Wendy Shelley walks the streets of Linden Hills, West Maka Ska, Cedar-Isles-Dean and Lowry Hill every other weekend, delivering copies of the Southwest Journal to about 2,600 homes.
As she walks, she likes to stop and collect bird feathers. They mostly come from turkeys, but she’s also found huge wing feathers belonging to owls and hawks. Since starting as a carrier in 2010, she’s gathered enough feathers to fill multiple boxes.
The leisurely stroll, and the opportunities it brings for wildlife spotting, has been the highlight of Shelley’s job at the paper, which she contrasts with her higher-pressure daily gig delivering the Star Tribune in the predawn dark. While the Southwest Journal’s closure will mean the loss of about a quarter of Shelley’s income, she said what she’ll miss even more is the pace of the work, the time she had to admire the city’s hummingbirds, butterflies and bees.
“I’m going to miss being outside in the fresh air,” Shelley said. “There are plenty of delivery jobs out there, but I like this because you’re getting out and walking.”
Around sunrise every second Thursday, eight wooden pallets piled high with shrink-wrapped bundles of Southwest Journals are brought by truck to an alley behind the paper’s Downtown office on Hennepin Avenue. Once the pallets are unloaded, Marlo Johnson, the paper’s distribution manager, begins slashing through the plastic and organizing the 30,000 newspapers into individual routes. As he scratches numbers on a clipboard, the paper’s three dozen or so carriers begin to arrive, one or two at a time, sipping coffee, sharing donuts and trading banter as they load their cars up with papers.
Newspaper carriers take the job for a number of reasons, Johnson said. Many are professionals looking for a side hustle. Others are parents taking on routes with their kids. And a few are full-timers like Shelley who have patched together a living delivering the Twin Cities’ shrinking crop of free community papers and magazines.
After she retired from the 50th & France post office in early 2018, Crystal resident Kim Kline started delivering the paper to the West Maka Ska neighborhood so she could keep up with her “old postal customers and the kids and the dogs.” “It’s been enjoyable to stomp on the same territory,” she said.
Since July, 11-year-old Annika Peterson has been splitting a route near her Kenny home with three other kids on her street. She’s used the money she’s earned to buy a mini scooter.
About a decade ago, Jeff Passey and his three sons began delivering 725 copies of the Southwest Journal to the northeast corner of Fulton. This year, the local Boy Scouts troop that Passey leads delivered about 4,500 papers per issue to all of Fulton and about two-thirds of Armatage.
The money the boys earn has gone directly into the troop’s coffers, Passey said, and paid for boat rentals, archery range fees, tractor tubes to float down Minnehaha Creek, sleeping bags, tents, boots and a high-end stove for summer camp outings.
Many of the boys in Troop 6 come from low-income families, and Passey said working to fund their activities as a team has brought the troop closer.
“Why should mom and dad pull out the checkbook when the kids can work a little and pay for the things we’re doing?” he asked. “Our troop has this feeling that, ‘Hey, we’re all together, so if we’re going to get some new equipment, we’re going to work to pay for it and then it’s all of ours.’”
The hardest part of delivering a newspaper in Minnesota is the extreme temperatures, carriers say. Yet the Southwest Journal’s lax delivery schedule — after picking up papers on Thursday, carriers have until Sunday to finish their routes — allows for some flexibility.
During a summer heat wave, Shelley might not begin her route until 11 p.m. If there’s a winter blizzard, she can usually wait for the streets to be plowed before she starts pulling her garbage-bag-lined delivery sled.
“Nobody seems to do their route exactly the same,” she said. “You have to figure out what works best for you.”
Southwest Journal routes pay between 10 cents and 20 cents per paper, with rates varying based on the difficulty of the terrain.
“A neighborhood like Kingfield — with real small 40-foot lots and flat, grid-patterned streets — is a lot easier to do than, say, Linden Hills, where you have curvy streets because of the lakes, some dead ends, some big hills and some big lots,” Johnson said. “One of the routes in Tangletown by the water tower is the most difficult, not only because of the hills but all the streets are curvy and have names that aren’t anywhere else in the city. Even with a map, it’s very difficult to deliver there.”
Johnson said carrier turnover has been lower during the pandemic than any other time in his 16 years with the company. “The high school kids were planning on getting jobs with the Park Board or the restaurants, but those didn’t materialize,” he said.
Before the pandemic, he said, carriers would frequently take a route, decide it wasn’t for them and then “vanish off the face of the earth.”
Johnson still marvels at the moxie of the high school girl who quit her Kenny route with flair by tossing several bundles of papers into Grass Lake. Newspapers have also turned up in Lake Harriet.
There are plenty of other humorous stories to go around.
A few years ago, two of Passey’s sons mastered the art of delivering newspapers without dismounting their bikes. “There was a customer who complained that they hit his door with the paper, not knowing that the kid was 30 feet away flying by on the bicycle. I was like, ‘Man, that’s a skill.’”
Johnson remembers the time he picked up a load of advertising inserts from the Art Materials shop in the Wedge. He was driving north on Lyndale Avenue when a box of them fell out the back of his truck, busted open and spewed art supply deals over several blocks of traffic. “I thought it was funny; the advertiser didn’t,” Johnson said. “I think the advertising was a little too condensed for them.”
Johnson said when he started working for the Southwest Journal’s parent company in 2004, he never thought it would become his career.
“It could be a hard job, it could be physically demanding, it could be frustrating, but I liked the combination of physical, outside work and inside administrative office work,” he said. “I know the Southwest Journal is still beloved by so many people and it’s a shame to see that that’s ending.”
As carriers walked their routes for the penultimate time in late November, they said many readers stopped them to express their sadness at the paper’s closure.
“A community newspaper is still really important to have,” Shelley said. “I know a lot of people rely on their phones and the internet, but I like to read the paper. I like to see events that are taking place. I like the light-rail coverage, the COVID stories, new businesses that are starting or moving on. You get a lot of information in a small paper.”