A Paperboy’s Perspective

Two recent “news” stories continue to bother me. On the one hand, the story of the ultimate demise of The (Nashville) City Paper. And, on the other, the decision by Brentwood, Tennessee, officials (subsequently supported by the federal judiciary) to ban the sale of The Contributor at street corners throughout the well-healed suburb.

A bit of context…

The City Paper started as a free, daily publication about 13 years ago. It introduced competition to the Nashville press and brought a degree of accountability to the reporting of local news and stories of interest – simply by increasing the options available to local consumers. After a series of business transactions, an editorial desk apparently mounted squarely on a high-speed turnstile, and miscalculated changes to its publishing frequency, its final print edition was published earlier this month. And so it goes – a tradition that has employed some and engaged many has fallen to the times.

Alternatively, The Contributor is a not-for-profit charitable organization that publishes a paper every other week. It serves to raise awareness of homelessness and poverty and is sold by human beings who have experienced or are experiencing homelessness. The humans buy the papers for 25 cents per copy and sell them for $1 each, though tips are most appreciated. It provides not only a source of income, but a source of interaction, fellowship, and an opportunity to exchange kindness and a smile with other humans who are demonstrating that they simply care.

So, what happens when a paper ceases to exist in a market like Nashville or a suburb like Brentwood?

Some may suggest that the hard-copy newspaper is “so 20th Century.” Yeah, well…so am I.

One could argue that the same information gained from newsprint can be obtained on our tablets, smart phones, and other electric leashes – instantly. Maybe so, but if we assume that speed costs money, what is the true cost of losing the hard-copy paper?

One of my first entrepreneurial experiences as a young kid was serving as a “paper boy” for The News Leader in Richmond, Virginia. Incidentally, The News Leader has gone by the wayside, as well – once the afternoon paper for the local market, it was “consolidated” into the Richmond Times-Dispatch, which had previously been the morning edition. And, while one may anticipate that “1+1” still equals “2”, I don’t particularly recall thinking that the Times Dispatch improved much beyond its perpetual mediocrity simply because we lost its sister edition. If anything, I suspect that our perception of quality was only enhanced by our modified perception over time, based on the change in options from two to just one.

My experience as a “paper boy” taught me things that continue to be part of a foundation that serves me well today. I had to take responsibility for my deliveries and ensure that my customers had their paper on time. I had to have pride in my work – taking care to wrap the papers in plastic on wet, rainy days, or putting them in the newspaper boxes that were hardly as convenient to fill as would be flinging the paper from my bike as I rode on by. I learned to have the courage to knock on doors to ask for new business or to collect subscription fees. I learned to swallow my thoughts and accept that, most often, the customer is simply right. And I made friends with people who taught me valuable lessons – like the kind, older couple who often greeted me at the end of their driveway for a bit of conversation – only much later did it occur to me that our near-daily interactions were an important part of their subscription experience.

You see, there are life lessons to be derived from human interactions. And, while e-commerce may be “faster”, I think that even ol’ Ralph Nader would concur with this more conservative fellow that the continued erosion of opportunities to pause and interact is truly “unsafe at any speed.”

I tried searching for “paper boy” and “paperboy” on-line today, yet I wasn’t particularly surprised by what I found. In our ever-“optimized” world of the web, the first page of search results contained nothing remotely associated with what used to be an honest, well-earned source of real world education and earnings in neighborhoods across America. Instead, today’s search results largely focus on a 2012 film of nominal critical significance. Somewhere in there is a metaphorical representation of our willingness to trade experience and knowledge for simple information.

And so, I wonder…how has the loss of The City Paper and the judicious extrication of The Contributor from the street corners of prosperity (for sake of traffic safety, of course) better us all? The simple answer is that there is no net gain.

I suspect that a statistical analysis to reveal the causal contributions of Contributor sales to overall traffic accident frequency in Brentwood may prove to be challenging, at best. I’ve asked around, though I have not yet found any locals who ever recall tragedy at the hands of a neighbor helping a neighbor by way of a road-side transaction in human kindness and generosity. I suspect such events may be lore, at best – perhaps concocted as some basis for only self-serving reassurances.

A bit like the memorable “drive-by fruiting” of Pierce Brosnan in Mrs. Doubtfire, it seems to me that the eradication of street-side sales of the Contributor in a certain zip code delivers a less than subtle message that some may not be as welcome as others.

Or, there is a subconscious desire to accommodate rather than confront the realities of our greed.

Consider that there appears to be no “movement” among other nearby neighborhoods and suburbs to join in the effort to protect us all from this great traffic impediment, the Contributor. Likewise, try sitting in the air-conditioned luxury of your vehicle on a hot summer day as you make eye contact with another in need by the roadside. Did you stop?

Cynical? Perhaps. But I suspect that many of those who persisted in achieving this great victory for public safety are the very same I pass daily and observe to be reading and/or texting on their smart phones while driving – after all, we must seek the news and seek it now.

If you truly want to protect me, please pull over and park that sled while you balance your cell phone and fru-fru-whatever-whatchamacallit-latte. And, while you’re sitting there, roll down your window and choose to be a Contributor.

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One Response to A Paperboy’s Perspective

  1. Great read and message, TJ. From one who reads the paper every morning. Especially the obituaries…a story for another day

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