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Opinion: Walking the beat

By my estimates, there have been approximately 5,700 editions of The Daily Republic printed since I started as a sports reporter here back in 1991. That's 307 editions a year for almost 19 years, and until Saturday, I had little knowledge of how they get to your doorstep each morning.

So with a nod toward the television show "Undercover Boss," the new publisher at The Daily Republic spent the morning delivering papers to the subscribers who live in my neighborhood, in the extreme southwest corner of town.

With a Daily Republic sack strapped over my shoulder and carrier Scott Lemon as my guide, I learned a lot in the hour or so it takes to deliver the 90 papers on Lemon's route.

I learned that:

• Paper carriers are vastly underappreciated;

• 16-year-old boys are hard to keep up with, and

• 5 a.m. is really, really early.

My first job with this newspaper was as a carrier back in my hometown, some 29 or 30 years ago. Back then, The Daily Republic was an afternoon paper and the carriers didn't begin their routes until late afternoon, after school.

Those were much easier times. Carriers today typically work in the dark.

Lemon generally likes the job, but not necessarily the hours.

"There's not too much to like," he told me between houses Saturday, "about getting up at 5:15 every morning."

It's tough not to feel a bit of sympathy for a newspaper's circulation staff, which ranges from the circulation manager, district managers, customer service representatives and the team of drivers and carriers under them. Sure, delivering papers on a Saturday morning in the spring may be a rather pleasant way to start a day, but so many problems can arise that create havoc with the process.

The newsroom occasionally will miss a deadline or press troubles arise; both can delay delivery trucks. And, of course, there's bad weather. Blizzards and frigid temperatures are de rigueur in South Dakota.

Our carriers -- we have 118 routes overall -- deal with it all, and at modest wages.

Saturday, my time with Lemon began around 5:20 a.m. Aided by his mother, Jill, we folded the papers into the recognizable rolls that you see on your doorstep each morning. The papers are put into neatly stacked piles. Scott does his route in two segments, delivering south of his house first and then picking up the rest of those stacks for delivery to the north of his home.

Jill helps fold papers pretty much every morning, I'm told. After Scott leaves, she helps his brother, Aaron, organize papers for his route, which includes 44 homes.

Most days go off without a hitch, but bad weather or large editions can cause problems. For instance, Scott says the day after Thanksgiving -- usually the day of the year with the most newspaper advertising -- is especially difficult.

Just as the other departments have strict deadlines throughout the day, the carriers have their own tight schedule. Papers must be delivered in Mitchell by 6:30 a.m. on weekdays, 7 on Saturday. Sometimes, those deadlines are stretched due to the many circumstances beyond a carrier's control, such as the 10-foot drifts he had to push through this past winter.

"Some people totally understand where you're coming from and what you have to do," Lemon said.

As we walked Saturday morning, Lemon kept a close eye on me. He often interrupted our conversation to offer hints -- "OK, on this house, put it between the doors." ... "See that white box on the porch? The paper goes in there."

Each subscriber seems to have a preference for where that newspaper is placed, and Lemon knows what he's doing. He's both analytical and mechanical in his approach. His record for finishing the route is 35 minutes; slowed by me Saturday, we finished in a little more than an hour.

And he sure noticed when I caused him an unexpected detour. Turns out, the neat pile of papers I rolled at Lemon's house wasn't so neat. My count came up short during the first half of the route, and Lemon had to make up for it at the end with a long walk -- maybe 10 or 12 blocks round trip -- south of Norway Street.

The detour went past my house, so he bid me goodbye and went on his way.

He's a good paperboy. I guess I'm not even sure that's a politically correct term anymore, but either way, Lemon does a darn good job on behalf of The Daily Republic.

As I watched him walk off, I felt a twinge of guilt about causing this extra effort. I jumped in my car and gave him a lift home.

It's the least I could do for a member of our delivery staff, some of the hardest-working, underappreciated employees here at The Daily Republic.

Korrie Wenzel was a sports editor and editor before being promoted to publisher.