My first newspaper job

Before my side goal in November, I had been blogging about some fall memories. I had written this and intended to post it around my birthday, but never got around to it. Before December, here's one more fall memory from way back when.

I've been in the newspaper industry for almost 22 years (and that's not counting my first couple years working for my college's newspaper). Yet my first newspaper job wasn't writing or editing or clerking. Eight years before I set foot in a big-city newsroom, I was a paperboy for a neighborhood weekly.

I had wanted to deliver newspapers, following the lead of some of my friends who did. My parents didn't want me (and them -- on cold days, who's driving?) to take on the commitment of waking up early every morning to deliver a daily newspaper. But in the fall of 1982, they did let me take a job delivering the Harlem-Foster Times. Published once a week, the Harlem-Foster Times was one of a string of neighborhood weekly papers in Chicago and its suburbs. The day after Election Day, three days before my 12th birthday, three bundles of newspapers showed up on my doorstep.

I still remember the first edition of the Harlem-Foster Times I ever delivered. The election for Illinois' governor was the day before, and the ribbon headline declared that Adlai Stevenson Jr. had defeated the incumbent Jim Thompson. There was one little problem: Thompson had actually won in a close race (by about 5,000 votes). In true Dewey-beats-Truman form, the collection of papers in this chain (I'm sure this was the lead story in every one) must have went to press when it still looked like Stevenson would win. Essentially, and ironically, the first newspaper I, a professional copy editor and award-winning headline writer, delivered was inaccurate.

Mom helped me deliver all my papers that gray November day. Eventually I settled into a routine every Wednesday for the next three years in which I could get all the papers rubberbanded and delivered rather quickly. Amazingly, I did the paper route for a fall while running cross country my freshman year in high school. I didn't mind the delivering. I'd take a radio or a Walkman along and do it in two trips just walking it (I didn't have the right bag to deliver these on my bike) in the immediate neighborhood around my block. The first year, and the music I listened to all that winter, was the most memorable.By the third year, it was all routine.

What sucked about the route was collecting. Thirty years ago, it fell on the delivery boys to collect the subscription fees from customers. I'd try to get as many as I could over the course of a few days, then mail in or drop off half of what I collected. I got the rest and whatever tips were given. I liked the money, of course, but collecting was such a pain. It took more time than delivering, and I'd always have to follow up at houses when someone wasn't home. At first it was just once a month, but in the last year, it was once every two weeks. That was too much, and by the beginning of sophomore year, I quit.

I doubt many kids have paper routes anymore, even for weeklies. Adults with cars are more efficient at delivering newspapers. Hey, three years at one job for a 11- to 14-year-old is an accomplishment. The collecting I hated so much probably was good experience for future jobs -- sometimes, you just have to put your head down and barrel through the work you have to do, no matter how much you don't want to.


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