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A kid on a bicycle

I go back so far I used to say this about my job at the newspaper: ‘And it all comes down to a kid on a bicycle.’

(OK. If you really want to go back, I was the kid.)

We interviewed people, wrote stories, took photos, packaged it all together and sent it down to the guys in the manufacturing plant known as the pressroom, and they created a product that was bundled up and stacked for delivery.

The crucial link in the chain between me and the reader was a 14-year-old on a Schwinn who, if he was anything like me, was as interested in startling cats in the pre-dawn light as in actually throwing the paper onto the porch.

Don’t break anything. Don’t toss it on the roof. Don’t smack the screen door so loud that the porch light comes on. Other than that, close was close enough.

Of course, it’s been many years since kids on bikes were the primary means of newspaper delivery. But it’s still the most-neglected, least-appreciated link in the chain.

When we wonder why print subscriptions declined, we can’t look just at the ease of electronic delivery. We also must look at the lack of regard given to the actual process of getting the product into the hand of the customer.

Look at this elaborate response by a reader in Minnesota. He just wanted his paper.

What it shows me is how strongly some readers are attached to their habits, of which the morning paper is a vital part.

Yes, it’s a job like no other.

“I always remind people that we do something no one else does: deliver a product to hundreds of thousands of homes every day of the week, 365 days a year. Most of those deliveries are right on target. But of course when we do screw up it’s enormously frustrating for the subscriber.”

And it’s one of the areas where, as companies reaped enormous profits for decades, few bothered to reinvest — either in innovation or in better pay for carriers.

So despite the Herculean efforts of many circulation directors as subscribers leaked away, they could do little more than stick their fingers in the holes.

Today, it’s hard to imagine a squad of kids on bikes tooling around neighborhoods at 5 a.m. making deliveries.

But if you are up at that hour, it’s still possible to hear the familiar plop of a paper on a driveway and, sometimes, see the blur of a startled cat across a yard.

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