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Media Circus

Walking Papers

Jefferson Jackson Steele
Trish Mayhugh

By Gadi Dechter | Posted 4/19/2006

A sizable defection of Sun home-delivery couriers to the new free Baltimore Examiner wreaked havoc on the older daily’s distribution network in recent weeks, affecting about 100 of the Sun’s 700 delivery routes, and as many as 35,000 paying subscribers, according to a spokesman for the Tribune Co.-owned newspaper.

Irate Sun subscribers have jammed customer-service phone lines, called reporters with complaints, and contacted public editor Paul Moore with more than 100 calls and e-mails during the height of the disturbance, which began in the last week of March and peaked during the first week in April.

In response, The Sun has dispatched managers to fill in on delivery routes, and editors have pushed up reporter deadlines so that the paper can be printed earlier.

The affected routes are concentrated in Baltimore, Howard, and Anne Arundel counties, though city subscribers also complain of undelivered and late papers more than two weeks after the upstart Examiner’s April 5 launch.

As of late last week, Trish and Joe Mayhugh of Towson—Sun subscribers for about 30 years—hadn’t received a timely delivery since the end of February. Often the paper isn’t delivered; when it is, it arrives after they have both left for work. They don’t get The Examiner, either.

“Every morning I get up and pour myself a cup of coffee and read yesterday’s paper,” Mayhugh says with a dry laugh. She sounds genuinely anguished at the idea of canceling her Sun subscription but says her patience is wearing thin. “I’m very reluctant. The Sun is the only paper that has pretty much everything that we need. I like having local reporters, I like having a local spin on things. I feel like I’ve known [metro columnist] Dan Rodricks my whole life. I’ve felt like [family columnist] Susan Reimer was sometimes peeking in our kitchen window, knowing what was going on, because our children are the same age. I don’t want to have to go to The Washington Post.”

As of late last week, about 75 percent of the abandoned routes were filled by new and rehired carriers, according to Sun vice president of marketing Tim Thomas, who says the company expects the distribution network to be fully restored by April 24.

“Oh, that’s my birthday,” says Mayhugh, brightening. “Wouldn’t that be something?”

The Sun’s circulation department was apparently caught off guard by an unexpectedly high number of carriers who left abruptly. “Roughly half of the [100] carrier routes [who left] gave us a two-week notice, and the other half stopped without notice,” Thomas explains in an e-mail.

Former Sun delivery people who made the switch to The Examiner attribute their decision largely to the relative ease of blanket-delivering a six-days-a-week tabloid freebie vs. the logistically complex task of circulating a true daily with a wide variety of paid subscriptions, ranging from daily, to three-times-a-week, to Sundays only. But they also offer pungent and detailed criticism of Sun circulation management—in particular railing against an incentive-based pay structure instituted when the newspaper was bought in 2000 by the Chicago-based Tribune newspaper chain.

Both The Sun and The Examiner use independent contractors, known as agents, to manage delivery of the respective newspapers to well over 200,000 homes each day (The Examiner does not publish on Sundays). Each agent is typically responsible for territories of 10-15 routes and independently hires and pays delivery couriers, known as carriers, to fulfill those routes.

In a few cases, Sun agents who switched to The Examiner reportedly took all or most of their carriers with them, leaving large swaths of territories depleted of their delivery infrastructure.

One such agent is David Strong, who says he worked for The Sun for 20 years, starting as a carrier at age 25, and then working as a route distributor and finally as an agent for the last two years, responsible for delivery of 3,500-4,000 Sun papers a week in affluent northern Baltimore County.

When Strong left The Sun on March 19 to establish his own agency for The Examiner, he took with him three of his eight carriers. Another of Strong’s carriers was hired as an Examiner agent, and he in turn hired an additional two of Strong’s Sun drivers. That left only two original carriers, Strong says, to cover a territory stretching from the Hunt Valley Towne Center north to the state line. A typical Sun driver delivers about 375 papers a day, according to the paper’s spokesman.

Like the four other former Sun delivery people who spoke to Media Circus, Strong has no qualms about leaving his longtime client in a lurch, accusing Sun management of cynically using incentive pay—ostensibly established as a quality-control mechanism—to reduce costs during a chilly economic climate for newspapers.

“That company is so crooked as far as how they pay their agents,” Strong says. “They’ll entice you into the field with a six-figure contract, knowing full well they’ll only have to pay 60 percent. It’s an incentive-laden contract that they go out of their way to make sure you never reach, charging you with [customer] complaints that are bogus, that you can never get your zone manager on the phone to fix. We had many instances of that, to the tunes of several thousands of dollars a week that it would cost me.”

