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Newspaper carriers connect our journalism to Times readers and challenges abound

Despite all their hard work, there is a shortage of drivers to deliver the paper.

Newspaper carriers start their work long after most of our heads hit the pillow and typically finish before we reach for the snooze button.

These drivers make the essential last connection to get the news we produce into the hands of Tampa Bay Times readers.

And despite all their hard work, we don’t have enough of them.

In recent weeks, I’ve personally heard from more frustrated subscribers when the newspaper doesn’t get to its destination on time.

Just listen to what CC Berg of Dunedin had to say on a day his Times didn’t show up:

“When it’s not on my front stoop for my morning discovery, it’s as though the sun didn’t rise that day,” Berg wrote. “You should take pride in knowing that knowledgeable readers recognize and deeply appreciate the quality of your work. You should also know that depriving me of that morning fix is akin to a cold turkey crash.”

Although the e-Newspaper, an exact replica of the print edition, is available to all Times subscribers, many prefer the feel of the paper in their hands.

Every day, the Times distributes to a geographic footprint that is larger than the states of Delaware and Rhode Island combined. More than 500 drivers load up their vehicles and head out to throw the paper onto driveways or front steps. For some, it’s a family affair. The kids toss the papers while mom or dad drives. On a recent Sunday, the average carrier delivered 412 newspapers in the dead of night. Some rural routes can take five hours to finish.

It’s a system that largely works. Most days, 99 percent of our subscribers get their paper without a hitch, according to Ben Hayes, our director of operations. That’s because we have a strong core of dedicated, experienced drivers familiar with the territory.

But lately, some readers have missed more days because we have a high percentage of unfilled delivery routes, Hayes said. We also no longer can offer redelivery of papers.

Nearly one in six newspaper routes are open, meaning that managers and even volunteers from other departments at the Times have been filling in and stretched thinner. Some circulation staffers haven’t taken a day off in months, according to Joe DeLuca, our executive vice president and general manager.

Several factors contribute to the gaps in our delivery system. A strong economy gives people more jobs to choose from, and the rise of ride-share companies like Uber and Lyft, or delivery service companies, offer work at more appealing hours.

“We have some folks that have been doing this work for decades,” Hayes said. “There just seem to be fewer that stick with it.”

Hayes’ team is working to reconfigure routes to make them more attractive to drivers. That is one way to help with retention. He has stepped up job board advertising and other marketing efforts. We also have a “refer a friend” incentive program among other initiatives.

“I completely understand the level of frustration that some of our readers feel,” said DeLuca, who oversees operations. “They have paid for delivery of the Times and they have every right to expect timely and reliable delivery service. They need results from us and not excuses.

“But I also hope our subscribers know how much we care about our customers and how hard we are working to fix the problem,” he continued. “The day-to-day efforts of our home delivery management and staff have been nothing short of heroic.”

Want to be a Times delivery contractor? Contact Ben Hayes at bhayes@tampabay.com or Joe DeLuca at jdeluca@tampabay.com.

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