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The real issue with newspaper deliveries

A new Star Tribune and Pioneer Press distribution deal has resulted in a litany of complaints. But it’s also highlighted longstanding questions about how the papers are delivered.  

The Star Tribune has contracts with 21 independent distributors, i.e. “small business owners,” who then hire the people they need to get the paper to your ... roof, hostas, driveway, front steps, or not.
MinnPost photo by Corey Anderson

A month ago, the Star Tribune and Pioneer Press entered into a new, limited agreement in which each would have their carriers deliver the other’s papers in certain areas around the metro.

To paraphrase Bette Davis: “It’s been a bumpy ride.”

Stories of bungled deliveries have piled up like, well like a week’s worth of soggy newsprint clogging a rain gutter. A flood of complaints have, according to one Facebook chain out of St. Paul, choked automated systems at both papers, despite the Strib staffing up to handle the early days of the merged service.

Said one Facebook comment: “Seriously considering dropping the Strib. No delivery of our Sunday paper since the delivery change went into effect. Papers in open bags sitting in the rain at the end of the driveway. And … there is no way to talk to an agent (during their call hours, you’re placed in an endless hold loop) or to contact them by email­­; no complaint form online, either.”

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“We dropped the Pioneer Press when the delivery person couldn’t figure out the difference between the sidewalk, the lawn, the gutter in the street, the snowbanks 40 feet from the door or the roof top. No amount of complaining changed anything,” said another, referencing longer-standing problems with the PiPress.

“PiPress delivery,” said a St. Paul woman, “has been amusing for a year or so …  papers wedged five feet up in a lilac bush, or disguised as a hosta. But it seems delivery people aren’t paid very well, which is another sad symptom of newspaper demise. I still try to do my ‘easter egg hunt,’ looking for the newspaper! I’ve learned to not fret until around 10 AM!”

“No Strib for us on Sunday,” said another woman. “And, I have complained to PP about inconsistent delivery this spring. Have to agree that delivery people aren’t paid well and might not care when the papers get to us.”

St. Paul resident Bob Brandt, who says he broke two ribs taking a dive on his icy driveway last winter trying to retrieve his Star Tribune, says things have been so erratic — getting three days’ worth of papers ​o​ne day then waiting half a week for the next batch — that when he got the latest bill for the Strib he put it in his, “I’ll think about it” file, while his partner tells him to “just cancel it.”

While the worst of the screw-ups seem to be concentrated in the east metro, and may​­­ be alleviated with time, there’s probably no changing underlying reality: that daily newspapers rely on low-­paid workers to provide the last vital link in their supply chain, where their carefully ­produced creation is placed in the hands of the customer. This, mind you, in an era when you might think papers would be falling over themselves to provide Apple­-like customer service for the steadily thinning demographic that wants an actual newspaper.

‘There have been bumps’

To the Strib’s credit, it at least has a person here in Minnesota a reporter can talk to about delivery issues. (Calls to the Pioneer Press and its parent company, Digital First Media, were a lot like calling Comcast on a bad hair day.)

Steve Yaeger of the Strib concedes, “There have been bumps.” But he insists they’ve been limited to certain areas in the east metro (why those areas he can’t say) and that the vast majority of Strib subscribers are getting their paper on time. He also takes pains to remind his caller that contrary to some chatter, the Strib and PiPress have not merged or entered into a Joint Operating Agreement and remain “fierce competitors” where they overlap.

(For the record, Yaeger encouraged me to print the Strib’s customer service/complaint line numbers and web address. So here you go: 612-­673-­4343; 1­-800-­775­-4344, startribune.com/customerservice)​.

What the Strib has, he says, are contracts with 21 independent distributors, i.e. “small business owners,” who then hire the people they need to get the paper to your … roof, hostas, driveway, or front steps. Or not. (The days of having Little Jimmy the freckle-­faced neighbor kid deliver the paper ended about the same time “Leave It to Beaver” went off the air.)

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A 2012 report from the Bureau of Labor Statistics put the median wage for those carriers at $11.38 an hour, with a total monthly income in the $400-­$500 range, from which you need to start deducting fuel, costs on their vehicles, and penalties for screwing up a delivery. Needless to say, there’s no medical plan.

It’s debatable whether better­-paid carriers would do a better job of home delivery, but the lowest-rent option ­­“independent contractors” ­is an industry standard. So it’s reasonable to assume that large daily newspapers like the Strib and PiPress — high-­profile media entities routinely asserting their standing as community leaders — have run the numbers and moved on, content with leaving their final link in the hands of people barely bringing home the minimum wage.

‘Do carriers receive any kind of training?’

One of the Facebook commenters was Scott Carlson, coincidentally a former PiPress reporter. “Maybe it’s time to start some sort of petition and demand to talk to the publishers. I don’t think it is an excuse that the carriers aren’t paid well. Do carriers receive any kind of training? Or acknowledgement that they are part of a bigger team that needs to work together to get a great product to the readers?”

Talking on the phone, Carlson reiterated his belief that service could only improve if the papers were required to provide adult compensation to carriers, which would mean organizing the “independent contractors” first.

Union officials are famous for talking tough and determined, so one needs to take comments from the likes of Candace Lund at the Newspaper Guild and Steve Seviola at Teamsters Local 638 (which represents the Strib’s 138 truck drivers) with a grain of salt. But both say they’re well aware of the problem, and have been since both papers went into into serious cost-­cutting (i.e. “right­sizing”) mode in ‘08-­’09.

Lund was circumspect about what exactly her plans are, but hopes there’s a way to improve matters for the carriers, many of whom are Hispanic, via a “workers’ rights” campaign.

As for the Teamsters, Seviola accepts that his union is probably best positioned to do something with the contractors, people who have taken on several significant new costs since the ‘08-­’09 meltdown, including rental of the depots where the trucks drop the papers.

“It’s on our list of things to do,” he says, with a detectable note of weariness. “The independent contractors are getting killed with costs laid on them. They were actually pretty happy before ‘08.”

‘The system works pretty well’

If either union managed to organize carriers, it’d be something close to a first. I couldn’t find an example of any big-city paper with unionized carriers, and Seviola couldn’t think of one, either.

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Asked how the Strib would respond to an effort to unionize carriers, Yaeger said he had no idea, adding, “I think you’ll find the contracts we have now, the arrangement we have, is mutually beneficial, and the problems here in the early ­going withstanding, the vast majority of the time the system works pretty well.”

How well it works for the carriers, many of whom, says Yaeger, deliver papers for “supplementary income,” is a whole other question. But it is a question linked to a picture, arguably an unflattering one, of a very public entity — a big-city daily paper routinely reporting on the moral and ethical lapses of other characters of influence — relying on minimum-wage-level workers to get their product in their customers’ hands.

“I don’t think the picture is unflattering,” says Yaeger. “As I say, overall the arrangement works for everyone involved.”