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Notably Norwich: The many benefits of a newspaper, and a paper route

Years ago, as a young teenager, Steve John would rise at an ungodly hour each morning, dress for the weather, and embark on a hilly, miles-long paper route for about two hours to deliver The Norwich Bulletin to about 125 customers in and around the city’s Cherry Hill and Glenwood Avenue neighborhoods.

Like the U.S. Postal Service, “neither snow, nor rain, nor heat, nor gloom of night” would deter him from his appointed rounds, except his load was heavier, he delivered seven days a week, including holidays, and when he was finished, he would then go to school for the next seven hours.

“I can remember usually starting out in the dark and coming home with the sun just coming up and warming me up,” recalled Steve, who now lives in the Newent section of Lisbon. “I just loved to see that sun. ... I remember freezing my buns off in the winter.

“Collecting money was always a chore too. I tried to get everyone to leave their money in envelopes for Saturday pick-up, but there was always a percentage that I had to go to to collect.”

Steve inherited the paper route from his older brother, Peter, and several years later when he gave it up, it had grown so large as a result of his great service and growth of the Cherry Hill subdivision that it had to be divided into three separate routes.

As I did back then when I retrieved the paper from our doorstep every morning, I marvel today at Steve’s extraordinary work ethic. Yes, if the weather was really inclement, his dad would drive him, but that didn’t happen often. Most days, he’d load heavy bags of newspapers and attach them to the front and sides of his Sting-Ray bike, then venture out into the morning darkness to bring his neighbors their daily news — every single day.

No matter how early I rose in the morning, the paper was always there.

There aren’t many paper boys or paper girls left these days, and if the present trend continues, home delivery of daily newspapers may someday be a thing of the past. In recent years, more and more paper routes are covered by adults in cars and trucks. Teenagers today seem to have more important things to do than deliver newspapers, a demanding daily job for relatively little compensation. And with more people getting their news from TV, radio, social media and from online sites provided by the newspapers themselves, home delivery is rapidly becoming a service with diminishing returns for this financially struggling industry.

Newsroom staffs and newspaper advertising today are a mere fraction of what they were during newspapers’ heyday, and the finished product and circulation figures reflect as much. There is comparatively little between the covers of the Saturday, Monday and Tuesday editions of most daily newspapers these days. There are fewer reporters, fewer ads and, thus, smaller news holes and less news.

Recently, Gannett Co., Inc., the nation’s largest newspaper publisher and the holding company that owns The Bulletin and many other American newspapers, announced that it will no longer provide home delivery of Saturday newspapers. Those who still prefer to have the actual newspaper in hand when they read it will have to either revert to online consumption or schlep to the nearest honor box or newsstand to buy it on Saturdays.

It would seem this is the beginning of an eventual end to home delivery, not just by Gannett, but by other newspapers and chains looking for additional ways to cut costs. Some established, quality news services today, such as the Connecticut Mirror, are exclusively online. A few other newspapers no longer publish every day. And most of the old afternoon newspapers either converted to a morning-delivery format, like The Day did back in the 1980s, or went out of business like the Hartford Times.

Still, for those of us whose first function each day is to read the newspaper, there was always something comforting about opening the door to your home and having the hometown newspaper there on the step or in the delivery box at the end of the driveway. It was part of the daily routine for many of us, having the day’s first cup of coffee while learning from this daily staple what was going on around the world and around the corner in government, in education, business, sports, entertainment.

You’d learn who had been born, who had died, who had been arrested, who graduated from high school and was accepted to college, who had won an award or gotten a new job, who won the local high school sports rivalry and what the local Planning & Zoning Commission would be taking up at its next meeting.

Even in today’s changing times, it is hard to imagine life without some form of our daily newspapers.

As a teenager, I also had a paper route, though not nearly as large or demanding as that of my classmate and friend, Steve John. I delivered the now-defunct Hartford Times, an afternoon paper, to about 30 customers in and around my Cherry Hill neighborhood. I’d have a quick snack when I got home from school, load up the bag, climb on my bike and make the rounds with my faithful beagle, Taffy. Given my affinity, even then, for news and sports, I recognized the importance of this, my first job, and took it seriously, though it usually took only about an hour and was done during daylight hours.

Most of the customers were nice folks, providing a dime or quarter for a tip each week. A few would occasionally offer a cup of hot cocoa on cold days or a soda or water on hot ones. Like Steve, I used to have to chase down some who would routinely or even occasionally fall behind on payments.

I recall one such customer on Sherwood Lane, a very attractive young woman, answering her front door one summer afternoon in a skimpy bikini when I knocked. I stood there awkwardly for a long moment, just gawking at her before blurting out that she owed $1.95 for three weeks delivery. She apologized for being late, gave me $3, and told me to keep the change.

I left there as one very happy boy.

Years earlier, when my family lived on Newton Street, my friend, Alan Berman, whose family lived across the street, had a Hartford Times paper route. He’d had the route in his previous neighborhood before his family moved, and so each day after school, he’d pedal his bike to several dozen homes in and around Elizabeth and Dunham streets a mile or two away. I used to ride with him just to keep him company and would occasionally take over the route on the rare occasion he couldn’t do it.

None of us made a lot of money delivering newspapers. Having a paper route was my parents’ idea as a means of having a little spending money. Between the paper route, shoveling snow from driveways, mowing a few lawns and returning empty soda bottles for a nickel apiece, a kid could make pretty good money with which to buy soda, candy, baseball cards and model cars.

The more important benefit, however, was developing a work ethic, however reluctantly.

Today, there are probably a number of other ways for kids to make money, though I suspect the most common method for them is to ask mom or dad. It might be welcomed with all the enthusiasm of a liver-and-onions dinner, but a job is the best thing young people can have while growing up. It keeps them out of trouble, gives them an appreciation for hard work and earning their money, builds character, and prepares them for later life.

The kids might not thank their parents at the time, but, later in life, they’ll look back and appreciate the opportunity and the insight.

Don’t take my word for it. Few have a greater appreciation for the benefits than Steve John, who concludes: “I suppose even back then, I looked at it as a challenge to overcome, and it did teach me the value of hard work and, of course, making money. I wouldn’t be surprised if it set me on a path for self-employment, which is what I’ve been for 45 years or so and still going.”

Bill Stanley, a former vice president at L+M Hospital, grew up in Norwich.

 

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