“Paper Girls,” a new streaming series from Amazon Prime Video, is unmistakably a product of its time. It’s adapted from a (wonderful) comic book, it features young women of color, and it’s, well, a streaming series– a format that barely existed ten years ago. But it takes its title from a form of child labor that was once ubiquitous but now all but extinct: the four preteens at the center of the action are used to rising before dawn to deliver a daily newspaper (the fictional movie Cleveland curator) on their bikes.
It is not an anachronism. Like the eponymous comic book scripted by Brian K. Vaughan and drawn by Cliff Chiang who inspired it (which ended with its 30th issue in 2019), “Paper Girls” (Amazon version) is set in the fall of 1988 , in the imaginary suburb of Cleveland. of Stony Stream, Ohio.
That’s where it starts, anyway. Fast-paced, profane, and utterly unpredictable, “Paper Girls” has enough bizarre twists and jaw-dropping surprises that I won’t give too much away by telling you it involves time travel. All eight episodes of Amazon’s adaptation are available now.
The first chapter, “Growing Pains”, includes a montage where we see the four girls who will become our heroines dragging themselves out of bed while the rest of their household remains asleep. Twelve-year-old Chinese-American daughter Erin Teng (Riley Lai Nelet) who takes care of her anxious mother, uses scissors to open a pile of tied up newspapers that a van dumped on the sidewalk in front of her house, the A1 headline warning of the disastrous development of US-Soviet relations. As New Order’s “Age of Consent” enters the scene on the soundtrack, a cloudy-eyed Erin begins rolling up the papers and placing a rubber band around each one to make these soft, lightweight, non-aerodynamic periodicals strong and disposable.
Streaming technology hasn’t advanced to the point where you can smell fresh ink on newsprint or feel it rubbing off on your fingertips, but those are details that my decades-old memory readily provided. Your trusty pen pal delivered stuff to a suburb on a single speed dirt bike, then an adult ten speed, for several years in the late 80’s and early 90’s. I was wondering what had become what had been my first job in the media.
The decline of local news, and of the daily newspaper, is a topic that has rightly caused a lot of cringe in recent years. The fact that fewer and fewer readers are relying on paper editions rather than digital editions is also covered. This year, Gannett, America’s largest newspaper chain, reduced the days of the week that print editions are published in 186 of its newspapers, the Washington Post reported in April.
If newsprint newspapers are in decline, then newspapers delivered by children on bicycles seem like a relic of an even more distant past. But no one seems to know exactly how long they’ve been missing.
Lindsay Loving, director of communications for the News/Media Alliance, told me that her organization does not track this data. “I understand that newspaper delivery is done mostly by adults these days, but I don’t know of a primary source for this information or who would follow these trends,” Loving wrote. She recommended I interview someone at the Newseum, which closed its flagship location in Washington, DC in 2019 but continues to host traveling exhibitions.
A representative from the Newseum referred me to the News Leaders Association (NLA). Miriam Márquez, acting executive director of the NLA, told me that her group isn’t monitoring that either. “I know that several newspapers have stopped having bicycle newspaper carriers due to legal liability issues involving accidents and cars running over bicycle or foot carriers and concerns that young people are becoming the target of criminals, especially if they were collecting money from subscribers,” Márquez wrote in an email.
Undeterred by attacking two similar organizations, I decided to give the National Newspaper Association (NNA) a try. Executive Director Lynne Lance politely replied that the NNA, too, sucks when it comes to pacing kids on bikes, but pointed out that “we only represent community newspapers, not all newspapers.” .
I tried to contact the mailing service of the Washington Post– not the paper I delivered, but the one I grew up reading. A customer service representative referred me to the general number from which I had started my search. Eventually, a friend passed on contact details for a postman who does “traffic analysis”, but he didn’t return my call or email. For what it’s worth, my extremely precocious father tells me that the person who delivered the Job faithfully at his home for years is an adult driving around in an automobile.
Finding reports of what used to be called newspaper carriers but eventually became the gender- and age-neutral “newspaper carrier” in a newspaper database is tricky. On the one hand, the Shreveport Hours of Louisiana employed for many years a columnist – a certain Teddy Allen – who calls himself in the third person “Paperboy”. His “Ask the Paperboy” column has offered readers irreverent and whimsical answers to questions on many topics over the past 31 years, but rarely on a topic related to newspaper home delivery.
I found a page from Independent recording of Helena, Montana, which contained several advertisements seeking candidates for newspaper carrier jobs serving various paper routes as recently as September 2017. “Be your own BOS$$!!” the ad invites. “Get paid to exercise and also get a free daily log!” Each ad then provides an estimate of how many hours the carrier would be expected to put in and the “gross profit” it would earn “every 28 days.”
The phone number at the bottom of these listings is no longer in service.
I found an editorial published in Selma, Alabama, Times-Journal in 1976 by Robert A. Macklin of the International Circulation Managers Association. It opens with the popular anecdote that Benjamin Franklin was the first newspaper carrier before saying that “newspaper carriers are not delinquents” at a time when “juvenile crime is increasing at a rate that is a national disgrace”.
Attempting to slam dunk his closing statement, Macklin quoted founding FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover on the moral benefits of newspaper delivery: “The newspaper carrier has no time to get in trouble. He finds it fun to have a job, earn money and learn to meet people. He may not be aware of it, but he develops his individualism and learns to accept his responsibilities.
Although there is nothing in Macklin’s article to indicate where or when Hoover said this – the editorial was published more than four years after Hoover’s death from a heart attack in 1972 – it is clear that Hoover’s sense of who delivers the paper was probably obsolete.
I also came across a story from 2006 in the Spokane, Washington, Spokesperson-Review celebrating 68-year-old newspaper carrier Pat Meyers on her retirement from the paper delivery game after 25 years of working seven mornings a week. “Pat’s alarm has been set for 2 a.m. since Ronald Reagan was elected president,” columnist Rebecca Nappi wrote.
Meyers picked up the route of the youngest of his four sons, who all had paper routes in the ’70s, “back when young boys and girls, on bikes and on foot, threw newspapers on porches. Now carriers are required to have a driver’s license.
Admittedly, the percentage of newspapers currently delivered by children on bicycles is not the most pressing problem currently facing the Fourth Estate. But once I start wondering about something, I have to satisfy my curiosity.
I decided to call the Cleveland Plain Dealershipprobably the fictional model the Cleveland curator of Paper girls. My appeal to the general editorial line was not taken, which seems reasonable; they report the news.
I decided to try the traffic service, where the phone tree setup offers a very accurate overview of what moves most frequently Ordinary Merchant subscribers to contact their local newspaper of reference. Callers who indicate that they are reporting a delivery problem are then prompted to indicate that their paper was late, wet, damaged, missing a section or something else. I wonder if the person who used to direct these complaints to the appropriate ears was on the payroll more recently than a newspaper-carrying cyclist. Naturally, I chose option five.
When I explained to the agent who took my call what kind of information I was looking for, who I could talk to to find out, basically, who is delivering the Ordinary Merchant these days he told me it was a third party company and gave me another phone number to call.
What brought me to Ordinary Merchantfrom the classifieds service of .
On my way back, I decided to “Ask the paperboy” about paperboys.
So far the Paperboy has not returned my email.