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If You Can’t Beat Them, Join Them: The Lessons We Learn From Newspaper Delivery

September 12, 2010, 12:59 pm

I did something this morning that I rarely do: I complained about a service. At school, I almost never complain when someone in a staff or administrative position drops the ball. I am far more likely to go straight to them, if the thing was important, and say “Hey, what can I do differently next time to make sure this doesn’t happen again in this way?” Such an encounter sometimes results in useful information about what I can do differently; other times it results in the person apologizing for whatever didn’t get done and taking note of it for the future.

The least productive thing to do is to keep things to myself and fume, doing things I shouldn’t have to do to make sure they happen, harboring a grievance, feeling hard done by, and coming to believe that I am ill-served and underprivileged. My experience is that this usually ends with me having a fit about something that might have been easily resolved, an unpleasant encounter to which the person delivering the service I require cannot possibly respond. And yet, minus the unreasonable fit, this is exactly what I have done in relationship to my newspaper delivery, causing myself great misery in the process.
As readers of this blog know, The New York Times is very dear to me. In part that is because local newspapers, with a few exceptions, have been bought up and gutted by national chains. Stripped of reporting staff, managed from afar, and bleeding red ink from the collapse of advertising revenue, newspapers in places like Shoreline and Zenith are so dreadful and understaffed that they don’t even report local news anymore, much less connect the local to the national or the international. In fact, since the 1970s, when I went to high school in the Philadelphia suburbs and read The Philadelphia Inquirer every day, I have not had access to a really good local newspaper. Hence, I became a devotee of the Gray Lady, and came to see it as a daily link to a national conversation. When I went to college in Shoreline I acquired my own subscription, delivered to the door by another student; when I lived in New York I picked it up from a newsstand as soon as I left the house because it was my local newspaper; when I got my first academic job in Philadelphia I snubbed the Inquirer because I now considered myself a New Yorker.
When I went to work at Zenith back in 1991, I still considered myself a New Yorker: after all, my partner worked there and we maintained a lovely New York apartment. However I soon realized, to my horror, that you could not have the Times delivered in the town of Zenith. Color me silly, but this flaw — and the university’s unwillingness to push the Times to establish a delivery route around the campus for the 14 years that I lived there — was a major symbolic force in persuading me that I could no longer live in Zenith. If the New York Times was not delivered there, I felt, much as I liked my house and my short commute to work, the town of Zenith was a backwater where I was sure to become obscure and forgotten, where Life would soon cease to be Worth Living, and I would spend the rest of my days as a character in a Mary McCarthy novel.
Reader, I moved.
So now I live in Shoreline and subscribe to the Times, although as I understand it, publisher Arthur Sulzberger, Jr., has now admitted the dreadful truth: that in order to continue to publish at the level its readers expect, the Times will eventually have to become web-only. I’m not surprised. At a conference I attended early in the summer, a newspaper editor who was part of a panel of journalism scholars, unveiled the astonishing fact that around 80% of a newspaper’s operating budget involves generating and transporting the object itself.
This brings me back to my complaint: for the past six months or so, my newspaper has arrived far too late in the day for me to know I will have time to read it, something that I feel seriously impairs my ability to do my job as a teacher-scholar, much less a blogger. Anyone outside my door in the morning might observe the venetian blinds being cracked open every fifteen minutes or so by a hand surrounded in terry cloth, an unblinking eyeball appearing at the hole provided, and the blinds snapping shut with disgust. Some days, I go out and peer under the bushes and the porch, usually to no avail. On mornings that I teach at 9:00, as I leave the house to go to school, I often toss the paper through the door in disgust, knowing it will go unread (at least by me) that day, and that its only destiny is the recycling bin. Today, a Sunday, the paper arrived at 8:15, when I had been up for about 90 minutes and was already fully engaged in other tasks.
So finally I called The New York Times to complain, something I have put off doing because I know that people who deliver newspapers for a living are probably working a second or third job, and I keep hoping that this situation will change without me asserting my class privilege as a person who works one, fairly well-paid, job. And yet, I say to myself, Why am I paying $40.00 a month for a paper I cannot read most of the time — or cannot read in time to be an informed person which, as a history professor, I should be? Should I not do something about this before I get some terrible auto-immune disease that has been caused by my suppressed anger at not receiving the newspaper? Or come to regard the New York Times as a charity I support rather than a pleasure?
What I learned from the nice man who answered at 1-800-NYTIMES was this: my complaint about late newspapers during the week was justified, as delivery is guaranteed by 6:30; and my complaint about late newspapers on the weekend is not justified, as delivery is only guaranteed by 8:30. I pointed out, calmly, to the man receiving my complaint, that 8:30 was awfully late for those of us who think that a day should begin with the newspaper, and who rise far earlier. He pointed out that this might be so and made a little moue of sympathy, but said with regret that the guarantee was company policy, so there you go. There you go, I agreed. And there we were. He said he would get on it about the weekday newspaper; I agreed, with regret, to suck it up about the weekend newspaper.
In fact, walking the dog around 8:45, I noted numerous bagged newspapers waiting on other people’s doorsteps, and one sleepy man in PJ’s picking up his. I may, in fact, be almost the only customer in the neighborhood who rarely sleeps past 6:15. If there is anything I have learned through a lifetime of being one of the very few queer people in my workplace it is this: you may want people to take your minority interests into account, but the truth is that they won’t, mostly. The majority not only rules, but they rule so completely that you can drive yourself
crazy trying to get people to accommodate what seems like a simple request, or even trying to get them to recognize that you have a legitimate point of view. Developing a talent for compromise is not only wise, it is a necessary survival strategy, unless you like being unfairly regarded as a fussy, unreasonable eccentric.
As I saw the untouched newspapers up and down the street, and on the porches that surround our neighborhood green (one porch had four bagged papers, representing at least four sleepyhead intellectuals) I began having that feeling of dread that I used to have in Zenith that signifies impending Social Death. Once again, I thought, I have ended up in a backwater and will have to sell my house, quit my job and move back to New York to have the Life Worth Living. Or I will have to compromise. But how?
Then I was struck by a brighter thought. At a certain point you have to stop running from a problem, and do the sensible thing: throw money at it. So off to the iPad store I go.
One of the threads I will be developing in this blog in the coming weeks is the changing shape of intellectual culture in a publishing and curatorial environment that is becoming less friendly to the printed object. For an urgent call to action about the demise of the book, see Jeffrey Hamburger and Anthony Grafton in this month’s New York Review of Books on the threat to the University of London’s Warburg Library.
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