SANTA ROSA, Calif. — Every morning, 11-year-old Shane Shimmer rises before the sun, sleepy-eyed but determined, and follows in the footsteps of Benjamin Franklin, Dwight D. Eisenhower and basketball star Julius Erving.
He drags two bundles of newspapers inside his house, folds them, stuffs 46 into a stained canvas bag and sets out on his bicycle to deliver the world to his neighbors' doorsteps.
Shane Shimmer and his colleagues among the ranks of the nation's paperboys and papergirls hold a special place in the American scene. From plucky inner-city urchins urging "Read all about it!" to young suburbanites on bicycles, newspaper carriers are for many people a familiar example of Yankee enterprise and ambition.
On the Decline
In the last six or seven years, however, that sliver of Americana has been in decline. Basic changes in society and the newspaper business have cut the number of young carriers at the rate of 10,000 a year since 1980, a study by the American Newspaper Publishers Assn. published in February discovered, and replaced them with adults in cars.
And although circulation directors throughout the nation agree that there will always be a place for at least some paperboys and papergirls as long as there are papers to be delivered, they also agree that young carriers may soon be a wistful anachronism in many areas.
"It is a vanishing breed," said Richard Huguley, vice president for circulation at the Atlanta Journal and Constitution. "The 'little merchant' system is still alive, but I don't know how long it will be kicking."
"Although children remain the majority of deliverers," the ANPA report noted, "some newspaper executives see the day coming when the typical deliverer is not the 12-year-old kid dropping a paper on the doorstep but the middle-aged person flinging it from a car or stuffing it into a delivery tube."
Drop in Number
The study noted that children still deliver a little more than half of the nation's daily newspapers, but account for 85% of the country's 1 million carriers--down from 91% in 1980. About 30% of daily newspapers are delivered by the kids' more efficient grown-up colleagues and the remainder are sold in coin-operated boxes and at newsstands, which are serviced by adults.
"And the trend (toward more adult carriers) is growing," the ANPA said.
The latest changeover is happening in Santa Rosa, an attractive, affluent city of 95,500 in the rolling green farmland 70 miles north of San Francisco. Here, the daily Press-Democrat, which is owned by The New York Times Co., is arranging to replace its 550 youth carriers with about half that number of adults.
The goal, Publisher James C. Weeks said, is to improve on-time delivery and reduce the number of complaints. The change is scheduled for this summer.
"Like (the loss of) the milkman and the iceman, it (the loss of youth newspaper carriers) is the end of an era, and I'm sorry to see it go," Weeks said in a statement. But "two of the largest . . . surveys ever undertaken by the newspaper reflect that the No. 1 reader complaint is late papers."
Late papers, Weeks said, usually occur because it takes so long to deliver papers to the doorsteps of all 550 youth and 150 adult carriers. Using adults only will allow for more centralized--and speedier--distribution, he added. Adult carriers are used in rural parts of the county, as they are in many other parts of the country.
So far, though, the idea has only created complaints of its own. Youth carriers, their parents and others have organized to oppose the switch by picketing the newspaper, circulating petitions and telling readers to cancel subscriptions. They are also enlisting advertisers to pressure the newspaper and, perhaps, to withdraw their ads if the young carriers are forced out.
"We are not going to put up with this, having this big corporation coming in here and ruining the job market for our kids," said Jerry Shimmer, father of Shane and organizer of the campaign against the change to adult carriers.
"It's a sad day in American history," he said, "if it is a trend in the newspaper industry to eliminate paperboys and papergirls. This job has been a tradition in our country--like baseball, apple pie and Mom. What will happen to our kids if we phase this out? This great learning experience will be lost forever."
But newspaper publishers say the trend in urban areas is precisely that--toward phasing out kids--and may be unavoidable for several reasons.
For one thing, ANPA researchers found that bigger cities, with the crowded neighborhoods that made delivery a breeze, are full of single people, who tend to read fewer newspapers and prefer to buy them from coin-operated racks or newsstands rather than subscribe.
Married couples with children, the group most likely to subscribe, are found in the suburbs, which are more spread out, and therefore more difficult to cover on bicycle or foot.