He was 12 and growing up in the cloud of the Great Depression. It was 1937, and Zane Showker heaped some newspapers into a wire basket and hopped on his bicycle in the small Shenandoah Valley town of Craigsville.
Soon he was delivering four different papers and enlisting other children as his distribution crew. An eager young capitalist’s career had begun.
“It was a real business. . . . I was pretty good at it,” chuckled Showker, now 69 and chairman emeritus of Sysco Food Services of Virginia Inc. He recalled rising early to run his routes, spending Saturdays collecting payments and tracking down deadbeat customers who wouldn’t pay up.
Millions of children over the years started in the working world as paper carriers. The legion includes presidents Dwight D. Eisenhower and Harry Truman and billionaires H. Ross Perot and Warren Buffett.
But fewer and fewer children deliver newspapers these days, and industry experts predict the rite of passage for entrepreneurial adolescents will virtually die out in the coming years. The demise of many afternoon newspapers over the past 15 years, changes in the circulation system and a concern for child safety all have contributed to the paper route’s death.
“In a way, I really think it’s tragic,” said Joe Vincent, executive vice president of Business Kids, a Coral Gables, Fla., company that publishes a guide for youth entrepreneurs. “It was a source of minor income but of great lessons to young people.”
“It’s just good, basic business principles,” Perot said of the paper delivery experience. The Texas tycoon and 1992 presidential candidate said he began delivering newspapers when he was about 12, throwing papers from his horse in one neighborhood where streets were made of sand.
In 1980, children accounted for 90% of all carriers at daily newspapers, according to the Newspaper Assn. of America. But by 1994, youths under 16 accounted for only 57.5% of all daily carriers, the association said.
The trend toward adult carriers is expected to continue, said Leon Levitt, the Reston, Va.-based association’s vice president for circulation.
“Whenever possible, newspapers tried to maintain what is called ‘the little merchants’ system,’ ” Levitt said. “But it’s harder, quite frankly, to recruit youth carriers to deliver at 5 or 5:30 in the morning, especially when people are demanding their papers earlier and earlier.”
One factor in The Boston Globe’s 1994 decision to phase out its 4,300 child carriers by 1997 was a desire to get the news to readers’ doorsteps earlier, Circulation Director Steve Cahow said. Ideally, routes should start around 4 or 4:30 a.m., but Massachusetts state law prohibits children from working before 6 a.m., he said.
“We had a tough time coming to grips with having to move away from kids. They did do a quality job of delivery,” Cahow said.
But another major reason for the change was that adults in automobiles can deliver about six times as many papers as children on foot or bicycle, Cahow said.
Adult carriers also have more of a profit incentive, said Chuck Venetian, vice president of operations and distribution for The Corpus Christi Caller-Times in Corpus Christi, Tex. The newspaper is part of a chain of about a dozen papers that uses adults exclusively, Venetian said. The policy went into effect at the Caller-Times about 15 years ago.
The paper’s staff of 250 “independent contractors” includes college students, senior citizens, housewives and others 21 and older. Carriers purchase the newspapers from the paper, then sell them to customers.
“They get the chance to run their own business,” Venetian said. “We get better service and more reliable service.”
But some are nostalgic for the days of the neighborhood carrier who often conducted business by wagon and cradled the paper inside the storm door on wintry and wet days.
“If you’ve got a kid that’s conscientious, there’s nothing that will give greater service than he will,” Showker said.
While service is reliable and swift today, “we’re basically tossing our paper from a pickup truck,” Venetian acknowledged. “The routes are so big you don’t have time to go right up to the door.”
The only market where youth delivery thrives is at afternoon suburban newspapers, Levitt said. Routes often aren’t very extensive and are convenient for children who want to work after school, he said.
While paper routes are for the most part on the way out, there still are many opportunities for young people who want to earn extra money, Vincent said. With the rise of dual-income families, children can find a niche providing lawn care, baby-sitting and other household services.
But Vincent, 51, who delivered the now-defunct Washington Star as a boy, said paper routes have greater rewards than money. They also create a bond among the children, customers and their newspaper.
“Your newspaper was part of the community and the kid was part of the community,” he said. “It’s a statement about the shift in our society.”