“Paper Girls,” a new streaming series from Amazon Prime Video, is unmistakably a product of its era. It’s adapted from a (wonderful) comic book, it foregrounds young women of color, and it’s, well, a streaming series—a format that barely existed a decade ago. But it takes its title from a form of once-ubiquitous child labor that’s now all but extinct: The four tweens at the center of the action make a habit of rising before dawn to deliver a daily newspaper (the fictional Cleveland Preserver) on their bicycles.
That’s no anachronism. Like the eponymous Brian K. Vaughan–scripted, Cliff Chiang–drawn comic that inspired it (which concluded with its 30th issue in 2019), “Paper Girls” (Amazon’s Version) is set in the autumn of 1988, in the imaginary Cleveland suburb of Stony Stream, Ohio.
That’s where it begins, anyway. Fast, profane and wholly unpredictable, “Paper Girls” has enough bizarre twists and jaw-dropping surprises that I’m not giving away too much by telling you it involves time travel. All eight episodes of the Amazon adaptation are available now.
The first chapter, “Growing Pains,” includes a montage where we see the four girls who will become our heroes dragging themselves out of bed while the rest of their households remain asleep. Twelve-year-old Erin Teng (Riley Lai Nelet), a Chinese American girl who looks after her anxious mother, scissors open a twine-banded stack of newspapers that a panel van has deposited onto the sidewalk in front of her home, the A1 headline warning of dire developments in United States-Soviet relations. As New Order’s “Age of Consent” kicks in on the soundtrack, a bleary-eyed Erin begins rolling up the papers and placing a rubber band around each one to make these floppy, lightweight, un-aerodynamic periodicals solid and throwable.
Streaming technology has not advanced to the point where you can smell the fresh ink on the newsprint or feel it rub off on your fingers, but these are details my decades-old memory readily supplied. Your faithful correspondent delivered papers in a suburb on a single-gear dirt bike, and then a grown-up ten-speed, for several years in the late ’80s and early ’90s. I wondered what had become of what was my first job in media.
The decline of local news, and of the daily newspaper, is a subject that has rightly inspired a lot of hand-wringing in recent years. That fewer and fewer readers are relying on paper-papers as opposed to digital editions gets covered, too. This year, Gannett—America’s largest newspaper chain—reduced the days of the week on which print editions are released at 186 of its papers, the Washington Post reported in April.
If newspapers-on-newsprint are in decline, then newspapers-delivered-by-kids-on-bikes seem like a relic of the even-more-distant past. But no one seems to know exactly how recently they disappeared.
Lindsay Loving, communications director of the News/Media Alliance, told me her organization doesn’t track this data. “My understanding is that newspaper delivery is done mainly by adults these days, but I’m not aware of a primary source for that information or who would track those trends,” Loving wrote. She recommended I query someone at the Newseum, which closed its flagship site in Washington, D.C. in 2019 but continues to host traveling exhibitions.
A representative for the Newseum referred me to the News Leaders Association (NLA). Miriam Márquez, interim executive director of the NLA, told me her group doesn’t keep tabs on this, either. “I do know that several newspapers stopped having bicycle newspaper carriers because of legal liability issues involving accidents and cars running over carriers on bikes or on foot and concerns about young people becoming targets for criminals—particularly if they were collecting money from subscribers,” Márquez wrote in an email.
Undeterred by having struck out at two soundalike organizations, I decided to try the National Newspaper Association (NNA). Executive Director Lynne Lance politely replied to me that the NNA, too, is a nah when it comes to the kids-on-bikes beat, but pointed out “we just represent community newspapers, not all newspapers.”
I tried contacting the circulation department of the Washington Post—not the paper I delivered, but the one I grew up reading. A customer service rep there referred me back to the general number from which I had begun my search. Eventually, a friend passed along contact info for a Postie who does “circulation analysis,” but he did not return my call or email. For what it’s worth, my extremely early-rising dad tells me the person who has delivered the Post to his home faithfully for years is an adult who makes the rounds via automobile.
Searching for reports of what were once popularly called paperboys but eventually became the gender-and-age-nonspecific “newspaper carrier” in a newspaper database is tricky. For one thing, the Shreveport Times of Louisiana has employed for many years a columnist—one Teddy Allen—who refers to himself in the third person as “Paperboy.” His column “Ask the Paperboy” has offered readers irreverent and whimsical answers to questions on many topics over the past 31 years, but seldom on any subject related to the home delivery of newspapers.
I found a page of the Independent Record of Helena, Montana, that contained several ads seeking applicants for newspaper carrier jobs serving different paper routes as recently as September 2017. “Be your own BOS$$!!” the ad urges. “Get paid to exercise and get a free daily newspaper, too!” Each ad then goes to provide an estimate of the number of hours the carrier would need to devote and the “Gross Profit” they would earn “every 28 days.”
The phone number at the bottom of these ads is no longer in service.
I did find an op-ed published in the Selma, Alabama, Times-Journal in 1976 by Robert A. Macklin of the International Circulation Managers Association. It opens with the popular anecdote that Benjamin Franklin was the first newspaper carrier before going on to opine that “newspaper carriers are not delinquents” in a time when “juvenile crimes are increasing at a rate that is a national disgrace.”
Attempting to slam dunk his closing statement, Macklin quoted founding FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover on the moral benefits of newspaper delivery: “The newspaper carrier hasn’t time to get into trouble. He finds it fun to hold a job, to earn money and learn to meet people. He may not be aware of it, but he is developing individualism and learning to accept responsibility.”
While there’s nothing in Macklin’s piece to indicate where or when Hoover said this—the op-ed was published more than four years after Hoover died of a heart attack in 1972—it’s clear that Hoover’s sense of who delivers the paper was likely outdated.
I also came across a 2006 story in the Spokane, Washington, Spokesman-Review celebrating 68-year-old newspaper carrier Pat Meyers on the occasion of her retirement from the paper-delivery game after 25 years of working seven mornings per week. “Pat’s alarm has been set for 2 a.m. since Ronald Reagan was elected president,” columnist Rebecca Nappi wrote.
Meyers took over the route from the youngest of her four sons, all of whom had paper routes in the ’70s, “in the days when young boys and girls, on bikes and on foot, flung newspapers onto porches. Now, carriers are required to have driver’s licenses.”
Admittedly, what percentage of newspapers are currently delivered by kids on bicycles is not the most urgent issue currently facing the Fourth Estate. But once I start wondering about something, I have to slake my curiosity.
I decided to call the Cleveland Plain Dealer, likely the fictional model the Cleveland Preserver of Paper Girls. My call to the general newsroom line was not picked up, which seems reasonable; they’re reporting the news.
I first tried the circulation department, where the setup of the phone tree provides a very specific look at what most frequently moves Plain Dealer subscribers to contact their local paper of record. Callers who indicate that they’re reporting a delivery problem are then invited to indicate that their paper was late, wet, damaged, missing a section or something else. I wonder whether the person who used to direct these complaints to the appropriate set of ears was on the payroll more recently than a newspaper-carrying bicyclist was. Naturally, I chose option five.
When I explained to the agent who took my call what sort of information I was seeking—namely, whom I might speak to to learn, broadly, who delivers the Plain Dealer these days—he told me it was a third-party company and gave me another phone number to call.
Which brough me to the Plain Dealer’s classified advertising department.
Circling back, I decided to “Ask the Paperboy” about paperboys.
So far, the Paperboy has not returned my email.