
Association of Transportation Safety Information Professionals (ATSIP)
Phoenix, AZ.

August 12-14
Texas Department of Transportation “Save a Life Summit”
San Antonio, Texas

September 2, 2009
Governors Highway Safety Association Annual Meeting
Savannah, Georgia

September 11, 2009
Oregon Transportation Summit
Portland, Oregon

October 8
Honda R&D Americas
Raymond, Ohio

October 10-11
INFORMS Roundtable
San Diego, CA

October 21, 2009
California State University-San Bernardino, Leonard Transportation Center
San Bernardino, CA

November 5
Southern New England Planning Association Planning Conference
Uncasville, Connecticut

January 6
Texas Transportation Forum
Austin, TX

January 19
Yale University
(with Donald Shoup; details to come)

Monday, February 22
Yale University School of Architecture
Eero Saarinen Lecture

Friday, March 19
University of Delaware
Delaware Center for Transportation

April 5-7
University of Utah
Salt Lake City
McMurrin Lectureship

April 19
International Bridge, Tunnel and Turnpike Association (Organization Management Workshop)
Austin, Texas

Monday, April 26
Edmonton Traffic Safety Conference
Edmonton, Canada

Monday, June 7
Canadian Association of Road Safety Professionals
Niagara Falls, Ontario

Wednesday, July 6
Fondo de Prevención Vial
Bogotá, Colombia

Tuesday, August 31
Royal Automobile Club
Perth, Australia

Wednesday, September 1
Australasian Road Safety Conference
Canberra, Australia

Wednesday, September 22

Wisconsin Department of Transportation’s
Traffic Incident Management Enhancement Program
Statewide Conference
Wisconsin Dells, WI

Wednesday, October 20
Rutgers University
Center for Advanced Infrastructure and Transportation
Piscataway, NJ

Tuesday, March 8, 2011
Ontario Injury Prevention Resource Centre
Injury Prevention Forum

Monday, May 2
Idaho Public Driver Education Conference
Boise, Idaho

Tuesday, June 2, 2011
California Association of Cities
Costa Mesa, California

Sunday, August 21, 2011
American Association of Motor Vehicle Administrators
Milwaukee, Wisconsin

Wednesday, October 26, 2011
Attitudes: Iniciativa Social de Audi
Madrid, Spain

April 16, 2012
Institute for Sensible Transport Seminar
Gardens Theatre, QUT
Brisbane, Australia

April 17, 2012
Institute for Sensible Transport Seminar
Centennial Plaza, Sydney
Sydney, Australia

April 19, 2012
Institute for Sensible Transport Seminar
Melbourne Town Hall
Melbourne, Australia

January 30, 2013
University of Minnesota City Engineers Association Meeting
Minneapolis, MN

January 31, 2013
Metropolis and Mobile Life
School of Architecture, University of Toronto

February 22, 2013
ISL Engineering
Edmonton, Canada

March 1, 2013
Australian Road Summit
Melbourne, Australia

May 8, 2013
New York State Association of
Transportation Engineers
Rochester, NY

August 18, 2013 “Ingenuity” Conference
San Francisco, CA

September 26, 2013
TransComm 2013
(Meeting of American Association
of State Highway and Transportation
Officials’ Subcommittee on Transportation
Grand Rapids MI



February 2011

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