Lately we have seen further evidence of the struggles of the newspaper industry in Canada. Postmedia laid off 90 people, merged newsrooms and now the Guelph Mercury has announced that they will no longer produce a print edition. The Mercury provided me with two firsts in my working life.
My first paid job was as a paperboy delivering the Mercury, often with my younger brother and my first paid writing job was with the paper. Now that there will be no more paperboys delivering this paper and an increasing number of others got me thinking about what I have learned from my work with print media.
Lessons from a paperboy
I was 10 or 11 when I started my route as a paperboy. Every day I picked up my papers after school and delivered until my route was done. My younger brother often came along and helped deliver the route. I/we had the responsibility to make sure we delivered those papers every day. We had the responsibility to make sure that people paid for their subscriptions and we had responsibility to promote the paper periodically by dropping off subscription information at the homes of non-subscribers throughout the year.
I didn’t have a boss following me around or directing my work. I had a few specific tasks to achieve every day and every month and if I didn’t do them I was likely to get fired. I learned to take responsibility for getting the work done. My brother was my first employee and we managed our time to make sure we got the work done.
This is not so different from my day job now as a remote worker with my boss in a different city. I have more tasks and I don’t have to walk in the rain quite as much, although the core of knowing my work and getting it done without someone standing over my shoulder is very similar. Sadly my brother is also in another city so I can’t pawn my work off on him anymore…
Discipline goes hand-in-hand with learning independence. I had to learn to stick to my timeline and route so we could get the work done. I had to learn discipline to deliver those papers, regardless of the weather. I had to have the discipline to actually deliver the papers and not stuff them under a bush somewhere. I learned the discipline that comes from doing the same task repeatedly and being rewarded for maintaining that effort.
That same discipline serves me well today when I am supposed to be completing a project and not just chatting with people on Twitter. Some days are harder to than other to keep that focus.
Newspaper readers don’t like wet papers. Reading a wet paper is frustrating and irritating. Yes I still read actual newspapers. There are generally only two complaints that newspaper readers make: 1) late papers and 2) wet papers. As a paperboy, that means less throwing the paper on to the porch from a bicycle and more walking up to each door and putting it in the mailbox or between the doors. It also means showing up on time. That is not to say that I never threw papers on to the porch. We did that on sunny days when there was no risk of the paper getting wet. We learned how to fold the newspaper in such a way that we could toss it and the paper would arrive on the porch intact instead of spread around and left blowing in the wind.
I have carried those lessons about meeting customer expectations throughout all of my jobs since my paperboy days. Look for opportunities to meet and exceed customer expectations and you might even get a tip at Christmas time!
Lessons learned as a paid writer
When I was 17, I had the opportunity to start writing for the same paper that I had delivered. The paper started a section written by people 18 years of age and younger and they paid us for what we submitted. It was the first time that someone paid me to research and write. I wrote for the paper for about a year until I aged out of the group.
Researching and Writing
Writing for the newspaper was not the same as writing an essay for school. The research usually involves talking to people instead of finding all of your information in a book. I don’t remember all the articles that I wrote, although I still have all of them. The one that required the most research was during the 1993 federal election. We had 17 candidates running in that election and I was the only reporter in the city to interview all of them – or almost all of them. There were one or two who did not respond to my request for interviews. All of the candidates were generous with their time. I had great feedback from adults who told me that my comprehensive piece had helped them to make their voting decision in that election. It was a validating experience.
It was through the work with the paper that I learned to look for multiple perspectives and present those as fairly as possible. I learned how to work with editors and accept that what I submitted might not be the final product – a lesson that served me well in my brief career as a speech writer.
Value of Knowledge Sharing
We consume information at a far greater rate than at any time in human history. We have access to knowledge from all corners of the world at the tip of our fingers. That wasn’t yet the case when I was writing for the paper. I wrote on a computer and submitted my stories on a disk. Widespread use of the internet was not yet common and while my mum had an email address and we had access to the web it was just text-based at that stage. We got our news and information from the traditional media of radio, TV and newspapers. I had the opportunity to play a role in finding information and sharing that knowledge with others. In addition to the piece I wrote on the election candidates I received positive feedback from people in the community about my articles. I think I even received feedback through a letter or two to the editor about my articles.
I have never subscribed to the concept that knowledge is power. I have always believed in knowledge sharing as power. Hoarding information may give us advantages as the holder of that information. It does not often benefit our communities long term if we keep all the information to ourselves. I once had an employer (in government no less) who spoke about the importance of transparency and openness in keeping the system fair and the people honest. Shared knowledge is shared power which benefits us all.
Storytelling Moves People
We are inundated with information. We know have more facts and figures that we know what to do with. It is one thing to share knowledge, it is another to help people make sense of it. As a writer, part of my role was to provide information in a way that was interesting and compelling. Of course it didn’t hurt if the topic also stirred a little controversy to help sell papers.
We make sense of our world through stories. I believe strongly in evidence-based decision making. That said, we sometimes have trouble understanding the evidence for all the information. If, as a writer I can help people to comprehend the evidence by weaving it into a story or telling a story that is representative of what the data tells us, then I will have made a difference and helped move people. At various points in my career I have had the opportunity to serve as a manager of people. I have always found storytelling to be tremendously useful in helping team members to find their place in the organization and see the impact they are having. As a parent I tell my kids stories about their family to give them context and hopefully teach them life lessons. On occasion they even allow me to get through the story without asking about some completely unrelated thing that crosses into their minds! Stories help us find meaning and purpose and I am glad to have learned some of that lesson as a newspaper writer.
I am sad to see this particular media which has played such an important role in my life to be going through this difficult period of transition. It is unfortunate that so many kids will no longer have the opportunity to deliver papers as their first job, although I am not sure how many kids do it now. Our carrier is an adult with a car who delivers before 6am every day. The demise of newspapers or their transition to digital platforms does not mean we are losing access to information. It may result in less depth to the information we receive. I consume information from many sources and when the time comes for my newspaper to no longer be available in a print edition I will miss the discovery of unexpected information that comes from reading the articles and sections of the newspaper that are not generally of interest to me.