It was still early in Walter “Wes” Scott’s paper route when he was killed. On a wet mid-February morning last year in Charlotte, he delivered a stack of newspapers to a 7-Eleven offset slightly from the hulking chrome skyscrapers of the city. He shared a joke with the clerk and a customer, then walked back to his truck, which he’d left running outside. As he loaded the previous day’s unsold papers, a man approached him. Police say the man tried to rob Scott with a 9mm handgun. But Scott was carrying a gun, too—he always did. The two men exchanged fire. Scott got one shot off, but then, according to his brother, his gun jammed. The shot was enough to wound the other man. But it wasn’t enough to save Scott. Moments later, he was dead. The 7-Eleven clerk called the cops. The customer, Kai Harris, went outside. “I go over there and I see his body and I’m like, shit,” he says. It was 2:20am.
Scott celebrated his 65th birthday two weeks before he died. He started carrying newspapers before he turned 10, finishing up his older brother Bill’s route for small change. After college he did home delivery, then progressed to more lucrative work serving businesses. He kept his commercial route till the day he died, most recently for a company that distributes The Charlotte Observer. “He ran into so many problems over the 40 years he was doing that job,” says Bill Scott. “Attempted robberies, numerous times.”
Scott is not an anomaly: Being a newspaper carrier in America can be dangerous work. CJR was able to identify at least 45 deaths on the job since 1970. Some were involved in car crashes; others, like Scott, were victims of violent crime. Of those 45, 23 carriers have been murdered or violently killed on the job since 1992—more than twice the number of journalists killed in the same period, according to data collected by the Committee to Protect Journalists. Some carriers were targeted. Some were just in the wrong place at the wrong time. Shortly before Christmas, 15-year-old Brian Jasso was shot in the head while helping his stepfather deliver papers in Chicago. Police believe it may have been a case of mistaken identity in a neighborhood roiled by gang violence.
When a journalist in America dies in the course of their duties we shout it from the rooftops. Newspaper carriers aren’t afforded the same publicity, even though they remain a cornerstone of the business: Print papers continue to generate important revenue for many news organizations, and without carriers they wouldn’t get to homes and businesses. Most carriers go about their work without incident. But reporters often don’t consider the risks carriers take day-in, day-out, to put their stories in front of paying readers. And carriers’ work isn’t just physically insecure. They commonly clock overnight hours for little pay and no benefits—even shouldering routine expenses, like gas and rubber bands, as penny-pinching publishers hold them at arm’s length.
Those publishers often expect their papers delivered by the time readers wake up. That leaves carriers vulnerable to attack on silent streets, and to getting in the way of things that go bump in the night. In January 2017, four men drove around Raleigh, North Carolina, in the early morning hours, apparently hunting down carriers. They cocked a gun at one, and took several shots at another’s car (no one was hurt). In June, meanwhile, a 17-year-old in Tulsa, Oklahoma, shot at 72-year-old Curtis Spencer as he delivered to a home at 3:30am with his wife and daughter. The shooter said he fired because he thought Spencer was burglarizing him, though prosecutors say he continued to shoot at Spencer’s car as he chased it down the street.
Carriers are often targeted for their money, their vehicle, or other personal property. At the St. Joseph News-Press in Missouri, one carrier was robbed, four had their cars stolen, and three more survived attempted thefts in 2017 alone. “One carrier got out and was walking a paper up to the porch. Somebody jumped in his car and was taking off with it, and the carrier jumped off of a wall trying to chase him and broke his heel,” says Mike Benner, the paper’s home delivery manager. Benner’s colleague, Dave Mapel, suspects a thief or group of thieves may have realized that carriers and their property make for convenient targets in the early hours.
Benner and Mapel now advise carriers not to leave their cars running when they get out to place a paper at a customer’s door. After someone fired nine shots at a Las Vegas Review-Journal carrier in September, the paper offered its carriers the chance to purchase metallic signs and flashing yellow lights identifying them as carriers (most carriers took a sign but not a light). “We think it was a gang situation where someone was on their territory and [gang members] didn’t know who it was,” says Chris Blaser, who manages circulation for the Review-Journal. “I think if it had been clear that this was a guy who was out delivering newspapers, he wouldn’t have been targeted.”
