It's 2:30 am on a Thursday, and I'm headed to a warehouse in Mira Mesa to learn the paperboy trade. When I arrive at 3 am, the parking lot is dark and full of double-parked cars that people are rushing toward with tall metal carts stacked with newspapers. I'm told the paper was late today.
The San Diego Union-Tribune (U-T) is printed in Los Angeles (last local run in 2015). One newspaper carrier tells me they're at the mercy of the trucking company. All newspapers must be on subscriber's porches by 6 am. Things aren't looking good for that deadline today.
The warehouse is bustling with newspaper carriers folding newspapers on long tables. Carriers of both sexes are a mix of ages and ethnicities. After navigating the maze of tables, I meet Bob (not his real name). The 62-year-old (Caucasian) looks the part of a 1970s paperboy in jeans, rock n' roll T-shirt, sneakers, and baseball cap with shoulder-length hair. Bob is going to show me the ropes as we do his Ocean Beach route together.
This odyssey began amid a July boycott by Bay Ho and Clairemont residents after weeks (in some cases months) of delivery woes. The boycott fizzled when one subscriber asked how they would ever know when issues were resolved if they all quit taking the paper.
Things had gotten so bad that carriers were leaving apology notes in lieu of newspapers while others pleaded with subscribers not to complain.
Even when papers are delivered, sometimes they end up in bushes, under cars, or soaked from the sprinkler head they land on.
Bay Ho resident Jean got an email from the U-T stating service had sunk to "unacceptable levels due to a number of decisions made under our prior ownership over the past three years."
The newspaper that will celebrate its 150th birthday this October changed hands in June for the seventh time since its founding in 1868. The founding owners and the following two (Spreckels and the Copley's) held ownership for 140 of those 150 years. The last decade has been more rocky with the paper changing hands four times (private equity firm in 2009, local hotelier Doug Manchester in 2011, Tribune Publishing/Tronc in 2015, and biotech billionaire Patrick Soon-Shiong in 2018).
Some residents were offered fourteen to fifteen cents per missed paper or a recommendation to go online to read it. Both options were vexing for seniors who've had the U-T delivered for more than 50 years.
A former U-T circulation department employee, Tom (not his real name), said each paper route consists of 100 to 200 customers and are parceled out based on districts that are bid on by outside contractors.
Some say too many middlemen are the problem. The U-T hands over responsibility for delivery to a contractor who then farms it out to vendors (distributors) who in turn farm it out to independent contractors (newspaper carriers).
"For every paper thrown, the distributor is getting as much as the [carrier] for doing nothing."
The contractor in charge of Bay Ho routes is ACI (American Communications Industry). ACI's website touts mastering the last mile and delivering packages. A U-T carrier confirmed they deliver those packages sometimes.
Tom said there's a constant turnover of carriers as it's a much harder gig than imagined. He said crummy delivery loses the newspaper money in circulation and in advertising. "The U-T is at the mercy of the subscriber."
"Most [carriers] are single mothers of foreign birth. They can't get a job any other way. If they have a green card and car and can walk and talk and chew gum at the same time, they can get a route." He said most show up in pajamas and curlers, throw newspapers from their cars, and race home to shower for their other job.
Tom said delivery issues are tied to distributors that "lack management skills to pick great people" and complaints that are funneled to the Philippines because "it's cheaper."
The paper not being printed locally impacts content too. "Anything that happens after 8 or 9 pm doesn't get into the paper." He said because of this sports aren't covered well and so much is written elsewhere.
In the August 16 U-T, about half the stories were sourced from the New York Times, Bloomberg News, the Washington Post, Associated Press, Reuters, L.A. Times, San Jose Mercury, and news services. Nearly 90 percent of outsourced stories were in Section A (front page), business, and sports sections.
A former paperboy himself, Tom said that paperboy era ended in the 1980s. My brother remembers filling in for a friend's route once. He used his bike to deliver 50 to 100 papers for about $20 a week. "It sucked," he said.
Bruce Blair from the U-T said most customers get excellent service but when there is turnover, service suffers as new carriers learn the route.
When asked how hands-on U-T staff has been with the recent delivery issues, Blair said, "We have a distribution agreement with ACI and they contract large distribution companies located around the county. Because of our contractual arrangement, the vendor is responsible for all day-to-day operations."
Blair said while they meet with ACI regularly and have visited some distribution centers with ACI's permission, it's "not a regular practice given our contractual arrangement with ACI."
After failing to get a carrier interview, I went undercover and asked ACI if I could shadow a carrier for a possible job. I finally got a call from Nathan, an ACI distributor who agreed to let me shadow his "best guy." Nathan (not his real name) said he manages 72 carriers.
Nathan has been an ACI distributor since July 2. He gets into the warehouse every night around midnight from Ventura. He said the distribution gig provides $30,000 weekly revenue that he can dip into for his entertainment promotions company.
Nathan said before he arrived, daily complaints were averaging 300. "We had 80 the other day. That's probably the best in over a year."
