For all the advanced newsgathering, editing, printing, and packaging technology newspapers have implemented over the years, the actual task of getting the paper into readers’ hands usually comes down to finding a guy with a valid driver’s license and a car that’s a half-step in class above a beater.
For most newspapers, finding that guy is a year-round job, because the unglamorous work of delivering inky papers before dawn for low pay is notorious for its turnover rate. With gas now heading north of $4 a gallon just about everywhere, finding reliable carriers has become even harder.
When Michael Tombs arrived as the new circulation director of the Carlsbad (N.M.) Current-Argus in August 2007, he found a familiar carrier situation. District managers were delivering seven of the 39 routes because carriers had quit, and another seven or eight routes were contracted to carriers who were regularly late with deliveries ? when they showed up for work at all. Carrier turnover was as high as 20% a month, and complaints-per-thousand at the 7,000-circ daily averaged a way-above-industry- standard 4.59.
Little Carlsbad, isolated in the corner of the state, has virtually no unemployment even now, thanks to a low-level nuclear waste facility and a boom in potash mining and oil drilling. “Any idiot on the street could come in with a driver’s license and an insurance card and get a route,” Tombs says, “and it seemed that the whole town knew we were desperate and would take anybody.”
Tombs set out to change the carrier force entirely, with a strategy that sounds as if it couldn’t possibly work: recruit carriers who don’t need the job.
As Tombs and other circulation managers went about their daily life in Carlsbad, they mentioned the carrier jobs to people with real jobs like bank tellers, receptionists, clergymen, and school principals ? working people who could use the extra $500 to $700 a month they could pull in with a route.
“We didn’t just wait to have the classified ad answered by a bunch of unemployed or unemployable people trying to feed a household on what they make in this route,” Tombs says. Instead, the paper vets carrier candidates carefully, checking their credit history and even conducting interviews in their homes to see how they live. “These are people who tend to be driven by a specific financial goal rather than just needing the cash,” he says. “They’re just a better quality of worker who do what they say they’re going to do.”
The paper also eliminated the task of collecting, so the carriers know they won’t have to spend Saturdays chasing late payers. Now, the Current-Argus carrier force includes a chiropractor, a bank loan officer, a teacher, and a correctional officer.
And the paper is blunt with rejected candidates, Tombs adds: “We told them exactly why we wouldn’t contract with them, as if to say, ‘Go spread the word to the losers out there that Current-Argus paper routes aren’t for you anymore.'”
With the new carriers, complaints-per-thousand averaged 1.29 from March through May. Perhaps more remarkably, turnover has essentially disappeared ? even though, as fuel costs soar, the paper is offering most carriers no gas subsidy at all. “I’ve been in the business since 1995, and this is the lowest-paid group of carriers I’ve ever worked with,” Tombs says. “But the routes make enough to help good people meet their financial needs, which is all you really need.”