By: Anna Crane
When The Charlotte (N.C.) Observer lost power at 1 a.m. on Nov. 14, the paper had no choice but to delay delivery of the morning paper. Production moved off-site to the regional presses of The Wall Street Journal in University City, N.C., but not soon enough to avoid disappointing the majority of its readers. So when it became clear that the paper would not get out until Tuesday afternoon, staff members across the board volunteered to hand-deliver the newspaper around the metro area.
Tommy Tomlinson, the award-winning columnist and a 17-year employee at the Observer, was among those who personally delivered that day’s paper ? and he learned a lot about his readers in the process.
One of the things that struck Tomlinson was the large number of people who were upset that their paper had not yet arrived. “I was a little worried that we would hear, ‘Oh yeah, I’d forgotten that we were even supposed to get it,'” he recalls. “And it turned out not to be that way.”
In fact, it was quite the opposite. The Observer reports that it received more than 5,000 customer calls on Tuesday about the absent paper, compared to a normal average of about 225. This reaction, says Tomlinson, was reassuring despite the complaints, because it was a reminder that people do still want the paper: “Mostly what we hear is negative feedback ? people tend not to say much about things they’re happy with. Sometimes that vibe sort of accumulates over time, and you forget that we have quite a few people in the area who like the paper a lot.”
The next day, he wrote in a column addressed to readers, “It’s great that you were ticked off. That’s the best reaction we could hope for. It means the paper matters, even if you just get it for the comics and the coupons.”
As he drove around neighborhoods delivering papers with Investigations Editor Gary Schwab, Tomlinson was also reminded that local news and human interest stories are important elements of newspapers. “We have to get life down on the page,” he wrote in his morning-after column.
“I think we all have aspirations to do great things that win awards and get us noticed and make national news,” Tomlinson tells E&P. “Here in Charlotte, we don’t make [the news] very often, unless we don’t get the paper printed.”
He says stories that spin the real-life tales in local communities are often harder to find, and often go uncovered in newspapers: “We tend to listen to the loud people, and watch the people who jump up and down ? and we tend to ignore the bigger and more important stories that are drifting underneath all that. A lot of times we forget that there are great stories in ordinary lives.”
While making the rounds, Tomlinson realized how vital newspaper carriers are to maintaining a successful operation. For a route that would probably take a seasoned newspaper carrier about 30 minutes to navigate, he and his editor needed almost three hours. Plus, he adds, if an Observer subscriber’s copy gets “thrown in the bushes, people aren’t going to like it.”
Seeing residents eagerly awaiting their newspaper as he delivered it, the columnist was reminded of the importance of the bond that can develop between the paper and its readers. He says, “Not just in a business sense do we need to make more of a connection with our readership to get them to buy more papers, but also in a journalistic sense ? that before we do anything else, we have to cover the community.”
Tomlinson’s time as a paper carrier also made him better appreciate the team effort required to put out a daily paper. As the night reporters started arriving early to help out, other Observer employees also kept showing up to ask how they could pitch in.
“We’re at our best in crisis mode,” says Tomlinson of the Observer newsroom, adding there was “little to no grumbling” among staffers during the power loss.