Decades ago, when newspapers were delivered by armies of kids who roamed the city in the wee hours with canvas bags slung over their shoulders, customer complaints were low-tech.
We’d arrive at our bundle, dropped on the street by the guy in the truck, and there tucked under the twine that held the pile of papers together would be a pink slip of paper stamped with the words “customer complaint,” the customer’s name, address and the complaint – damaged paper, paper put in wrong place or the dreaded missed paper – scrawled in pen or pencil.
I can’t remember if we were supposed to do anything with the complaints or they were just to let us know we’d screwed up. I do remember the sinking feeling that pink slip of paper gave me.
One March morning after a winter like this one, I walked my route in a torrential freezing rainstorm. The combination of feet of melting snow, freezing rain and clogged storm drains turned Augusta’s streets into canyons of ice and giant puddles. By the time I was halfway through my route I was soaked to the skin and freezing, bruised and battered from falling, and thoroughly fed up.
I was on Chapel Street, about a block from home, but with a lot of papers left to deliver, when I fell into yet another icy puddle. I’d had enough. I tipped my bag, which still held about 30 carefully folded newspapers, into the puddle and went home.
The next morning when I went to my bundle, I expected to see the mother of all complaint piles. But there were none.
I’ll never know if all those customers – to a person — took pity on me because of the weather or if the circulation manager did and figured it wasn’t worth passing on the complaints. I’ll never know because, fearing the wrath of the circulation manager and my dad, who was managing editor of the Kennebec Journal at the time, I never told anyone. Until now.
I always liked to think it was the customers.
This winter, I’ve thought of the Great Paper Dump often.
You can’t work at a newspaper, even in our new digital world, without being acutely aware of the people who deliver the papers in the morning. These days it’s not an army of kids, but grownups, who get up in the dark and get out no matter what the weather to get the papers to the customers.
We know if we don’t hit our press deadline at the Kennebec Journal and Morning Sentinel even in the best of weather, it will delay the trucks that bring the papers from our printing presses in South Portland to Augusta, then Waterville and Skowhegan. From those stops, they’re picked up by men and women who spread out across the dirt roads and two-lane highways of central Maine in their cars, SUVs, vans and pickups to deliver them.
If we’re late, the trucks are late, the carriers are late and people don’t get their papers before 6 a.m., the carriers’ deadline for all but the most remote areas.
When the weather is really bad, that means an early deadline for us and an earlier start for the trucks and carriers.
Meeting that delivery deadline is still important to the newspapers and the carriers, even though print customers can also get access to the e-edition of the paper for free and catch up online.
But some things don’t change. Just like 40 years ago, customers still call with complaints when they don’t get their paper, only now they also do it through email or send Facebook messages.
Some are nice about it, others not so much.
“Some customers are understanding and kind,” said Charlene McGraw, the circulation manager for the Kennebec Journal and Morning Sentinel, this week. “Others don’t want any excuses.”
It’s been a long few months for McGraw and her crew. “I don’t like to make any excuses,” she said. “We try to make sure the papers are delivered every day, dry and ready for that customer to get their news.”
Still, “I can’t wait for this winter to end,” she said.
I think most of us are on board with that. Until it does, here are some things to think about as you sip your coffee in your warm kitchen reading your dry and almost-always-on-time paper:
We recently ran a story about Michael Poulin, of Winslow, who is suffering from multiple myeloma, a rare form of cancer, and his family’s effort to raise money for the Multiple Myeloma Research Foundation. The morning the original story was published, their Morning Sentinel carrier left an envelope in the Poulins’ Sunday paper.
Kathy Poulin, Michael’s wife, fought tears as she told reporter Jesse Scardina, “We’ve never met her before, but she had written a sweet note about how she didn’t have much to give and wanted to give some to support us and the foundation.”
Here’s something else to think about: Troy Rundstrom, a Kennebec Journal carrier who lives in Dresden, has been picked by the American Red Cross to receive the Real Heroes Good Samaritan of the Year award.
Rundstrom, 51, was delivering papers in December when he pulled Becky Berlew, of Pittston, from the water-filled car she was trapped in after it slid off the road.
Rundstrom isn’t the first Kennebec Journal carrier to save someone’s life in 2013.
In June, Rollie Pelkey, of Winthrop, found a Randolph customer bleeding and in distress after hearing a noise and checking it out. He not only got help, but put on his flashers so the ambulance could find the house and waited with her until it got there.
Bet there were some late papers on Rundstrom and Pelkey’s routes those mornings.
Even the carriers who haven’t saved a life recently or aren’t dropping off envelopes of money are still trying as hard as they can in really crummy conditions to get people their newspapers on time and in good shape, and there’s something kind of heroic in that.
I’m guessing none of them have ever dumped three dozen newspapers in an icy puddle, no matter how tempting the thought of home, breakfast and a warm fire may be.
McGraw said the carriers “do care about their customers.”
She said weather, road conditions and vehicle issues come into play when they deliver 364 days out of the year, but the carriers are committed to doing a good job.
A couple weeks ago the groundhog said we had six more weeks of this. We all know that’s the best-case scenario.
So next time the weather is bad — and you know it will be — give your carrier a break. Or even when the weather isn’t bad.
Rundstrom is invited to the Red Cross heroes breakfast in Lewiston May 13. It’s not a sure thing he’ll go, given the fact he didn’t want much publicity in December, when he pulled Becky Berlew from her car.
At the time, his mother, Gloria Rundstrom, said her son has been delivering newspapers for at least 25 years, and had helped people in two other crashes. She said the fact he’d done it before is probably one reason he doesn’t want attention.
“This happens,” she said. “This is part of a carrier’s job, I guess, to help people.”
And if something happens and you don’t get your paper, the best way to complain is still to call. The number is 800-370-5701. If you get to the circulation department by late morning, they’ll get it right to you.
Maureen Milliken is news editor of the Kennebec Journal and Morning Sentinel. Email her at [email protected]. Follow her on Twitter @mmilliken47. Kennebec Tales is published the first and third Thursday of the month.