What does the Union-Tribune do to crack down on the 14-year-old paper boy?

70 papers, $50 a month

  • Image by Steve Epeneter

He told the boy about all the millionaires who had carried newspapers as boys, and the boy replied, "Yeah, but I bet they quit after a week — it's such a royal screwing."

— Trout Kilgore in Slaughterhouse Five

Rumors fly fast and thick around town about the Copley Press. Especially now, with Mr. Jim Copley dead. One Copley employee, obviously trying to emphasize the benevolence of the company that he works for, threw out this one: "A lotta people don't realize it, but y'know, Jim Copley had a heart of gold. Why, y'know, someone came to him once to try to sell him an automated paper-delivery machine, one that would deliver newspapers by computer. And you know what he said? He told the guy with the machine that he didn't want to see his paperboys lose their jobs, no matter how efficient the machine would've been."

It wouldn't have been that efficient, now claim Mr. Mel Berlin, director of the Union-Tribune's circulation, and his assistant Mr. Hill. The "machine" was a car that would've had one driver in front and two throwers in the back, folding and throwing papers. They tried the machine in Ft. Worth, Texas. Every time the car came to a subscriber's house, the computer was programmed so there was a beep, a certain beep if the subscriber lived on the right, a certain beep if he lived on the left. There was also a print-out in the case you and the machine got lost. Since the machine could only get out 2000 papers in four hours and took three people to do it, and because "you lost the personal touch," the idea was never employed by the Copley Press. Mr. Berlin and Mr. Hill, both with looks of "I've seen everything, nothing would surprise me now," have great expectations for the future, "Some day they'll have a machine that'll do it, and do it with a personal touch, get it on the porch and everything."

Mr. Berlin and Mr. Hill as the Circulation Director and Assistant Director, sit atop a pyramidal organization of some 3000 paper boys, 100 district managers, and 15 division managers. At this moment, they sit in their spaning new office in the new Copley Building, so new you an still smell the paint and fibers of the new furniture and carpet. Mr. Berlin puts his white-socked, white-shoed feet up on his desk, pulls out a handful of cigars from his desk drawer, puts one cigar in his mouth and the rest in the inside pocket of his sports coat. His cigar smoke is almost as distracting as the double-level traffic on Interstate 8 and Camino de la Reina, totally visible through the floor-to-ceiling windows of the new building.

Since some 70 percent of the Union-Tribune's circulation is home-delivered, the role of the wide-eyed 14-year-old paper boy (the median age of the Copley paper boy is 14.8 years) is very important to Mr. Berlin and Mr. Hill. Not only do they encourage the boy with 87 cents (82 cents for the Tribune) out of every four dollars per month collected; they have the Honor Roll program whereby a boy can earn a savings bond or a scholarship. "A boy gets on the Honor Roll by having no more than two service errors per month." Moreover, with new subscriptions per month." Moreover, with new subscriptions, a boy can earn a new set of paper bags; a bicycle, a color TV, a trip to Disneyland, to Hawaii, to the Boy's Ranch in Colorado, to Mexico City, to Washington, D.C., "anything you want, we tell the boys, you tell us what you want, and we'll try to get if for you. Why, one boy has gotten over 300 new subscriptions in a period of six weeks."

What does the Union-Tribune do to crack down on the 14-year-old who doesn't do his job? Well, since the paper boys are not Copley employees, but rather "independent contractors," any violation of the contract by the boy means he has "broken it." But usually a boy is not fired immediately unless he fails to turn over the money collected on his route. "Most boys, when they say they can't collect their money, in 98 percent of the cases, why, they just haven't tried hard enough."

Jim is older than the average paper boy. He's 20 years old. He's been delivering the Union since he was 11. A student at Mesa College for three years now, he lives at home with his parents in Clairemont, and delivering papers is just an easy half hour or an hour at the beginning of each day.

This morning, however, it's not such an easy half hour. Since he's going to Catalina with his friends this Saturday morning, I agree to meet him at a face-numbing 3:30 a.m. We each take a stack of papers, pile them on the hood of Jim's orange Fastback, and start folding and rubber banding them. "I usually get 'em about six in the morning but I went down and picked 'em early today.... My brother and I had this route. Then he got another job and I've got I all now."

