A Bygone Era – The Newspaper Boy

Reader Contribution by Bruce Mcelmurray

Almost everything I needed to learn in life I learned from being a paper boy.  As a paper boy you learn much about life requirements.  You learn how to run a business,  responsibility, how to deal with people, how to manage money and organizational skills.  That is not all you learn but those five basic elements can define your future and prepare you for success in later life.  

Business:  First I had to buy my paper route from the current newspaper carrier, therefore I had to make a personal investment in the business.  Then I had to learn to run that route properly.  The way my route worked was the product (newspaper)  was provided by the newspaper company to a local distributor where I then picked them up daily, carried them to my route, folded and bagged them  and then delivered them door to door.  I learned the overall  structure of a business as an independent newspaper carrier who accepted the newspapers on consignment.  I had to collect from my customers weekly and learn to keep accurate records for those who had paid as well as those who had not, record new subscribers and those who cancelled delivery.  My job was to provide quality service to my 125 customers.  I learned to give receipts, collect money and essentially learned how a business actually worked at the lowest level.  In case I couldn’t deliver the paper I needed to arrange to have someone deliver the paper for me.  I learned to plan ahead and also have a good friend who could step in when needed. That was extremely valuable.  I had such a friend and 65 years later we are still very good friends.  

: People expected their newspaper at a specific time each day and it was up to me to deliver it as expected.  I learned to be consistent and reliable.  That meant whether it was raining, snowing, stifling heat or sub zero temperatures, sick or healthy, those papers were to be delivered on schedule every day. Those 125 newspapers had to be delivered properly whether it was comfortable for me or not, seven days a week for 5 plus years.  They not only had to be delivered but had to be done in a manner that enabled the customer to read a dry paper that was not torn apart, on his porch roof  nor blown away.  That meant on uncovered porches you had to put the paper between the storm door and the regular door to protect it.  There were no plastic sleeves in those days to put the paper in for protection.  Sometimes you had to improvise ways to keep the paper dry and safe. I also needed a reliable vehicle to consistently deliver that newspaper.  That meant keeping my Columbia bicycle  in good working order. You also had to collect each week for your services. No mailing the payment in back then – instead you had to go door to door to collect in person.  

 People:  Those 125 customers were all different and all had their own individual characteristics and personalities.  I had to learn to deal with many different types of people. Some of those whom neither myself nor anyone else could ever  please regardless of outstanding service.  Also to those who were grateful over my taking the extra effort to insure the newspaper was kept safe,  dry and on time.  Fortunately for me most fell into the thankful category.  There were those few who would pay me in pennies so I would have to count every one to insure I had been fully paid.  There were also those who would try to negotiate the weekly fee or make a partial payment.  Then there were the majority who were friendly, helpful and always paid fully, on time, without any hassle.  Or those who would threaten to cancel service if I did not perform extraordinary delivery feats beyond anyone’s capacity.  You had to learn to be flexible, respectful, polite, patient and understanding of people especially as a 12 year old. That was back when the customer was always right even though they may be very much in the wrong.  You learned to take criticism and you learned to accept praise and thanks for a  job well done. You learned to deal with all types of people in all kinds of circumstance.

Manage money:
  We received 1 penny for every paper  delivered.  In my case that came to a whopping $8.75 a week.  That was $8.75 more than I had before I bought the paper route however.   I had to account for the newspapers money before my profit was realized, deliver it to them every two weeks, and what was left over was mine. Delivery constituted a bus ride down town with one transfer, also a new learning experience for me.  If customers didn’t pay that came out of my portion until I could catch up with those delinquent customers and hopefully get them to pay.  If the customer stiffed the newspaper by not paying it came out of my portion. Occasionally though the newspaper would give me a partial or full credit in those cases.  I learned the value of having a budget and learning to set money aside even if it was only a dollar or two a week.  Our public school district  did not furnish our text books so we had to purchase them ourselves.  I needed to plan ahead to buy school supplies and other necessities including text books. My dad died when I was young so it fell upon me to buy much of my school needs.  I also learned the real value of money especially when I foolishly squandered it.  

  The newspaper needed to be delivered right after school each day and VERY early on Sunday morning.  I had to organize my time to accomplish all this and still make sure I found time to do my school homework plus my other obligations.  If my grades dropped I could lose my paper route. If I neglected my chores – well that could get pretty ugly too.   You had to be a pretty well rounded student and person in order to qualify for a paper route in the first place. All the more reason to not lose it due to bad grades.   If there were school activities that I wanted to participate in I had to organize my time to accommodate my responsibilities first and then I could work in those other activities. Most often that meant no after school activities such as sports practice which  was usually held directly after school.  

Summary: Would I trade having the paper boy experience for more fun activities?  Not for a second; those five years were good years that taught me valuable life skills.  Although I didn’t realize it at the time, being a paper boy  was teaching me important skills I would require later in life.   Skills  that would carry me through life that would take others years to learn; if ever learned.

Now a days  people obtain their news from television or the internet; and newspapers are struggling to survive.  Newspaper boys are mostly a thing of the past and I think that is sad.  Not having the opportunity to own your own business at a young age and to learn life lessons by doing are now going the way of the dinosaur.   You learned valuable lessons that set you on a path to success and it was up to you whether you benefited by those lessons or not.  I think it is tragic that today’s youth does  not have some of  the same opportunities we had in bygone years.  That education was better (in my opinion)  than  a college degree in business because it was real life hands on application and first rate experience.  

What does this have to do with homesteading you may ask?  It provided me the training, discipline and skills to succeed later in life and enabled me to apply those learned skills in order to achieve the homestead we enjoy today.  So to all the newspaper boys and girls out there this blog is solely dedicated to you.  You learned basic business practices early in life, including all the specific topics previously mentioned plus far more than this limited space would allow room for.  Salute to you all!  

For more on the lifestyle of Bruce and Carol McElmurray go to:http://www.brucecarolcabin.blogspot.com