The risks of newspaper delivery can’t be fully mitigated; consumer demand usually dictates where carriers go, and when they have to go there. That includes areas with high crime rates. “Income doesn’t determine people’s desire to know the news and read a newspaper,” says John Murray of the News Media Alliance, an advocacy group for US news organizations. “I’ve found newspaper readers where you least expect them sometimes, and they appreciate the fact that they can get their newspaper at their house because some other businesses won’t deliver to them.”
While many papers have a keen sense of responsibility to their print subscribers, they’ve also been thirsty for savings as circulation has tanked. Pew data shows weekday circulation has dropped by more than a third since 1990. Companies often find pennies to pinch in the manual labor that supports the news business. Carriers sit at the bottom of this winnowing food chain. Many now operate at two steps’ remove from the paper they deliver, as newsroom managers have outsourced distribution to private companies, which in turn hire individual carriers on a contract basis rather than employing them.
The contractor model works for some carriers: It gives them discretion over how to do their job, and can be a useful source of casual income for retirees, part-timers, or enthusiastic participants in the gig economy. (It’s a preferred model, for instance, with smaller papers, which hire a couple of carriers to deliver once or twice a week.) But those who depend on carrier work for their financial security often find they get many of the constraints of employee status and none of the perks—losing out on health, unemployment, and injury insurance, and recourse to employment law and collective bargaining. “Our entire social contract has been based on employment,” says Frank Callahan, president of the Massachusetts Building Trades Council. “[If you’re a contractor] all those rights go out the window, because it’s all tied to your employment status.”
Carriers have always been portrayed as self-standing entrepreneurs, rather than economically dependent laborers. In the smoggy big cities of Gilded Age America, these “entrepreneurs” were often children, who would buy papers wholesale from publishers and resell them for a profit. Newspapers claimed to be appreciative of kid carriers’ work: A December 1891 issue of Joseph Pulitzer’s New York World advertised “a first-class Christmas Dinner” for “six hundred bright boys” at the newspaper’s expense. In reality, their business practices often fell short of this public generosity. Newspaper boys—and they were almost always boys—were poorly paid, poorly treated, and easily exploited. “Many of these were immigrant kids from poor backgrounds,” says Michael Stamm, a history professor at Michigan State University. “It’s not like they were going to school after they had finished selling papers.”
Hawking papers at the turn of the century could be a hardscrabble and cutthroat way to make a living. In 1899, the combative New York “newsies”—immortalized by the Disney film and subsequent Broadway musical of the same name—went on strike after Pulitzer and rival publishing tycoon William Randolph Hearst hiked prices during the Spanish-American War, then refused to lower them when the war ended and the news got less exciting. Although the strike didn’t bring the prices down, in a rare victory, the newsies won the right to return unsold papers for cash.
Children continued to deliver papers well into the 20th century. But as the population sprawled away from city centers, the cloth-capped urban newsie died out; replaced by the clean-cut middle-class kid pedalling furiously through the neighborhood, chucking papers onto manicured front lawns. In the wholesome suburban imaginary, at least, this model struck at a more comfortable, less exploitative vision of teenage entrepreneurialism. In practice, kids were earning pocket money. In theory, they were learning values of individuality, business savvy, and “up before the sun” discipline. Walt Disney had a paper route. So did Warren Buffett.
The risks of newspaper delivery can’t be fully mitigated; consumer demand usually dictates where carriers go, and when they have to go there.
But this model, too, had a dark side. At least 12 child carriers were abducted, sexually abused, or killed between 1970 (the first year for which CJR collected data) and 1993. Sometimes, they were snatched off the streets, or from residential complexes where they’d go door-to-door to collect fares and tips. In 1975, Robert Lower admitted he’d been “driving around looking for a paperboy” in Rockford, Illinois, when he abducted, raped, and strangled 15-year-old Joey Didier. Nine years later, Donald Beaty murdered 13-year-old Christy Ann Fornoff as she collected money in Beaty’s Tempe, Arizona, apartment building. Her mom was waiting in the car outside.
