Column: Limited Edition

Reflections on what it means to be a community newspaper

I miss my daily newspaper as I remember it. Beginning at age 8, I delivered the Detroit Free Press starting at 5 in the morning. It was a small town that depended on two bikes and two people to get the paper out before the milk was delivered to most doorsteps by Alward’s Dairy. It was my world.

I still remember the streets and house numbers as well as some of the more scandalous family entanglements on “my route.” It was hard to keep anything from the paperboy since things seem to either happen or clear out just before daybreak. Recently, a retiree in Ann Arbor said that she grew up at 126 Tyrell Street in my home town. I blushed at the reference because I always had difficulty “collecting” the 40 cents owed each week for the daily and Sunday from her folks. They would always ask me to come back tomorrow which meant another long bike ride the following afternoon. I didn’t tell her that I was from the same bump in the road, because I just didn’t want to go back there, even in my mind.

The papers would be delivered in a 1949 Ford truck to Mr. Derry’s basement long before daybreak. I got there soon thereafter and prided myself on being able to fold a paper tighter and faster than Jimmy, my older colleague. It was important to twist the papers as tight as possible so that I could fit all 82 papers in one dirty canvas paperbag with the Free Press logo on it. That way I could prop the bag on top of the handle bars and it made the delivery much easier. I hated Thursdays because the papers were fatter because of the advertising for the weekend. Going to two bags meant I had to put the lighter bag over my left shoulder, making it much harder to navigate my blue Columbia in the snow.

I only got 82 papers. If I miscounted and shorted myself, then I had to go all the way back to get the extra paper. Usually the extra paper was not there, because Jimmy would always leave after me. He didn’t go to school (because he didn’t want to and his parents lived on a farm). He would take my paper as an extra in case he had miscounted or in case one missed overhead fling resulted in a wet and muddy tabloid. The end result was that I had one very unhappy customer. I would get stiffed 7 cents (collecting only 33 cents) the following Saturday afternoon when I “collected.” I would have to pay 5 cents out of my own pocket to cover the cost of the missing paper. The paper really wasn’t missing. If Jimmy didn’t need it, he would take it home to his folks to read.

I could understand why the family was upset about not getting the paper. That was pretty much all the news there was. Not that the paper had anything great in it, but everyone followed the Tigers. (They wanted to know exactly how many home runs Charlie (Paw-Paw) Maxwell had hit. Any other happenings seemed to take place at Carter’s Funeral Home, the bus station, or the Meteor Bar. But those are other suppressed memories.

The daily newspaper as I knew it is now in a heap of trouble. My two sons, both in their mid-thirties, read many online national newspapers. Just as the major banks got rid of community banking as we knew it, institutional newspapers seem to be leaving communities behind with shrinking newsprint and a cost structure that no longer makes business sense.

From adversity always seems to come a little opportunity. The Ann Arbor Chronicle – “the community newspaper and town hall” – is somewhat the way I remember the news, it just isn’t folded as tightly as my papers. The difference is I didn’t get paid anything to write this column and you didn’t pay anything to read it, so we’re even. I don’t like to owe anybody anything.


  1. September 21, 2008 at 8:17 am | permalink

    This was a nice piece of nostalgia for me. It was more than 65 years ago when I folded and tightened my last copies of the Buffalo Courier Express. The last route I carried covered downtown which paid better tips than routes in residential areas and there was always someone their with money when it was time to collect. The added advantage was that there were many fewer heavy Sunday papers to deliver than on normal routes.

    It takes a little getting used to but the Chronicle has some feeling like a small town paper used to have, except that the newsprint doesn’t rub off on your hand and shirt.

  2. September 21, 2008 at 9:54 am | permalink

    I loved this article. It made me wish I’d grown up in a different time/place (70s-80s, typical Detroit suburb).

  3. By Susan
    September 21, 2008 at 2:06 pm | permalink

    Someone said recently, ‘when local newspapers die, so will democracy.’ But nobody said the paper had to be printed on same.

  4. September 21, 2008 at 2:16 pm | permalink

    I delivered the Marquette Mining Journal in my neighborhood in the UP in the late 70s. That was a good route (any day you can deliver a paper to a lighthouse is a good day), but the route I liked the best was the short-lived “Sunday Sun” which was all ad-sponsored free delivery so no collections needed.

  5. By Mary Morgan
    September 21, 2008 at 2:39 pm | permalink

    My father delivered the Indianapolis Star in the late 1920s and early ’30s. Growing up, I remember him deftly rolling newspapers into a tight tube to use as tinder in our fireplace. He said he learned to roll them like that so they’d all fit in his carrier bag and be easier to fling – he tried to teach me, but mine inevitably unfurled. He’s forgotten a lot over the years, but I’ll bet he hasn’t lost that newspaper-rolling art.

  6. By David Feldt
    September 21, 2008 at 8:51 pm | permalink

    I had a paper route also, carrying a canvas shoulder bag up and down East Hill in Ithaca, New York. My fondest memories however were when I was small – going to college town near the Cornell campus with my father every Sunday morning to get the Sunday paper, then sitting down with him on the couch to read the funnies when we got home.

    I like the chronicle so far, but its a bit different to picture sharing Sunday comics with a small child on your lap in front of a computer screen. Then again my kids were all raised around computers and we had many shared experiences, so maybe the internet works for building family traditions as well…

  7. By Bob Martel
    October 17, 2008 at 6:28 pm | permalink

    Tuesday October 21st (four days from now) will be the one month anniversary of this columnist’s first & last work. Will there be any more? Or is this a one shot wonder? When I was a kid delivering the Mamaroneck Daily Times (in NY) when LBJ and then Tricky Dick were President, we had news and op/ed from each columnist at least once a week! Come on Del….