It’s 2:15 a.m. on a moonlit night, and Montgomery County’s main arteries are devoid of traffic. But The Post’s distribution center in North Bethesda is ablaze with lights and abuzz with activity.
The parking lot is filling with cars as Post home-delivery carriers arrive to begin their workday. Their cars are small and economical, lots of older Toyota Corollas and Honda Civics showing not a few miles. And the carriers’ faces and voices are multicultural — white, black and Hispanic, Asian, Caribbean and African. Many are women.
At 2:45 a.m., two tractor-trailers pull in, carrying 50,000 newspapers from The Post’s Springfield printing plant for this distribution center, one of 28 The Post has in the metropolitan area. The trucks quickly back up to the loading dock doors. A forklift operator removes, literally in five minutes — heaven help you if you get in his way — the huge pallets of stacked and shrink-wrapped newspapers and plunks them down in the middle of the center.
The pallets are then set upon by an army of more than 100 carriers, who efficiently cut off the shrink-wrap and begin taking the piles of papers, which are bar-coded for particular routes. The pallets, too, are emptied in less than five minutes.
The carriers then take their papers into rows of individual metal workstations, which look like stand-up library carrels. There, they check in, fold and bag that day’s papers, including any advertising specials; on this night it’s a Kohl’s department store insert. These inserts are one of The Post’s main sources of ad revenue.
In less than an hour, the carriers have finished, their cars loaded, and are motoring to their routes. Each delivers about 150 papers per hour, or 30 to 50 every 15 minutes.
This overnight distribution of the print editions, even with years of declining circulation, is still one of the biggest home delivery operations in the country, and it remains crucial to The Washington Post.
Bill Green is the circulation division manager for Maryland and the District. He oversees 16 distribution centers and 61 distributors — the independent contractors who hire and manage The Post’s neighborhood carriers.
He’s been running circulation operations his entire life, from USA Today, where he helped launch its original delivery to hotels in New York City, to 25 years at the Baltimore Sun and now five with The Post. “I have the best job in this country,” he says proudly.
All he has to do is get several hundred thousand newspapers delivered across the District and most of Maryland, from the Eastern Shore and Rehoboth Beach in the east to St. Mary’s County in the south to Frederick County in the north, and he has about three hours to do it, from 3 a.m., when the papers arrive at the distribution point to 6 a.m., when it’s supposed to be at your doorstep (7 a.m. on Sundays).
Honestly, the aim is more like 5:30 a.m. because carriers are increasingly faced with “empty driveway syndrome”; commuting times are so long that subscribers leave for work that early, and they want the paper before they go.
For some carriers, such as the older retired men, the paper route is extra income. But for most carriers, particularly women, it’s just the first of two, and often three, jobs they go to every day. They do it to get extra money to put their kids in a better school or to buy a better house in a better neighborhood. They can get their routes done early, be back at home to get their kids to school and then go off to job No. 2.
But it’s tiring piecework — carriers are paid by the papers delivered — and they have to start in the middle of the night and do it 365 days a year. Most carriers do it about five years and then quit.
The carriers, distributors and Bill Green all know they are fighting a tough, losing battle. Declining circulation forces change.
Green is constantly consolidating — giving distributors larger territories so they can each keep 5,000 to 9,000 subscribers and about 25 carriers — enough to make a decent living.
And finally, there are routine challenges, such as Hurricane Irene, whose downed trees and power lines blocked Post carriers from reaching entire neighborhoods.
The morning of the hurricane, Green arrived at the distribution center in Northeast Washington, which services the entire District, to find the power out and the emergency backup power fading. No panic, though. Carriers simply pulled their cars up to the loading docks, opened the bay doors and worked by the light of their cars’ high beams.
Said Green: “This is what we do. We’ve got to get the papers out.”
Patrick B. Pexton can be reached at 202-334-7582 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.