So You Want to Deliver Newspapers

          Imagine a kid, pedaling down a sunny sidewalk, slinging tri-folded newspapers from a shoulder-slung canvas pouch—before cheerily running to catch the school bus every morning (if it weren't for reruns of Leave It to Beaver you probably couldn't).  It's not just because current labor laws prohibit employing our youth (under certain ages and before specific hours...especially on school days).  It's also not just because the daily pulp-based news industry is a recently wet wicked witch (...melttiiig...) desperately trying to postpone the inevitable eulogies.

          Although I can only address specifics of Portland's The Oregonian (where I've worked for many months) these practices and routines are clearly indicative of all the nation's print-news companies:

"Contractors".  Like thousands of other companies trying to cut corners, all delivery personnel are considered self-employed contractors. taxes, social security, or medicare/medicaid are deducted; there are also no unemployment, workers compensation, or health-care benefits; and no expenses are reimbursed (which especially includes no vehicle, gasoline, or mileage expenses).  The 'contract employee' label is a legal loophole which has become newspaper industry standard regardless of the IRS definition.

No Days Off.   7 days a week, 365 days a year, no overtime, no holidays (in fact, holidays = extra work).  If, for any reason, a delivery person fails to come to work and does not arrange for, or hire, an alternate delivery person, that person is terminated.

Pre-delivery Routine.  Between 88-92% of the time (on average: 90 out of 100 days) there are one, two, or even three extra advertisements or additional sections (called inserts) which must be placed inside the newspaper at the station.  Most papers then need to be folded/rolled and placed into a plastic bag (exceptions are papers going into tubes).  Obviously, the amount of time it takes to accomplish these pre-delivery tasks varies greatly, and depends on the following variables:
  •           Number of route changes (called "stops and starts"—more on this later)  
  •           Number of hands stuffing, folding, bagging, and loading the car (one assistant = 1/2 the time).
  •           Number of papers being delivered.
  •           Number of inserts to be inserted.
  •           Thickness/weight of the final paper with its inserts in respect to the size of the bag.
  •           Interior size of the car papers are going to being loaded into and delivered from.
  •           Wild card:  Occasionally a free product sample must also be included.
Hours.  All papers must be delivered before 5:30am (Mon-Sat) and 7:00am (Sun).  These times have been pre-chiseled in the wicked witch's headstone.  Contracted truck drivers are expensive (don't forget:..mellltttiing...The Oregonian has very few actual employees) so the truck bringing the pallets of bundled newspapers will arrive sometime between 1:00am and 4:00am because, now, one truck driver makes several trips.  Over the past few years, the average time the truck arrives has eroded from "normally around 1:30am" to "normally around 3:00am". 

Zombie Jigsaw Puzzle Routes.  Every route is laid out (more or less) with specific instructions for every customer.   For example:

          Turn left on SE Custers Last Circle

           5          tube          19430
           9          porch        19904
           17                         20566
           26       dbl bag!     21218

           U-turn at SE 451st Avenue

           1          tube&bag  23619
           13                          21217
            Pass Grocery Store
            7   porch ONLY!  19601       

            Because every current delivery route has been fitted together from the shrinking corpses of yesteryear's large plump routes, the address instructions are patchy and filled with errors.  The first weeks are spent fixing these errors and memorizing the route.  And re-memorizing.

Stops and Starts.  Every day the route changes.  First, a daily list is provided which reflects the routes "stops" (customers who are going on vacation / moving out / died of old age / learned to use the internet) and "starts" (customers who are returning from vacation / moved in / are feeling much better / forgot how to use the internet).  These changes must be made in pencil every night during the pre-delivery hours because they will be changing again very soon (some customers stop and re-start their paper every week or so).  The second way the routes change is based on the different possible subscriptions and the different products which the paper publishes in order to market itself (...meeellttttiiiinng...).

          Daily/Sunday = every day.
          Weekenders = Friday, Saturday & Sunday only.
          Sunday+Tuesday = the two days when the paper is mostly coupons.
          Weekday = for businesses closed on weekends.
          Bulk = vending boxes.
          Community News = placed on selected porches on Saturday evenings or Sunday mornings in an attempt to lure these people to subscribe.
          Food Day = a free product with coupons thrown every Monday night / Tuesday morning at every non-subscribing household on the route (unless they call and complain).
          MIX Magazine = a monthly subscription-type magazine filled with articles about local locations and events (at least as many free ones are provided as are sold...the witch is always marketing itself).
          TV Guides = additional subscription-only inserted on Saturdays.
          Other Newspapers = Also want the bi-weekly newspaper from a nearby city?  For a fee, it can be delivered to your door with The Oregonian.  (...meeelting...)