Newspapers don’t tend to use kid carriers anymore. A 1987 study by a precursor to the News Media Alliance found the industry shed 10,000 carriers a year through the 1980s. Nowadays, newspapers are mostly delivered by adults in cars or trucks. Declining circulation has, at least in part, accelerated the motorization of distribution: As fewer houses take a paper, carriers are working more spread-out routes to make ends meet.
Driving in the early hours of the morning, almost every day of the year, carries its own dangers—like vehicle fires, accidents on icy roads, fatigue at the wheel, and reckless driving by other road users or carriers themselves. CJR found nine carriers killed in incidents involving their cars in the past four years alone. In December 2016, Colleen Stayer was killed in a crash near Fort Wayne, Indiana, as she and her husband swerved across an icy road to reach mailboxes on both sides. (Her husband, who was driving, later tested positive for controlled substance use.) Investigators suggested Stayer hadn’t fastened her seatbelt so she could more easily reach the papers in the back of the car.
CJR rode along with a contract carrier just north of Boston on a crisp morning in mid-October 2017. The carrier did not want to be identified for fear of reprisal at work. He can be found in his local distribution center by 4am, where he stands in a chipboard booth under harsh strip lights and individually stuffs over 100 local and national papers into color-coded plastic sleeves. (If it’s raining he ties every sleeve by hand; on weekends he has to stuff supplements into the papers themselves before he bags them.) He stacks the papers loose on the back seat of his small, beat-up car, turns the key in the ignition, and drives to the start of his route. At some houses he chucks the paper through his car window in the vague direction of the front door, at others he gets out and places it meticulously in a set spot. He pulls sharply into a cul-de-sac where he serves two houses. Once, his car got stuck in snow on the ascent, and he had to wait five hours for a friend to dig him out.
Pulling up to a business, the carrier cocks his arm like a quarterback and hurls a sleeved copy up onto a walkway, landing it perfectly by the shuttered front door. “Practice,” he grins. “Imagine the practice. So much time throwing the paper.” Later, he points out another house. “This woman doesn’t want the paper falling outside this little slab of concrete.” Readers tell distribution managers where they want the carrier to leave their paper, and often complain if that’s not exactly where they find it. Once a month, the carrier slips an envelope in the paper for tips. Most customers don’t leave anything. Those that do typically only put in five or 10 dollars.
The carrier has a hard deadline for morning deliveries. His bosses give him a daily printout with the most efficient route. He knows it by memory, but still occasionally thumbs through it as he drives. As he finishes his route, a purple tinge warming the horizon, he notices a lone leftover paper on his back seat. He counts on his fingers, works out which house he missed, and drives 10 minutes back down the road to drop the paper off.
The carrier cocks his arm like a quarterback and hurls a sleeved copy up onto a walkway. “Practice,” he grins.
The carrier’s pay isn’t tied to minimum wage laws. He pays for his own gas and for repairs to his car, which sustains routine wear and tear from the strain of its heavy daily load. He doesn’t get sick days or vacation—if he takes time off he has to train and pay a friend to do the job for him—and he’s expected to work every day, no matter how wild the weather. He earns less than he used to: As is common in the industry, his pay is calculated according to the number of papers he delivers, which has declined by about a fifth in recent years. (Other carriers still buy and sell papers out of their own pockets, as Pulitzer’s newsies did in the 1800s.)
The carrier pulls into a neighborhood dominated by retirees. “They’re the ones that read the paper, right?” he says. “Our generation doesn’t read the paper. You read it, but online. That means there will come a time when this job will disappear.”
With circulation and revenue declining across the news industry, contractor—rather than employee—carriers are more than just a holdover from an old way of doing things. Contractor status is seen in many quarters as a way to keep costs low—even though the unprotected child laborers of the 20th century have been replaced by adult workers who, in theory at least, have legally established rights at work.
Across the economy, contractor status has been known to facilitate under-the-table pay, allowing both companies and contractors to skirt payroll taxes. It’s not uncommon for contract workers to be undocumented immigrants. The model also helps bosses dodge liability for contractors’ behavior—in November, for example, a Wisconsin court absolved Gannett of responsibility for injuries caused to another motorist by a carrier. (Carriers are commonly required to purchase their own insurance before they take a job.)
