Chatting about the demise of newspapers with my wife, I began to wax nostalgically about my first job delivering the local paper while growing up in New York. Making $30-40 a week in 1980s money, the job gave me a degree of financial independence — at least for a 7th grader! The paper route also was my first lessons in sales and customer service. It was a cash business and I made my rounds every Thursday and Friday to collect subscription fees and tips. I knew most of my customers by name. If I was late or inadvertently skipped a house, I’d get a call home reminding me to make a delivery.
Beyond salary, the newspaper used to reward us for enlisting new subscribers with tickets to baseball or hockey games. It was a pretty cool system from what I remember. I spent several fun afternoons at Yankee Stadium with may fellow paper-boys. It was great incentives to go door-to-door and sell the paper.
Hmm . . . strange compared to newspapers today. Newspapers seem focused on prying your credit card or bank account number from you and then tying you in long term to some kind of automatic bill pay system. The paper is delivered by adults who handle massive routes by truck or car. If there is a delivery problem, your call is routed through an automated system to arrange for a credit or a later delivery.
Perhaps most importantly, in moving away from the paper-boy, newspapers cut a vital human tie to their customers. How much goodwill was inspired towards a newspaper when the subscriber sees a kid working hard to earn some spending money? How much harder would it be to cancel a subscription if a neighborhood kid was the human face of the paper? I don’t want to knock the people who do this work now, but the current system does feel colder and more aloof.
It’s hard to imagine bringing back the paper-boy as something that can reverse the demise of newspapers, but it may be one of the little things that can help make them even a tiny bit more community-oriented and as a result more relevant.