My paper route
By John Toth
After 19 years of publishing a weekly community paper, I am still doing one of the paper routes. Not because I have to, but because I enjoy it, and it keeps things in perspective.
If I owned any major daily in the country, I would make it a requirement that editorial staffers also take a paper route for, let’s say, a week each year.
They would have to ride with a distributor, but that’s O.K. I’d keep them on the clock, and I would make sure that they would throw the paper, not the distributor.
Here is why.
It’s no secret that many editorial staffers at newspapers tend to be a little arrogant. O.K., a lot arrogant. I’m not making any friends in the business by saying that, but it’s true.
Nobody becomes a beat or investigative reporter, or editor, without some arrogance and ego. That’s the nature of the business. Only a certain type of people get into it.
Ego and arrogance are not all that bad in this case, because they drive reporters and editors to be better, to push to get the story nobody else has.
The next day, their pay checks remain the same, but they get to bask in the temporary limelight of fame. The fortune never follows, but to the temporarily famous staffer, that does not matter.
Let me describe it in baseball terms.
I considered a page 1 story in the Houston Chrornicle (where I worked for 12 years before I started The Bulletin) with my name on top of it, a double.
A page 1 story with a byline, and also photo credit, was a triple. And, the same story that also made it around the world and was chased by other media outlets the next day, was a home run, maybe even a grand slam.
That was in the old days, when I also was driven by circumstances and had a great time chasing stories each day. I know it was “back then,” when newspapers still competed with each other, before one bought the other.
Things have changed, and the electronic interactive media has taken a lot of the newspaper chase game away. But we had TV competition back in the day, and we still played the game.
The trick was to get something nobody else had, make sure it was going to make a big splash, and keep it a secret until it was published. Then sit back and watch it happen.
Sit back for a very short time that is, because editors wanted follow-ups to beat the pack again. After everyone got hold of a story and started making it their own, the trick was to come up again with something nobody else had.
It got harder as the story progressed. The last thing you wanted to happen was to get beat the second or third day on a story that you broke and everyone else followed.
The pressure was on. Good pressure. Fun pressure. The game seldom ended. That’s what ego and arrogance do to writers -- make them produce.
What I would do is use these traits to take this game one step further. I would combine them with the humbling experience of facing minimum-wage store clerks and newspaper hawkers who can make or break a paper on a daily basis.
I know that I put out a free weekly, but this works on all levels, paid or unpaid circulation.
Once your star reporters try to argue with a store clerk or vendor about better location, only to be rejected, they will become a little more humble and lovable.
Once they get soaked in a thunderstorm while distributing the papers, they will appreciate how hard other people work to make his or her work visible on a daily or weekly basis.
Once they realize what it takes to make a newspaper work, other than the writing and editing part, and how people on the lowest rung of the ladder can make you visible or invisible, then they will become better people.
They would return to the newsroom and do an even better job. Plus, a week of manual labor of sorts would do them good. It’s also no secret that our type usually is not the most athletic creature around.
The idea to write this column came to me one morning recently as I was getting soaked while distributing the paper on a route that could have been done by someone else. I get a lot of ideas while driving around, trying not to miss a spot. I probably will do it as long as I do the paper, which, hopefully, will be for as long as I live. Why not? I’ve got nothing else to do on a rainy morning.
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