Every morning, 11-year-old Shane Shimmer rises before the sun, sleepy-eyed but determined, and follows in the footsteps of Benjamin Franklin, Dwight D. Eisenhower and basketball star Julius Erving.
He drags two bundles of newspapers inside his house, folds them, stuffs 46 into a stained canvas bag and sets out on his bicycle to deliver the world to his neighbors' doorsteps.
Shane Shimmer and his colleagues among the ranks of the nation's paperboys and papergirls hold a special place in the American scene. From plucky inner-city urchins urging "Read all about it!" to young suburbanites on bicycles, newspaper carriers are for many people a familiar example of Yankee enterprise and ambition.
On the Decline
In the last six or seven years, however, that sliver of Americana has been in decline. Basic changes in society and the newspaper business have cut the number of young carriers at the rate of 10,000 a year since 1980, a study by the American Newspaper Publishers Assn. published in February discovered, and replaced them with adults in cars.
And although circulation directors throughout the nation agree that there will always be a place for at least some paperboys and papergirls as long as there are papers to be delivered, they also agree that young carriers may soon be a wistful anachronism in many areas.
"It is a vanishing breed," said Richard Huguley, vice president for circulation at the Atlanta Journal and Constitution. "The 'little merchant' system is still alive, but I don't know how long it will be kicking."
"Although children remain the majority of deliverers," the ANPA report noted, "some newspaper executives see the day coming when the typical deliverer is not the 12-year-old kid dropping a paper on the doorstep but the middle-aged person flinging it from a car or stuffing it into a delivery tube."
Drop in Number
The study noted that children still deliver a little more than half of the nation's daily newspapers, but account for 85% of the country's 1 million carriers--down from 91% in 1980. About 30% of daily newspapers are delivered by the kids' more efficient grown-up colleagues and the remainder are sold in coin-operated boxes and at newsstands, which are serviced by adults.
"And the trend (toward more adult carriers) is growing," the ANPA said.
The latest changeover is happening in Santa Rosa, an attractive, affluent city of 95,500 in the rolling green farmland 70 miles north of San Francisco. Here, the daily Press-Democrat, which is owned by The New York Times Co., is arranging to replace its 550 youth carriers with about half that number of adults.
The goal, Publisher James C. Weeks said, is to improve on-time delivery and reduce the number of complaints. The change is scheduled for this summer.
"Like (the loss of) the milkman and the iceman, it (the loss of youth newspaper carriers) is the end of an era, and I'm sorry to see it go," Weeks said in a statement. But "two of the largest . . . surveys ever undertaken by the newspaper reflect that the No. 1 reader complaint is late papers."
Late papers, Weeks said, usually occur because it takes so long to deliver papers to the doorsteps of all 550 youth and 150 adult carriers. Using adults only will allow for more centralized--and speedier--distribution, he added. Adult carriers are used in rural parts of the county, as they are in many other parts of the country.
So far, though, the idea has only created complaints of its own. Youth carriers, their parents and others have organized to oppose the switch by picketing the newspaper, circulating petitions and telling readers to cancel subscriptions. They are also enlisting advertisers to pressure the newspaper and, perhaps, to withdraw their ads if the young carriers are forced out.
"We are not going to put up with this, having this big corporation coming in here and ruining the job market for our kids," said Jerry Shimmer, father of Shane and organizer of the campaign against the change to adult carriers.
"It's a sad day in American history," he said, "if it is a trend in the newspaper industry to eliminate paperboys and papergirls. This job has been a tradition in our country--like baseball, apple pie and Mom. What will happen to our kids if we phase this out? This great learning experience will be lost forever."
But newspaper publishers say the trend in urban areas is precisely that--toward phasing out kids--and may be unavoidable for several reasons.
For one thing, ANPA researchers found that bigger cities, with the crowded neighborhoods that made delivery a breeze, are full of single people, who tend to read fewer newspapers and prefer to buy them from coin-operated racks or newsstands rather than subscribe.
Married couples with children, the group most likely to subscribe, are found in the suburbs, which are more spread out, and therefore more difficult to cover on bicycle or foot.
In addition, a post-baby-boom "baby bust" means there are fewer children of newspaper-carrier age and thus fewer prospective candidates for the jobs. Even among those eligible, there are fewer interested in the modest wage carriers earn, usually 25% to 33% of the subscription price. That can be as little as $50 a month for a seven-day-a-week part-time job or as high as $50 a week.
