Up front: June 2013

Paper trails

Every day but Sunday, I walked up to their front doors and left it on their porches. Each Friday, I’d stop to knock and collect what they owed. Nobody knew my neighborhood — the place and the people who lived there — better than I did when I was 12, not even the mailman. He was a grown-up, so people watched what they said and did when he was around, and he was only around when most of them were away at work. I was the paperboy, a kid whose delivery satchel served as a cloak of invisibility. I carried my route when folks were getting home and getting supper on the table. And since I walked rather than biked it, I saw and heard everything.

I knew who had a job and where and what they did there. I knew who had been laid off. I knew who was nice and who was not. I knew who were good providers, who took care of their families and kept up their property, and who were sorry sacks of, well, you know. I knew who drank too much, who feuded with their neighbors, who beat their wives and kids. (Fifty years later, I still remember a woman trying to hide her black eye behind the edge of the door as she handed me a quarter and a dime.) I knew all this about all of them because nearly everybody in my neighborhood subscribed to The Daily Times-News.

In the blue-collar section of Burlington where I grew up, 35 cents a week to have the paper delivered was no small expense. Many who lived there worked in the mills, and few made as much as $100 a week. But getting the paper was a necessity, not a luxury. A lot of folks also took the morning Greensboro Daily News. My parents subscribed to three dailies — those two plus the Durham Morning Herald, because my old man was a Blue Devils fanatic and its sports section had the best coverage of Duke. He’s been dead 45 years, but I can see him sitting in his vinyl-upholstered easy chair after work, still in his plumber’s uniform, plowing through his thick stack of papers.

These memories came back to me this month as I edited Philip Meyer’s piece about the long decline of the newspaper business (page 46). In it, he notes that household penetration nationally didn’t drop below 100% until the 1960s, which is when I had my route. That means more copies were sold than there were households to receive them, and it was because so many people took multiple papers.

Phil, a journalism professor at UNC Chapel Hill from 1981 to his retirement in 2008, was a newspaperman for 26 years before that. In the 1960s, he pioneered computer-assisted reporting by applying the quantitative methods of social science to the craft, which let reporters mine data in what came to be called precision journalism. Though we’ve never met in person, we worked in the same building when I was a rookie editor with The Miami Herald and he was director of news research for Knight Ridder, its corporate parent, which had its headquarters there.

He got his start in the business the same way I did, as a paperboy, delivering the Clay Center Dispatch in his native Kansas. That was 70 years ago, but as his biographical sketch on Amazon.com states, “He still porches his neighbors’ newspapers when he finds them thrown carelessly at the curb.”

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