Strong says Sun circulation declines also contributed to his decision to change sides. “As circulation dropped, I made less money,” he says. “When I found out in October that The Examiner was coming to town, it really was a no-brainer for me. I think a lot of us were looking for another option for years, and there never was one, until now.”

Such disloyalty is aberrant, according to the Sun’s Thompson. “We have an excellent relationship with our delivery agents,” he writes. “But don’t just take our word for it—here’s objective evidence. Out of the more than 50 agents who deliver for The Sun, fewer than 10 percent left to work for a new competitor who was offering our agents Sundays off.”

As Thompson suggests, a day off is a strong lure for newspaper couriers whose workday begins as early as 1 in the morning and (if all goes well) ends before the 6 a.m. delivery deadline. But Examiner converts cite a string of other quality-of-life considerations. The Sun Sunday edition is published in two parts, with the coupon-heavy supplement usually delivered to homes on Friday evening, so an Examiner carrier has two fewer shifts than he would at The Sun. Sun agents are also required to deliver out-of-town newspapers to Sun subscribers, including The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and Investor’s Business Daily, increasing the complexity of the job. Sun routes cover far more ground than do Examiner routes, so rising gasoline costs—drivers pay their own expenses—have become an increasingly important factor.

In exchange for the relative simplicity on an Examiner route, the new carriers are paid less per paper. Examiner carriers report a per-paper fee of 6 to 7 cents, compared with a 10- to 15-cent fee for a weekday Sun, and 25 to 35 cents for the combined Sunday edition.

To make up the difference, Examiner carriers must deliver about three times as many newspapers. Mario Bory, a new Examiner carrier who never worked at The Sun, says he manages to deliver 1,100 Examiners on his Canton route between the hours of 3 and 6 in the morning. At 7.5 cents per paper, he figures he’s making about $25 to $30 an hour.

The Examiner is delivered free to 230,000 single-family homes in neighborhoods targeted for affluence. Recipients can opt out of such delivery. As these “stops” start coming in, carriers’ jobs may become proportionately more complex, but Examiner drivers report generally positive feedback from customers, and they say their managers have announced that the company has experienced far fewer stop requests than they had anticipated in the first few weeks after launch.

David Strong says he’s had a “couple hundred” stop requests so far in his Baltimore County and City territory of 15,000 homes. Shawn Rollman, a Sun route manager-turned-Examiner agent who now delivers the tabloid to more than 18,000 homes in Towson, Timonium, Lutherville, and Greenspring Valley, says she’s only had “about 25 or 30” stop requests so far.

The Sun does not expect a competitive marketplace for delivery contractors to increase its overall circulation costs, nor does it plan any change to circulation strategy as a result of the Examiner’s launch, its spokesman says. “Our circulation system and methods have been developed and finely honed over the past 169 years in this community,” Thomas writes. “And Baltimore Sun carriers have a well-deserved reputation for providing excellent service to our subscribers.”

The Examiner’s own home-delivery circulation has not launched without its own problems. Anecdotal evidence, as well as a lively discussion of the new tabloid on the Sun’s own internet message board (a cyber-location notable for often venomous criticism of the newspaper that hosts it), reports haphazard and irregular delivery of the Examiner in some neighborhoods. But home-delivery problems are clearly more damaging to The Sun at this stage in the contest than to The Examiner, because Sun subscribers pay for their paper.

Ultimately, the true turf war between The Sun and The Examiner will be a contest for readers, not delivery couriers, and Examiner readership data won’t be known until the first circulation audit is conducted in about three months. Still, if Trish Mayhugh’s experience is any indication, the Sun’s circulation hiccups may have encouraged at least some Sun readers to take a longer look at the free tabloid. Probably because it’s surrounded by apartment buildings (to which The Examiner doesn’t deliver) Mayhugh’s upper-middle-class neighborhood of single-family homes wasn’t deemed “desirable” enough to merit Examiner home delivery, but the office manager brought home a copy for her and her husband to examine.

The self-described “rustling liberal” who loves to linger for an hour or more with a newspaper each morning hardly seems a likely convert to The Examiner—a paper with a decidedly conservative editorial bent and which brags about being readable in under 20 minutes—but Mayhugh says she is “delighted” to be able to read liberal former Sun columnist Jules Witcover again (Media Circus, Aug. 24, 2005).

“Right now it’s a little thin,” she says. “They do have some local things going on. It seems like they’ve taken the national stories just from stuff that you can pick up on the internet. I’m not a big fan of McPapers, but I can see some possibilities in there.”

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