Woster: Newspaper carrier was a fine first job

Stuffing 35 or more of those things in a canvas bag and pulling it onto your shoulder on a chilly winter morning was a whole lot more than just being a paper carrier. It was a commitment ...

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For most of my adult life, I’ve told people my first newspaper job, my first real job off the farm, was with the weekly Chamberlain Register the summer I finished college.

Strictly speaking, that isn’t true. That Register job was terrific. No wonder I’d think of it first. The owners treated me like family. They gave me a shot at every task in the newspaper plant, from reporting and shooting photos to helping with the press run and sweeping up the back shop. I learned that I loved the newspaper business. I made reporting my career, so it’s natural enough that I’d think of my Register summer as the start of it all.

But my first actual job that involved newspapers happened many years before I showed up at the Register. In fifth grade, I went with a friend to a meeting with a guy named Jack. He represented the far-off Minneapolis Tribune, and he was recruiting paper carriers. I left that meeting with an unwieldy canvas shoulder bag that had “Tribune’’ printed in black, block letters on the side. I also left with a piece of paper containing names and addresses of 35 or so Chamberlain residents and with a notebook that held pages and pages of blank receipts. I had myself a newspaper route.

In those days, the middle of the 1950s, the Minneapolis Sunday Tribune had a long reach across much of eastern South Dakota. It was a firecracker of a newspaper on its worst day, and the staff and management always made sure there weren’t many bad days. They especially made sure on Sundays, printing and delivering an edition that a person could spend hours poring over, maybe with a cup of strong coffee at hand and the soft sound of Sinatra rising from a spinning platter on the Victrola in the corner.

Sunday mornings in the 1950s in my part of South Dakota were leisurely affairs. There’d be a church service, sure, and maybe the family would gather around the TV later to watch Bishop Fulton J. Sheen tell jokes and talk about salvation. But most adults didn’t report for work, so they had time to relax. For my dad, and for the adults in a lot of my friends’ families, relaxing on Sunday morning was incomplete without a thick, well-reported and well-written newspaper, with compelling photographs and so many feature stories a section or two might get set aside to be read after the evening meal.


For a carrier, that meant that each copy of the newspaper was an inch or so thick. It was a hefty bundle of news. Stuffing 35 or more of those things in a canvas bag and pulling it onto your shoulder on a chilly winter morning was a whole lot more than just being a paper carrier. It was a commitment, pretty much a calling for a kid like me whose imagination turned almost every one of my life’s events and actions into heroic fights for the survival of mankind.

I believe carriers picked up their bundles outside Casey’s Drug Store on a downtown street corner. Casey’s, by the way, had a big selection of newspapers displayed on a long bottom shelf just inside the front door. They didn’t seem to mind if a kid knelt there and looked over the papers, even if he wasn’t going to buy one. I tried to stay out of the way of customers coming and going, but I spent a lot of time crouched there by the news counter. I learned the importance of newspapers from my parents, I suppose.

And from my customers. Sometimes if I was running late, a customer would be standing at the window by their front door, watching for the carrier. That made my job seem all the more important.

Carriers in those days collected each week. I wasn’t as meticulous about that as I should have been. I didn’t learn until journalism school that we were “little merchants.’’ The Trib would front us our papers, and we’d pay them their share after we collected.

All those years ago, you might say I was a media magnate. Not a bad first job.

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