Further working against traditional carriers is the industrywide trend for afternoon newspapers to become morning publications, thus making a convenient after-school job into a more difficult pre-dawn chore. Early morning rounds also make carriers more vulnerable to the distinctive hazards of their trade--from being hit by a car to being scolded for missing porches obscured by darkness or fog.
Crime also becomes more of a worry early in the morning--at least seven carriers in the United States have been kidnaped, raped or killed on their rounds since 1982--and morning delivery requires carriers to make a second trip in the afternoon to collect money and sell subscriptions.
Most of these changes affect large metropolitan regions and their suburbs.
The Los Angeles Times, for example, phased out its younger carriers in the late 1950s and early '60s. The Times, among the nation's leaders in home-delivered circulation, contracts with 215 agents throughout Southern California who, with the help of their employees, deliver by car, said Robert Converse, assistant director of circulation.
"It was not any plan on our part," he added. "It was really the size of the paper that did it." He explained that The Times simply grew too big--at five or seven pounds apiece--for youngsters to carry in any number.
Huguley said newspapers he has worked on in South Carolina and Georgia are reducing their legions of preteen carriers chiefly because "there are fewer and fewer children willing to do this work and more and more adults looking for a second income."
Dennis Carletta, the home delivery manager for the Daily News in New York, said he is "changing fast and furious" to adult carriers. "We've got to go with the flow, with what's good for the newspaper," he said. "Kids--I hate to say it--just aren't as dependable as before."
Young carriers, however, still are preferred in many parts of the country, especially in small- and medium-sized towns because when they do their jobs, they do them very well.
"We absolutely insist on kids," said Duane Cearlock, circulation manager at the Springfield, Ill., Journal-Statesman. "They will collect at the door, make sales and give better service, both to the customer and the newspaper."
Indeed, defenders of the young carriers suggest that publishers themselves are to blame when boys and girls do not work as well as they should.
"The only (problem) is among papers that pay carriers 50 cents an hour to carry 50 papers that weigh seven or eight pounds apiece," said one newspaper executive who requested anonymity. "If you'll pay them properly, there's no shortage (of eager, competent young carriers) at all."
The Minneapolis Star and Tribune uses an unusual distribution network that makes it easier for young people to work as carriers. The company employs one set of carriers during the week and another on weekends. Children who cannot fit a job in their daily schedules often can work on weekends--and thousands do, to the comfort of some subscribers.
"People get nostalgic about it (having a young carrier), especially older subscribers," said Chuck Freeman, Star and Tribune circulation manager. "A lot of people miss that face-to-face contact when an adult starts delivering their paper from a car and we send a bill rather than a carrier to collect."
In some areas, the shifting makeup of some cities, especially those attracting growing numbers of retirees, is forcing some newspapers to try adult carriers because there are not enough children for the job.
"We really believe in kids and the people contact they have, but there are simply no more kids to be found," said Mark Olson, circulation manager of the Peninsula Herald in Monterey, Calif. "I shiver every time I turn a route over to an adult. Believe me, I go out and try to find kids."
Despite the problems facing the carrier trade, its members can take comfort in the rich tradition of their chosen field.
America's first paperboy is believed to have been Benjamin Franklin, who as a 12-year-old in 1718 delivered newspapers for his brother, a Boston printer.
Other notable Americans who got their starts tossing newspapers--and thus earned a place in the Newspaper Carrier Hall of Fame in Reston, Va.--include Dwight D. Eisenhower and Herbert Hoover; Bob Hope and Bing Crosby; John Wayne and Carl Sandburg, and several people later destined for other halls of fame, such as Jackie Robinson and Julius Erving.
There are no women in the hall of fame so far, said Joseph Forsee, general manager of the International Circulation Managers Assn., mainly because girls are relatively new at the carrier game. California, for example, cleared away its last legal restriction against papergirls only a dozen years ago when it lowered the minimum age for papergirls from 18 to 10, the same age for boys.
That was one of the few changes experienced by the trade since the "little merchant" system developed in London around 1833. Under this system, carriers are considered independent operators who purchase newspapers wholesale and sell retail to their customers.
This system became so entrenched that when the United States outlawed most forms of child labor in 1938, newspaper carriers were one of the handful of exceptions, along with child actors and farm families.
Low pay, no benefits and sometimes difficult working conditions may result in the historically high turnover among carriers--most work only about three to six months, the ANPA estimates--but those who stick with it say they like the business experience it affords them and the self-discipline it makes them develop.
"It's real important," said Shane Shimmer, who relies on his paper route and the $75 to $85 a month he earns to finance his elaborate model train set. "It shows me how to run a business, and when I have to collect, I learn about responsibility and how to be a salesman."