As newspapers have consolidated, one carrier typically delivers one or more local titles in addition to, say, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and USA Today. To manage these difficult logistics and disputes over who should pay what, these papers often partner with third-party companies to coordinate efficient distribution. Sometimes these companies contract other, smaller companies who in turn contract individual carriers—adding yet another layer of outsourcing between carriers and the publisher whose product they deliver.
In 2016, newspaper carriers in the Boston area organized an impromptu strike after The Boston Globe changed its distribution partner and carriers’ pay went down. The new distributor was beset by organizational problems and the strike. When large numbers of subscribers didn’t get their paper, the Globe went into crisis mode—calling back its former distributor.
When carriers’ pay changed overnight, some said it was a telling indicator that the carriers lack control over their work. “The fact the employer switch unilaterally changed all sorts of conditions was a pretty clear indication,” says Jeff Crosby, who has worked with the carriers as president of the North Shore Labor Council. Although the strike helped the carriers win back their old pay and conditions, they’ve struggled to build on the momentum—and as contractors, they aren’t covered by government unionization rights. “A lot of times what you call ‘victory’ is a defensive victory,” says Crosby. “There’s a long history of workers winning the battle but not winning collective bargaining rights.”
A carrier should only be a contractor if they meaningfully control how they do their job, free from the direction of distribution managers. Bosses often say carriers do casual, part-time work, have other jobs, and are free to decide how and when they deliver papers. In practice, critics say, carriers are commonly told what to do and how to do it.
“There’s a long history of workers winning the battle but not winning collective bargaining rights.”
This debate is far from settled in America: Different states have different guidelines, and different approaches to enforcing them. Observers in Massachusetts say state authorities have generally been proactive in investigating whether contractors across the economy are being made to do employee-type work. But abuse is common, so investigators are spread thin.
More concrete action has come in California, which has a kinder court system for carriers seeking redress than most other states. Carriers for five papers in the state have pressed class-action lawsuits claiming wrongful contractor status, inspired by an injury compensation case brought by an Orange County Register carrier in the early 2000s. “After that we started getting calls left and right from carriers around the state,” says Michael Sachs, a lead attorney at the law firm which represented them. Although Register carriers accepted contractor status in 2008 in exchange for a sizable payout, a court did rule in 2013 that the San Diego Union-Tribune should be treating its carriers as employees—citing a web of employment conditions like making carriers pay other workers to put together weekend editions, and mandating that they purchase bags and rubber bands from the paper.
But even in California, these cases haven’t been uniformly successful. A judge ruled in 2016, for example, that carriers at The Fresno Bee were contractors, had not been misclassified as such, and thus weren’t entitled to compensation. (The carriers are appealing the verdict.)
Industry leaders don’t accept the idea that contractor status is a byword for exploitation or that employee status is the best way to rectify it. “Just because someone is an employee absolutely does not mean they’re being treated with respect and dignity, nor fairly,” says Keith Somers, CEO of The Boston Globe’s short-lived distribution partner. He says the best solution is ensuring companies don’t abuse contractor status by taking shortcuts that go outside the law. “You can’t just contract with somebody, call them a contractor, then treat them like an employee,” he says.
Whichever way the debate is framed—and however they’re classified—many carriers will continue to face precarious conditions as long as they remain out of sight and out of mind for those of us who shape public opinion. In the midst of its distribution snafu in 2016, reporters at the Globe agreed to help carriers deliver papers. “They had no idea that was how the newspaper got to the houses,” says Aviva Chomsky, a Salem State University professor who helped organize support for the carriers. “We—educated people who subscribe to the newspaper and work for the newspaper—let this happen, because we don’t know, and maybe we don’t want to know. We just like to open the door and find the newspaper every morning.”
Carriers are becoming less financially secure as newspapers lose money. And they’re not getting any physically safer on the job, either. Attacks on carriers, and even murders, are a depressing industry trend.
That carriers are delivering newspapers is rarely a motive—though the Arizona Republic did report threats to its carriers after it endorsed Hillary Clinton. The early hours carriers work sometimes grant means and opportunity to would-be assailants. Delivery work is intensely repetitive—carriers whir like clockwork round the same route day after day, year after year. That routine can help a murderer plan their crime, and enhance their odds of getting away with it.