"All" is about 70 papers, $50 a month for Jim. Collecting from subscribers is not much of a problem, especially now that the Union provides envelopes to insert int eh papers encouraging subscribers to mail in their monthly four dollars. "Especially here in Clairemont, I don't have any trouble. Two-thirds of the people even send in their money. We we — my brother and I — when we first had out route, it was a lot different. It was in a place where we lived called Emerald Hills, out by — you know where the College Grove area is? Lotta blacks there, didn't pay their bills. It was real rough collecting. The paper paid us more for doing that area."

We put the papers, now piled into two stacks, in the shotgun seat, I get in the back, Jim gets ready to drive. He rolls down both front windows. Down Penrose Street we weave like the head of a slithering snake, first a paper to the left — umph! — out the driver's window, then one to the right — unh! — out the shotgun window. Plop... plop... plop. Shoot! Got one in the ivy.

Most of the yards are very simple geometrically, a rectangular lawn, a straight driveway, a bush or two here or there. "I usually do it on my bike. Ya can't porch 'em in a car. But once a week like this isn't gonna hurt, I figure. Besides, it's faster. My brother and I once did this route in three minutes."

The circulation man Mr. Berlin says he originally opposed having girls on paper routes ("...it was just too dangerous, why you should see how well-developed some of these 13- and 14-year-old girls are. I didn't want them.") But the times and the laws and Mr. Berlin have changed: "Now I can see that these girls are a lot more conscientious than the boys. They stick to their job."

Rose is 11 years old and she delivers papers in South Mission Beach right after school. The afternoon Rose and I do her route, mostly on bicycle, we have to stop so many times to run through apartment buildings and duplexes and triplexes and fourplexes that it seems she would be better off walking her route. But Rose just shrugs. She claims she tried it once — her district manager suggested that she walk and fold at the same time — and it took her longer.

Rose is really serious. Only now and then a self-conscious smile. She has a paper route, she says, because she wants to put herself through college. Rose's parents won't let her go out at night to get new subscriptions, but she gets enough in the daytime each month to qualify her for the Copley Honor Roll. She says she hopes to get one of the savings bonds.

Randy is kind of a goof-off. He's 12 years old, but he's had his route for over a year now and says he's ready to quit. He brags he has gotten an average of two or three service errors a week for the past two months. His route, also an Evening Tribune route, covers part of the Loma Portal area, and because his route is more spread out and hillier than most, he has fewer papers. It takes about two hours to do it.

But that's partly because we make two detours; one at the McDonald's on Midway, where Randy cons me into buying him a large Coke ("with no ice — they always try to gyp ya" by filling the cup with ice") and one at Tower Records, where Randy says we're stopping just for a minute. Randy sees some of his older peers (friends?) hovering around a car in the parking lot trying to smoke Winstons and trying to look ten years older. Randy just nods to them and goes inside the store to check out some new album.

"I've got about 450 albums right now, and I figure by the time I quit, I should have a total of 500. Then I'll be set for life, 'cause I can just trade for the ones I don't have. I already have about 60 I'm getting pretty tired of already, mostly some folk stuff — Judy Collins, Gordon Lightfoot — my older brother gave me." As we pump our way up steep Leland street, back and forth across the street, Randy doesn't even seem to look for oncoming cars. "I have this one customer, really weird, she wants me to ring the doorbell every time I deliver her paper. Then there's the old man on Oleander Street who's always inviting me in for a glass of milk and cookies. Some people are real nice. But I'm just getting tired of spending all my afternoons working. I want to go out for tennis this spring."

So, at least from a superficial look, the Copley paper route doesn't seem to be such a royal screwing. It's cheap labor for the newspaper — $50 a month for at least 30 hours of delivering, not to mention the free bill -collecting paper boys do. But there's none of the mandatory subscription "crews" that paper boys in more competitive town often face and there's the possibility of earning enough money to give you even as a teeny-bopper a real feeling fro the fruits of capitalism.

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