Paper Trail

Newspaper delivery has shifted from kids on bikes to adults in cars — a bad sign for the U.S. workforce

  • H. Armstrong Roberts / Corbis

    In 2008, paperboys made up 13% of newspaper deliverers, vs. 70% in 1990

    Ask a former paperboy about the job, and you're likely to summon a misty-eyed recollection of predawn bundling and knee-high snow. "It meant a lot to me as a kid," Today host Matt Lauer said of his first job. "Today it's basically something that doesn't exist."

    With physical newspapers making their way to an ever shrinking number of customers, paperboys (and girls) have become an endangered species. In 2008 they made up just 13% of newspaper deliverers, down from nearly 70% in 1990. One reason for their demise: as cost-conscious newspaper companies shifted to large distribution centers, their carriers had to deliver bigger bundles of papers across a wider area. To entice adults with cars to fill this role, newspaper executives switched from using the term paperboy to independent delivery contractor . They also changed the job: few carriers today collect money from subscribers. The result is a different delivery experience for consumers. Instead of a kid throwing the paper on your porch (or in the bushes), an adult in a car puts it in your roadside mailbox or drops it at the end of your driveway.

    The larger culture around the paperboy has changed as well. Many kids have stopped delivering papers for some of the same reasons many of them have stopped walking to school — the percentage of walkers has shrunk from nearly 50% in the late 1960s to just 16% in 2001. This is in part because of fears of stranger danger but also because families have been moving from suburbs to exurbs, which are simply too spread out for kids to cover on foot or on Schwinn Sting-Rays.

    Why should we lament the passing of an entry-level, low-skilled job for America's teens? For starters, data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics shows that by age 27, men who worked in high school earn an average of a dollar more per hour than those who did not. Is it their early job experience that gives them a leg up, or are those kids simply more motivated? History teases suggestively: a young Benjamin Franklin delivered the Boston Gazette , Thomas Edison sold papers at the age of 12, and Warren Buffett was delivering the Washington Post long before he tried to buy it.

    Matt Lauer might be heartened to know that paperboys haven't disappeared completely. At least one U.S. daily, the Times News , which is based near Allentown, Pa., and has roughly 14,000 subscribers, still employs an all-youth carrier force. Depending on how close together the homes are on the routes, the kids get paid 12¢ to 15¢ per delivery.

    "I think it's a vital part of a kid's growing up and learning to be their own businessperson," says Fred Masenheimer, the paper's publisher for 41 years. About half of its 100-plus carriers deliver papers on their own, while the rest — many of whom are preteens — are supervised by their parents. This is for safety reasons as well as to ensure delivery. "When you put your reputation on the back of a 10- or 12-year-old kid, you want to make sure they're doing the job properly," Masenheimer says.

    His carriers still sling canvas bags across the handlebars of their bikes, and they still risk the occasional dog bite. Masenheimer himself was a Pennsylvania paperboy, delivering the Hanover Evening News . "They used to tell us it was the last 2¢ 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 article originally appeared in the Feb. 14, 2011 issue of TIME.