Kevin Blaine believes his daughter’s killer knew exactly where she’d be on the night of her murder. Jenna Nielsen was 22 years old and eight months pregnant when she was stabbed in the throat in 2007. Nielsen had only recently moved to North Carolina from Utah with her husband and two young children, and took a job delivering papers so she could feel she was contributing to her family while she was pregnant. She didn’t make much money, but she liked the job’s early hours, which allowed her to finish work and get home before her kids got up for school.
Nielsen was stacking USA Today newspapers outside a quiet gas station off a wooded highway south of downtown Raleigh when someone snuck up behind her. “The only thing [the store’s security camera] caught was the shadow of her coming up to her car, and then another shadow coming up from behind her, then nothing,” Blaine told CJR in late November, standing for the first time in 10 years on the spot where Nielsen was killed. “From what we can tell, they dragged her behind the building. The police tell us they found articles of clothing and everything else spread out all over the parking lot here. She fought her way as much as she could. Then they dragged her behind the building and that’s where it happened.” Police still don’t know who killed her.
After Nielsen was murdered, Blaine successfully campaigned for the North Carolina state legislature to adopt “Ethen’s Law,” named after Nielsen’s unborn child, which allows authorities to charge anyone who kills a pregnant woman with two murders, not one.
The North Carolina legislature has also twice considered bills that would make newspaper carriers employees rather than contractors. The driving influence wasn’t a bereaved relative like Blaine, but a 2014 series in the Raleigh News & Observer about the abuse of contractor status in the construction industry. Some state lawmakers said the newspaper industry should be held to the same standard as the companies it investigates. The News & Observer and other papers strongly pushed back. The provision didn’t pass back then, and neither did an attempt to revive it by Republican State Senator Trudy Wade in mid-2017. This time, it was Democratic Governor Roy Cooper who vetoed it, saying it was a politically motivated assault on the press.
Many North Carolina newspapers maintain that reclassifying carriers as employees would have crippled them financially, and wouldn’t have been fair. “There’s a lot of cases where these carriers are delivering three or four papers every morning. Why should smaller papers take on that burden, when they could be delivering The New York Times or The Wall Street Journal?” says Phil Lucey, executive director of the North Carolina Press Association. “We work hard to make sure carriers are truly independent contractors; they control their means, they control pricing, they control the price of their deliveries. We’re not dictating much,” adds Rick Bean, publisher of The High Point Enterprise. (In October, Governor Cooper did sign a bill that won’t make carriers employees, but might make it possible for them to sue for injury compensation.)
Relatives of both Nielsen and Scott say they enjoyed the independence contractor work could offer. But those relatives got precious little when things went disastrously wrong. USA Today voluntarily ran a series of full-page “wanted” ads for Nielsen’s killer, but her family says they didn’t get an insurance payout. And while some staff at The Charlotte Observer pitched into a GoFundMe page for Scott’s funeral costs after he was killed, the paper itself could only offer sympathy. (The company that contracted Scott on the Observer’s behalf could not be reached for comment.)
Broader employment rights probably wouldn’t have saved the lives of Nielsen or Scott. But they might make carriers who do feel at risk on the job a little bit safer, and would help them with healthcare costs if they get injured. Reform is unlikely. But journalists who earn their keep shedding light on other industries’ problems should do more to cover the risks inherent to their own.
“Jenna never gave us an inclination she was worried or scared of anywhere she’d gone. But then in hindsight, when you look at where she was and where it happened, there were a bunch of shady places—in the dark, located in poor visibility, off the road,” says Blaine. “Carriers shouldn’t be set up this way. They should be able to deliver the newspaper in the daylight, not in the wee morning hours when no one’s out. They’re very vulnerable out there in the dark.”
Justin Ray, Julie Lasson, Micah Hauser, and Siddharth Venkataramakrishnan contributed reporting.
Update: The map and some of the statistics in this piece have been updated since publication, to add examples that were brought to our attention, and reflect recent developments. The last update was March 1, 2018.