Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Newspaper Routes

It was in the fall of 1963 that I began my first real job. Up until then I'd mown some lawns, raked a few, and shoveled sidewalks when it snowed but basically had no real daily responsibilities. Then my friend Chris DeHart offered me his Woodbury Times newspaper route. On the surface it sounded like a good deal. You delivered the papers daily, collected the weekly subscription fee on Friday or Saturday, had Sunday off and lived like a prince. It turns out there were some minor problems with the economic model.
I believe at the time the Woodbury Times, now the Gloucester County Times, cost five cents an issue. Five cents! I would deliver them to people and my cost would be three cents. Thus netting me a profit of two cents for each paper delivered. Each customer would receive six newspapers a week, so my weekly profit, per customer, would be twelve cents. I had twenty five customers. That meant I stood to make the princely sum of three dollars per week. For this three dollars I would drive my bicycle around my neighborhood for perhaps forty five minutes a day, tossing newspapers onto porches or sliding them through mail slots or whatever particular quirk a customer might have for accepting the paper. This meant I was working...around four and half hours a week to make three dollars. This puts my hourly rate at about $.60 cents per hour. This was a lot of dough. I think. I mean my allowance was twenty five cents for Christ's sake! But it turns out there were some negatives.
Number one was people didn't pay you. I'm talking grown up, mature men and women stiffing some little twelve year old kid for the vast sum of thirty cents. But you still had to pay the man. That's what the guy from the newspaper was called. The man. He would come by every Saturday and collect your three cents per paper. You had to have that money no matter what. This created numerous problems. Like, number one, what do you do if significant numbers of people don't pay? Or what happens if you're a lazy nincompoop who doesn't really make a sincere effort to collect the money because you're scared to ask grown ups for money? Or, just for the sake of argument, suppose you don't exactly deliver the papers in the orderly, on time fashion your customers expect? And then they say, "I'm not paying for that paper, I never got it!". This could lead to serious cash flow issues. Your vast three dollar profit could end being at most seventy five cents or less. And this for hours of hard works! Or, to be honest, less than committed, hard work. Actually, kind of lazy half hearted rolling around the neighborhood on your bicycle daydreaming and not doing a very good job kind of work. That would probably accurately characterize my work ethic at twelve. Non-existent. To be very honest I'd fire my ass if I worked for me now. i sucked. I was unmotivated, lazy, bored, and lost in a world of fantasy. Delivering the news of the day in a timely fashion was the very last thing on my mind. Collecting funds from surly, angry old people was definitely not something I wanted to do.
I lasted three months or so. I was an abject failure and happy to turn in my bag and go back to playing football and running in the woods. I would try this money making approach again, more on that in the years to come, but I should have looked closer at the business model, the employee profile, etc. I was doomed from the start.
Some boys are born newspaper delivery boys. Others were made to daydream about repelling Russian hordes. I think I fit in the latter category.


Jim Maddox said...

I never had my own paper route. I did substitute for a few kids, so I did deliver the Woodbury Times and the Philadelphia Bulletin. I had heard the other kids talk about how difficult it was to collect from their customers, and I didn't want all that hassle. It was more fun to fight Nazi ME-109s and Russian Migs on your bike anyway.

Bob Thomas said...


That was the problem with an afternoon route - there were so many other things to divert you from the task. A morning newspaper route was - get up - bundle up for the weather - fold the papers and hustle through the route in time to have some breakfast, take a shower and get dressed for school - if things went well I would lay in my bed for a 10 or 15 minute nap after my shower before getting my school clothes on.

Besides almost freezing some winter mornings I also got to see bunches of nice sunrises.

Collecting could be a hassle, but the good paying people overshadowed the bad paying ones. I certainly would've wanted to try it in parts of Camden. Tips around Christmas amounted to about 1/4 of the income from the route for the whole year.