Policy Killed the Paperboy

On the front page of my local paper today there is a story about the end of an era. One of the most iconic images of America’s newspapers is the young kid peddling down the sidewalk, pitching papers onto people’s doorsteps. It remarkable how many journalists recount their humble beginnings as a paper carrier. Indeed, it’s such a cultural icon that one of the earliest Nintendo video games was based on the noble “paperboy.”

After more than a century of hiring local boys and girls to deliver the paper, the Hampshire Gazette along with a number of other regional papers, is discontinuing the practice and outsourcing to a national distribution company. The paper reports that Publishers Circulation Fulfillment, Inc., whose headquarters are in Maryland, only hires people 18 or older for their paper routes.

As newspapers are increasingly delivered to our “doorstep” via phone lines and cable connections, or wirelessly over the air, one might think this shift is just another disruption to the newspaper model brought about by technology. Others might argue it is the market at work. But both would be wrong.

In this case, it was policy that killed the paperboy. The Gazette reports that the change comes as state lawmakers and regulators “take a closer look at the status of independent contractors.” Massachusetts seems poised to demand that contractors, like newspaper delivers, be made full employees. The costs around this would be prohibitive for a paper like the Hampshire Gazette.

Though this is a seemingly small matter, it is a prime example of the way that everyday policy decisions made in Boston or Washington, DC, impact the future of journalism. Policy has always shaped our media system. For too long, these – and much more extensive and troubling – policies have been made behind closed doors – without input from working journalists or local citizens. Without the public involved, these decisions have consistently put corporate interests ahead of the public interest. The result is the troubled state of journalism we currently face.

I don’t know the details behind this policy change here in Massachusetts, and there are some compelling reasons for such a policy change, related to labor practices and employment status. The point here, is that if we ignore the role of public policies, small and large, local and national, we ignore a vital piece of the puzzle for saving the news.

The same way that policy killed the paperboy here in Western Massachusetts, the policies that have allowed such rampant media consolidation are killing off journalists and newsrooms around the country. We need to organize as citizens and media makers to fight against bad policies and fight for structural solutions to support newsgathering and quality reporting. If policy can kill the paperboy, it can also save the news.

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