Carriers canned as Post farms out local delivery
The Washington Post is selling its local distribution rights to the Daily Progress, leaving dozens of newspaper carriers out of a job and serving as another signal of dailies in a downturn.
"It's a cost-cutting measure," says Charles Leathers, who's distributed the Post since 1992, as did his father, who started distributing the Post in 1967. He employs about a dozen people to stuff inserts and deliver the Post seven days a week in southeastern Charlottesville and Albemarle County, and Lake Monticello.
"There's about 30 to 35 of us out of work in one fell swoop a month before Christmas," Leathers says.
With newspaper readership falling while expenses skyrocket, Post carriers are not the first Central Virginia newspaper workers to feel some pain. In July, the Progress sent its printing operations to Hanover, laying off its entire printing staff of 25 people.
"It's a very good business decision for the Washington Post and the Daily Progress," says Fred Greer, regional circulation director for the Progress. "And it makes good sense from an environmental standpoint. It's better to have one car going down a street than five cars."
Greer estimates that around 10,000 Posts are delivered to homes and newsstands in Charlottesville and its surrounding counties. Progress carriers will get additional compensation for carrying the Post, as they do for delivering the Richmond Times-Dispatch, says Greer.
And there could be more newspapers added to Progress routes.
"We're having preliminary discussions with other people," says Greer. "In this day and age, it makes sense to cooperate. It's no secret things are difficult, whether you're the Daily Progress, the New York Times, or the Hook."
The Christian Science Monitor just joined the casualty list, announcing October 28 that it would cease print publication in April, except for a weekly edition, and go to an online version, using email for daily news delivery.
The Progress has already begun delivering the Post Monday in the northern section of the county, as well as in Madison, Orange, and Ruckersville. It phases in the rest of Albemarle November 23, and Staunton and Waynesboro by December 21.
On September 1, after gas prices hit highs never before seen here, the Progress boosted its newsstand price to 75 cents, which is also the going rate for a copy of the Post, newsstand or subscription.
Whether the delivery shift will stave off future price increases remains to be seen as both papers struggle.
Although the Washington Post has venerable financial wizard Warren Buffett sitting on its board, Moody's Investor Service threatens to downgrade the company's credit rating. A year ago, WPO shares were trading at $880. In late October, they bottomed out at a new low of $322.41.
Likewise, shares in Progress parent company Media General have traded as high as $29.28 in the past year; but despite recent cost-cutting measures and a roar of bullish optimism that sent the Dow Jones Industrial Average up nearly 900 points October 28, Media General stock hit a 52-week low that day at $4.49 before closing up a dollar per share.
Things are looking so rough at Media General that the entire company–- even though it owns 24 dailies, including the mammoth Tampa Tribune and Richmond Times-Dispatch, as well as 19 network-affiliated TV stations, not to mention printing plants, real estate, and internet subsidiaries–- is valued at just $122 million. That's about half of what Media General paid Thomas A. Worrell Jr. in 1995 for four smaller dailies including the Progress.
The Progress' daily circulation, already battered by an aging pool of people willing to pay for news that's given away for free online, has dropped 8.4 percent, from 28,477 to 26,071 in the past year. So will this distribution deal boost the Progress' sagging fortunes?
"We don't enter into agreements," says publisher Lawrence McConnell, "without seeing some benefit."
But there will be no benefit for soon-to-be out-of-work distributor Charles Leathers, who says he declined a company offer to move to Maryland, and who notes that his carriers, as independent contractors, are not eligible for unemployment benefits.
Leathers say he was surprised when he got the call that he'd be out of a job in four weeks and was disappointed distributors weren't invited to join the conversation to save money.
"There are plenty of ways to cut costs," says Leathers. "They didn't give us a chance to bid on the contract."
The Washington Post had not returned phone calls at press time.
–last updated 12:33pm, November 10