Historic snows highlight Post's circulation, coverage challenges

By Andrew Alexander
Sunday, February 14, 2010; A21

On a typical Sunday, carriers drive about 52,000 miles to deliver The Post to roughly 625,000 subscribers. When the weather is nice and the streets are clear, the job takes a matter of hours. But when roadways are clogged by several feet of snow, well, you saw what happened.

Only about 20 percent of Post subscribers received their newspapers the morning of Saturday, Feb. 6, after the first of two crippling storms. The following morning about 60 percent got their Sunday paper (many accompanied by Saturday's Post). Delivery rates improved through Tuesday.

But as the region was digging out, Wednesday's record-breaking blizzard hit. Carriers, many fatigued from days of double shifts, waited hours as plows sat idle during whiteouts. Eventually, "probably 70 to 80 percent" of subscribers received delivery, said Gregg Fernandes, The Post's vice president of circulation.

E-mails to the ombudsman, and letters to the editor, were filled with praise.

"Something should be said about the FABULOUS newspaper delivery persons," wrote Kathy Keenoy of Alexandria, noting her snow-packed street. "My trusty newspaper deliveryman has gotten my paper to me each day. . . . I can't even imagine how he got here."

But there were some complaints. District resident Jack Wells, who lives near MacArthur Boulevard, said his New York Times was delivered by 6 a.m. during the first six days of the storms, while his Post was delivered once. "If the Post can't handle the basic blocking and tackling of getting the news and delivering it to my door," he wrote, "what business does it have being in the newspaper business?"

Even in good weather, delivering The Post involves complex choreography. From its Springfield printing plant, The Post trucks papers to about 30 "distribution centers" where several hundred independent contractors take over. These "distributors" (also called "agents") in turn contract with more than 2,600 part-time carriers who typically use their own vehicles to deliver The Post before dawn.

In epic storms, problems are inevitable. The deep snow forced The Post to switch from tractor-trailers (with no rear-wheel traction) to smaller trucks to get papers to distribution centers. Smaller trucks meant more trips. Some got wedged in snow and had to be dug out. At least one driver was stuck on an overpass for eight hours. Some carriers were snowbound in their homes. Even when they were able to pick up papers at distribution centers, many drove vehicles that couldn't navigate unplowed delivery routes. Papers that got delivered were often quickly covered by falling snow, prompting complaints when they got trapped in snow blowers.

Anticipating the first storm, Fernandes e-mailed subscribers that Sunday's pre-printed "coupon package," normally delivered with Saturday's paper, would be delivered on Friday. The package, which includes the comics and magazines, is a popular part of the Sunday paper. "We got close to 100 percent delivered," mostly on Friday before the storm hit, Fernandes said.

A number of readers asked me why houses on their street received other newspapers and not The Post. But just as many said The Post had been delivered, but not its competitors. Fernandes noted that delivery could depend on whether an individual carrier had a four-wheel-drive vehicle.

Some readers wondered why, with storms approaching, The Post didn't increase the number of papers to be sold at local grocery stores or pharmacies. Fernandes said it was difficult to anticipate which would be open or accessible.

The Post maintained full press runs for each day. When routes were impassable in the morning, carriers attempted delivery later in the day. Many day-old papers were included with the next one to be delivered. Those who didn't receive papers and want a credit may e-mail homedelivery@washpost.com or call 202-334-6100.

The historic storms required Herculean efforts to serve print readers. They also highlighted the inherent shortcomings of the print delivery system and the virtues of the online world.

Traffic to The Post's Web site soared. After the first storm hit, average daily page views jumped 177 percent, to nearly 16 million. The number of readers who went specifically to The Post's local pages more than doubled, to 6.3 million daily. The share of visitors from the area was up 140 percent during the storms.

Readers had instant access to an astonishing array of up-to-the-minute information. A map tracked plowed streets. There were power outage alerts, updates on Metro operations and lists of cancellations. The Capital Weather Gang forecasts were accurate and comprehensive.

And instead of an army of carriers struggling against the elements, it was all delivered instantly with a mouse click.

Andrew Alexander can be reached at 202-334-7582 or at ombudsman@washpost.com. For daily updates, read the Omblog.

View all comments that have been posted about this article.

© 2010 The Washington Post Company