Kennebec Tales

February 19

You think the winter has been bad? Try being a newspaper carrier

The people who deliver the Kennebec Journal and Morning Sentinel are out 364 days a year in all kinds of weather, doing good deeds and sometimes saving lives.

Decades ago, when newspapers were delivered by armies of kids who roamed the city in the wee hours with canvas bags slung over their shoulders, customer complaints were low-tech.

We’d arrive at our bundle, dropped on the street by the guy in the truck, and there tucked under the twine that held the pile of papers together would be a pink slip of paper stamped with the words “customer complaint,” the customer’s name, address and the complaint – damaged paper, paper put in wrong place or the dreaded missed paper – scrawled in pen or pencil.

I can’t remember if we were supposed to do anything with the complaints or they were just to let us know we’d screwed up. I do remember the sinking feeling that pink slip of paper gave me.

One March morning after a winter like this one, I walked my route in a torrential freezing rainstorm. The combination of feet of melting snow, freezing rain and clogged storm drains turned Augusta’s streets into canyons of ice and giant puddles. By the time I was halfway through my route I was soaked to the skin and freezing, bruised and battered from falling, and thoroughly fed up.

I was on Chapel Street, about a block from home, but with a lot of papers left to deliver, when I fell into yet another icy puddle. I’d had enough. I tipped my bag, which still held about 30 carefully folded newspapers, into the puddle and went home.

The next morning when I went to my bundle, I expected to see the mother of all complaint piles. But there were none.

I’ll never know if all those customers – to a person — took pity on me because of the weather or if the circulation manager did and figured it wasn’t worth passing on the complaints. I’ll never know because, fearing the wrath of the circulation manager and my dad, who was managing editor of the Kennebec Journal at the time, I never told anyone. Until now.

I always liked to think it was the customers.

This winter, I’ve thought of the Great Paper Dump often.

You can’t work at a newspaper, even in our new digital world, without being acutely aware of the people who deliver the papers in the morning. These days it’s not an army of kids, but grownups, who get up in the dark and get out no matter what the weather to get the papers to the customers.

We know if we don’t hit our press deadline at the Kennebec Journal and Morning Sentinel even in the best of weather, it will delay the trucks that bring the papers from our printing presses in South Portland to Augusta, then Waterville and Skowhegan. From those stops, they’re picked up by men and women who spread out across the dirt roads and two-lane highways of central Maine in their cars, SUVs, vans and pickups to deliver them.

If we’re late, the trucks are late, the carriers are late and people don’t get their papers before 6 a.m., the carriers’ deadline for all but the most remote areas.

When the weather is really bad, that means an early deadline for us and an earlier start for the trucks and carriers.

Meeting that delivery deadline is still important to the newspapers and the carriers, even though print customers can also get access to the e-edition of the paper for free and catch up online.

But some things don’t change. Just like 40 years ago, customers still call with complaints when they don’t get their paper, only now they also do it through email or send Facebook messages.

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