He quickly offered me a job doing customer service for $350 a week (four hours x seven days a week). He said if I also took a paper route, I could maybe make $600 a week. "The more you do, the more you make."
Nathan said his best guy (Bob) gets paid well because he does three jobs: opens the warehouse every night, does a paper route, and then delivers papers based on complaints.
"An average route pays $1200 a month to $2400 for more difficult routes." He said carriers come into the warehouse by 2 am, and "it takes about half an hour to fold the papers and about one-and-one-half hours to finish a regular route." He said some carriers don't roll into the warehouse until 4 or 5 am.
I helped Bob put the newspapers together in the warehouse. Because the papers were late, Bob told me I was going to fold them in the back of his car. "We have 300 papers to deliver today." He said his route takes three hours, except on Thursdays and Sundays when it can sometimes take five hours (more subscribers).
Bob said he pays another carrier $20 every two weeks for rubber bands and plastic bags. "Most carriers buy them from Nathan but they're more expensive. I don't know where he's getting them from, but he's paying too much."
Bob starts his workday at 10 pm (opens warehouse) and finishes up around 11 am or noon (after servicing complaints). He goes home to chill and gets to bed by 4:30 pm. He's worked 1100 days straight. Nathan is his fourth boss.
By 4:10 am, we are in Ocean Beach. One of our first stops is an apartment building where Bob uses a key to enter. Nathan confirmed all carriers have keys and codes.
In the back of Bob's Lexus, I'm surrounded by newspapers that need folding. Up front are that day's Wall Street Journal and Los Angeles Times we have to deliver too.
Bob realizes early on he forgot his route sheet at the warehouse. He has his route memorized but is concerned about "stops and starts" (new subscribers and cancellations).
As I fold papers, Bob zigzags down residential streets with hazard lights blinking. He takes pride in getting the paper placed just right. "I'm a stickler for making sure the paper is where they can see it."
Bob gets antsy as he sees certain people out-and-about as a sign we're running late. "I shouldn't see them." He has a three-pack-a-day habit, but only lights up once.
After folding 300 newspapers, my hands are inked black. I discovered the most efficient way to fold the paper is along the masthead (the other way fights the fold).
At 5:58 am, Bob hands a newspaper to an elderly lady that tells him she was just about to call and complain. "Some people literally wait for the paper to be late." He said carriers are allowed two complaints per 100 papers before being penalized two dollars each complaint.
As Bob tried to figure out if he missed anyone he said, "I don't get a lot of complaints, but I think I might get some today."
We finished Bob's two Ocean Beach routes a little after 7:30 am. It took three and a half hours. If an average route has 150 papers, how does anyone with ten or more routes ever finish before noon?
When I get home at 8 am, the same newspaper Bob and I had delivered all morning was on my porch. Bob told me earlier that carriers deliver courtesy papers when time allows (he said people complain when the free paper doesn't show up too). A "freebie" perhaps tied to average daily print circulation numbers the U-T reports every October. The 2017 numbers (121,321) were down nearly 37 percent from 2013 (189,822). Sunday circulation jumps to 180,154, but still much lower than 2013 numbers (251,318). Slipping numbers don't bode well for advertising revenue. Estimated advertising revenue for the U.S. newspaper industry slipped in 2017 to just below 1981 revenues.
Bob said he gets paid near what the "top-paying hardest routes" get. He said he gets a flat daily rate ($50-$80) for working complaints after his regular route. Based on conversations with Nathan and Bob, it's feasible Bob makes $1000 to $1300 weekly before expenses. He did have a nice car.
A 2009 class action suit brought by carriers against the U-T makes it unlikely they will ever deal with carriers directly again. In 2017, an appeals court affirmed the 2013 California Supreme Court ruling that U-T had misclassified carriers as independent contractors and awarded them nearly $5 million, including $3,188,445 for reimbursable expenses (mileage: $2.2 million, polybags/rubber bands: $618,569, warehouse rent: $116,430).
Even though Bob proudly proclaimed himself an independent contractor, I wondered how independent he could truly be while working up to fourteen hours a day for Nathan.
The courts decided carriers were employees (not independent contractors) in part because negotiations were non-existent as carriers had to agree to "take it or leave it" agreements. This rang true when I attempted to negotiate a slightly higher rate of pay ($66/day versus $50/day) with Nathan for the customer service position. "It pays $50 a day and it is [a] super easy job. Can't see paying more for it...It's tax free as well, so that is the exact you would get paid."
Originally, Nathan said the job could be done from home, but when it came down to it, cleaning up the warehouse and other duties were part of the customer service gig.
When asked why the rate of pay didn't square with how important he claimed customer service was, Nathan said he needed to "get the right people in who are willing to do other things as well and not set up their own terms at first start."
To be fair, Nathan does seem determined to get rid of carriers that aren't cutting it and replace them with better ones. In fairness to carriers, I second my brothers assessment of the job: it sucks.
Bay Ho resident Jean said after weeks of delivery issues, she finally is getting her paper regularly. University City resident Chris said contacting the U-T repeatedly did nothing for him and things only got resolved by talking to his carrier directly.