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Newspaper companies struggling to attract carriers amid labor shortage, more flexible work options

Brenda Story knows the ins and outs of Eagle’s sprawling subdivisions like the back of her hand. 

Six nights a week, she weaves in and out of back streets into the early hours of the morning delivering the Idaho Press to customers to read when they start their day. Starting a little before midnight, she picks up roughly 350 papers from the Idaho Press’s printing press in Nampa, rolls and stuffs them into bags and tosses them onto the driveways, pokes them into newspaper boxes, and fills newspaper stands. 

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All told, it takes her five hours to complete her run. Story, 65, is often driving home from her route as early morning shift workers are first stirring. Despite the late hours, she’s still not tired of it after 21 years. It’s a continuation of a family tradition of working in newspapers that started with her parents’ print shop, where they ran Linotype machines. 

“I love my paper route,” Story said. “I’ve done country routes, I’ve done city routes, I’ve done store routes. A few years ago I got on the Eagle route and that’s been my favorite and I will do that until the very end probably.”

But, just because Brenda feels at home whizzing through the dark streets of Eagle dropping off papers in the dead of night doesn’t mean the job is everyone’s dream. Newspaper carriers in Idaho, as well as nationwide, have struggled to fill these positions in recent months as more choices have opened up for flexible, low-wage work around the country. It’s becoming another struggle the beleaguered print industry has to overcome in the digital age. 

How does the job work?

Something a lot of people don’t know is your newspaper carrier isn’t even considered an employee of their newspaper company. 

Instead, they sign on as independent contractors. This is similar to how Amazon pays it’s delivery drivers on Amazon Flex who use their own vehicles to deliver packages or how Uber or Lyft drivers are classified. They are paid based on the services they provide, but there are no health benefits, 401(k) matching or other perks. 

And at a time when gas prices are rapidly climbing, it can be a tough ask for workers who have so many more options to make extra cash to want to sign on to put wear and tear on their own car and burn multiple tanks of gas a week to deliver newspapers on the side. 

These contractors are key to getting the Idaho Press out to its customers, which hit a Sunday circulation of roughly 21,000 last March. The Idaho Statesman also delivers in the Treasure Valley with its own fleet of carriers. The paper’s management did not respond to an interview request from BoiseDev for this story. 

Brenda Story stuffs newspapers in her car in Eagle. Photo: Margaret Carmel/BoiseDev

Idaho Press Circulation Director David Williams said they maintained paper carriers early into the pandemic, but soon it became tougher and tougher to hire. In order to compensate for the pressures from other job choices, he said the paper has had to make some changes. This included increasing the pay per route and giving the drivers they do have more papers to throw by growing their range. 

“So people can make the kind of money they’re looking for we’ve had to extend their territory,” Williams said. “They’re now delivering the same number of papers (over a longer distance) so they’re driving more miles to get those delivered.”

When someone quits a route, it means people like Story pick up two routes in one night and end up on the road for hours longer than anticipated. 

‘Not all routes are created equal’ 

These paper routes aren’t the routes of yesterday where a middle school kid could deliver a few dozen on their block before dashing to school. 

The average-sized route for the Idaho Press is 250 customers. And because the carriers are independent contractors, they each negotiate their own contract (and pay) with the Idaho Press. Williams declined to give too many specifics on the range for pay per routes, but he said the average a carrier makes is 22 cents per copy delivered. But, there are a lot of factors going into how much someone gets paid. 

The longest route the Idaho Press runs is roughly 150 miles round trip, he said. It can be a lot for new carriers to start out with, so Williams said the Idaho Press provides gas cards to new hires to make it to their first paycheck and they slowly work people up to delivering a full route. 

“Not routes are created equal,” he said. “Some routes you don’t have to drive very far, but other routes are in more rural areas and have dirt roads included with them so we have to pay a little bit more. Because they’re independent contractors and they run their own business we work with them to try to find out what the profitability level is.”

Story said many people think of the job as a side gig for kids, not realizing how much money you can bring in once you get up to delivering a full route after mastering the 50 papers you start out delivering when you’re training. But, gas prices are a big hurdle many people don’t count on. 

“I think the biggest thing is first of all people don’t really realize how much money they can make on a paper route,” she said. “They’re thinking about back in the day where you would ride a bicycle, so they don’t come in prepared, but the good thing is you get paid twice a month, but what hurts the new carriers is if they don’t have any money coming in is the gas prices.”

Getting creative

Beyond paying people more, media companies are going other routes to stretch their fewer carriers further. 

University of Idaho School of Journalism and Mass Media Associate Professor Kenton Bird said he subscribes to multiple print newspapers, but they’re mostly delivered by the same carrier. At his home in Lewiston, he gets the Lewiston Tribune, the Moscow-Pullman Daily News, and the Spokesman Review, all delivered by the same carrier. His print New York Times is delivered by a second carrier who also fills the racks at some local coffee shops. 

“There’s an economy of scale resulting from the dominant paper contracting with a former competitor for delivery,” Bird said.

While the Idaho Press’s coverage area from Ontario, up to Emmett plus throughout Ada and Canyon Counties is large, it doesn’t eclipse the Lewiston Tribune’s expansive delivery area. Bird said the paper delivers out to Grangeville, north of Moscow, and into three counties in eastern Washington. This means more miles on carriers’ cars and treacherous driving conditions in winter weather, especially for rural papers in North Idaho where winter is more severe. 

Even as news increasingly moves online, people like Bird and Story continue to be stalwart fans of the daily print newspaper delivered to your door. 

“There’s a lot more to it than just delivering papers,” Story said. “It’s about customer service, caring for your customers. They’re not just a driveway. People get really, really tied to their paper, and they depend on that paper to be there. I think after you’ve been in it for a little while, you either like it or you don’t. Those of us that like it, stick around.”

Disclosure: The Idaho Press has a content sharing agreement with BoiseDev. The paper didn’t have a role in the selection or production of this story.

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Margaret Carmel - BoiseDev Sr. Reporter
Margaret Carmel - BoiseDev Sr. Reporter
Margaret Carmel is a BoiseDev reporter focused on the City of Boise, housing, homelessness and growth. Contact her at [email protected] or by phone at (757)705-8066.

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