What all this means.  Although there isn't one, a "typical" route might look like:

                                Mon, Wed, Thr          Tue         Fri and Sat      Sun and holidays      MIX days

Number of papers:            200                    225                 250                  275                 +50 mags
Number of Cmty News:                                                                             75
Number of Food Days:                                300
Number of hours a day:        3                     7½                  3½                   10                     3
Number of "starts":              2                       3                     1                     2
Number of "stops":              3                       2                      2                     1
Number of complaints:         2                       0                      1                     3
Number of tips:                  1                       1                      0                     2
Number of miles driven:     20/day                 40                 20/day               25/day                 20
Number of hours driving:     2/day                  5                     2½                  3/day
Payment is NOT per paper.  Instead, it is determined by averaging the number of papers delivered (Daily and Sunday are separate) and multiplying by one's contracted amount of pay.  In the above example—with a daily payment rate of $2.20, a Sunday payment rate of $0.45, and a standard rate for the other products:                        

Monthly hours:         about 120 hours
Monthly pay:            about $850.00
Monthly tips:            about $40 (during the holidays this could/will be larger)
Monthly fees/fines:    about $40 (works out nicely...that the company gets almost all your tips)
Monthly mileage:       about 700 miles (a car that gets 30 miles/gal will see this reduced because of slow driving and idle-engine use = 30 gal of gas @ $4.00/gal = $120.00 month.

Hidden Fees:   Oh yes.  Of course there are hidden fees.  Everyone is required to pay for their portion of the rental space, where the station is located and where they are required to work during the pre-delivery hours.  Also, it is a requirement for everyone to purchase those flimsy bags which the news papers and other products are delivered in.  And, even though you may have fantastic insurance of your own, there is a mandatory supplemental insurance.

Fines.  Every time you deliver a paper to the wrong address, or someone steals it after you put it at the end of their driveway, or the wind blows it into the next yard . . . you are fined.  If a customer complains about getting their paper late more than once?  You are fined.  If a person complains about getting a free paper they previously asked not to receive?  Fined.  If a customer fails to get his TV Guide on Saturday or her free Food Day on Tuesday?  Yup, fined again.  All of these costs are deducted from your paycheck.

Why?  Would anyone deal with this incredibly bad and obviously unfair working environment?

          Who would agree to continue to work for a place where—when the company provides the papers over an hour later than necessary and it's too foggy and the paper is larger than a phone book (so huge they won't all fit in your car and you have to take two trips) which causes some customers to get their papers late and a few of them call and complain—YOU are held accountable...and fined?

          This is a complaint-based job.  When someone makes a late complaint, deliver their paper first...from that day forward; if someone complains of a wet paper, tie the ends of a double bag on their paper...from that day forward.  No extra compensation for the extra work—just extra fines if they complain again in the future.

         Who would work here?  This is a break-down of the people who work for the wicked witch:
  • 25% - Dorothy's:  People supplementing their income (like those on social security or with unexpected court-ordered child support payments).  Every Dorothy—including myself—claims they are working here only until things get better.  One "short termer" has been doing this for a decade.  ( place like place like...)
  • 20% - Toto's:  Illegal immigrants (no one checks documents or social security numbers—even if they speak/understand no English).  (...and your mangy little dog too...)
  • 20% - Tin Men:  People with a blot on their work history (not just parolees...but anyone who's been fired from a previous job or two; no one asks for a résumé or references—even if they're covered in prison tattoos).  (...the tinsmith forgot to give me a heart...all hollow...)
  • 15% - Munchkins:  Younger adults attending college and/or needing an income which will never intrude on their 9-5 (many of these housewife's and househusband's days are devoted to childcare).  (...follow the yellow brick road...)
  • 10% - Flying Monkeys:  These old timers have been delivering papers their entire life.  They are wicked-fast, eerily complaint proof and receive amazing tips.  They are the frogs who never jump out of the cook-pot because the temperature has been ever-so-slowly increased.  (Every one of these monkeys who didn't start a 401k decades ago or payed into social security...can, obviously, never quit.)  (...take care of those ruby slippers, I want those most of!!..) 
  • 10—20% - Cowardly Lions:  People with mild to severe OCD.  Where else can one get paid to count and NEATLY fold, stack, and bag and count?  Can't stop counting?  It may be debilitating in any other job, it's an asset here!  (...come to think of it, forty winks wouldn't be bad...)     
  • 10—20% - Scarecrows:  Kids with no experience and very little ethics or values who come to work high and stay high (many of these 'kids' are biologically middle-aged...less tweekers, more stoners...which might only be because this is Portland).  (...I could think of things I've never thought before...then I'd sit, and think some more...) 
  • 5% - Wizards:  Those who stuck, carved out a niche, and eventually became salaried supervisors or station foremen.  ( no attention to that man behind the curtain...)

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