This story began in 2012 while I was working on a story in Iowa. I was taking pictures on a foggy afternoon and saw a young girl on a blue bicycle, a newspaper bag slung across her shoulder. She stopped and held up a copy of The Daily Times Herald.
These days, most newspapers are delivered by fast-moving adults driving vans and trucks. I guess I didn't know that kids still had paper routes, anywhere.
Turns out, if you're a kid living near Carroll, Iowa, and you want to make some money and have an adventure, you're growing up in the right place.
In Carroll, a town of 10,000 surrounded by farmland, factories and parks, the award-winning Daily Times Herald still relies on young people to get the news to local homes each day.
The family that owns and runs the paper believes the most important news they cover is about the town's young people — schools, sports, the arts — and it just makes sense to have them delivering those stories to the community.
Jaxson Kuhlmann delivers 36 to 38 papers daily on his figure-eight shaped route around the neighborhood. It never takes him longer than a half-hour, he says. At each stop, he walks up to the porch to make his delivery.
"Some people want it in their door, some people want it in their mailbox," Jaxson says. "There are some certain houses that you're like, 'People still live here?' You don't see them come out at all."
Eighty percent of The Daily Times Herald's papers are delivered by young people, most between the ages of 9 and 17, in Carroll and the surrounding towns. They're paid the same as adults: 10 to 12 cents a copy.
The paper is a surviving exception to a trend. Circulation managers at the two nearest big papers, The Des Moines Register and the Omaha World-Herald, said they employ very few kids.
One big thing that makes it work here is that the paper comes out only five days a week, and in the afternoon — after school. It's a local family-owned operation, with 16 pages and lots of color pictures. In 2013 it was named Iowa's "Newspaper of the Year."
Jaxson Kulhmann says he gets a check every two weeks for about $45. "I'm saving up for a trip to Washington, D.C. — it's a class trip," he says. "And, like, the church group [LCMS] — we're saving up to go to the National Youth Gathering in 2016 in Louisiana."
Doug Burns, the vice president for news and son of the paper's co-owner, carried a paper route for many years as a kid. But he has misgivings, he says, about the way it's going now.
"You see more parents around their kids, helping their kids with the route, rather than realizing that this was maybe the first opportunity for a young person to have independence," he says. "There was sort of a beautiful solitude in delivering papers in the era that I did it, that I think is probably missing from the experience today."
Jaxson Kuhlmann says he's not especially worried about his paper route — he's only ever three blocks away from home, and the streets do seem safe. But there is crime and violence in Carroll, and he reads about it on the front page, every day, as he walks between porches.
"There was a stabbing a couple weeks ago, where one man stabbed his girlfriend 'cause he got mad at her," he says. "And then drug dealers around here, and they try to get kids to do bad things and stuff like that. You don't see them very often, but when you do you just don't acknowledge them," he says.
One of the standard chores from years gone by — collecting payment by knocking on doors with your receipt book — is no longer a carrier responsibility. Now, it's all credit card billing.
Back in Jaxson's neighborhood, we reach the end of his route, less than a half-hour after we set off. He heads inside to wash the ink off his hands, so he can get back to his regular 11-year-old's afternoon.
AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
Here's an image of American life that is fading - a neighborhood boy or girl cycles up the sidewalk, delivering newspapers. These days most deliveries involve cars and adults. NPR's Noah Adams went looking for a town that still encourages younger newspaper carriers. He found it West Iowa.
NOAH ADAMS, BYLINE: I had been in Iowa a couple of years ago, working on a story. And I was taking pictures on a foggy afternoon and saw a young girl on a blue bicycle and a newspaper bag across her shoulder. She stopped, almost smiled and held up a copy of the Daily Times Herald. I guess I didn't know that kids were still delivering papers anywhere. And I've often thought about the day in Iowa, so why not take a midsummer's trip and see how it all works.
ADAMS: The whistle is sort of a sound signature for Caroll, Iowa. It seems like the freight trains come through every 15 minutes. The red-brick Caroll Depot from 1996 is now the Chamber of Commerce. Caroll has 10,000 people, surrounded by farmland, factories, 13 parks. The Daily Times Herald is printed right downtown. If you want to make some money and have an adventure, even if you're only 11 years old, you are growing up in the right place.
Tell me your name please.
JAXSON KUHLMANN: Jaxson Kuhlmann. We're going to do my paper route today. It's sometimes 36 to 38 papers and it pretty much goes in a figure eight.
ADAMS: Oh, really - right around your house?
Jaxson Kuhlmann. Jaxson is spelled with an X. He's wearing a bright blue Under Armour t-shirt, a ball cap - has the carrier bag with the orange shoulder strap, ready for a walk, sometimes across the grass. He goes up to the porch. The paper usually goes in the mailbox.
KUHLMANN: Some people want it in their doors, some people want it in their mailbox. The longest it's ever taken me to do my paper route is maybe a half-hour. It doesn't take that long. There's some certain houses that you're like, do people still live here 'cause like you don't see them come out at all.
ADAMS: We'll continue with Jaxson and his paper route in a couple of minutes. But let's go back earlier in the day when the press was running.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Yeah, we're waiting on papers.
ADAMS: The Daily Times Harold is one of the few newspapers that has kids out delivering. It's a surviving exception to a trend. I called the two nearest big papers, The Des Moines Register and the Omaha World Herald. Both circulation managers said, very few kids. In the town of Caroll, the big thing that makes it work. This paper comes in the afternoon, after school, and only five days a week. It's a local, family-owned operation, 16 pages, lots of colored pictures. In 2013, it was Iowa's Newspaper of the Year - lots of awards, a new staff. A young reporter would be happy to join.
REBECCA MCKINSEY: My name's Rebecca McKinsey and I've worked at the Chautauquan Daily in New York. These were all internships before this - the Columbus Dispatch, The Arizona Republic and The Times of Israel.
ADAMS: About 15 people work here in the stuffing room, putting the paper together with the advertising flyers, making up the bundles that go out to the carriers. The circulation manager here told me about 80 percent of the papers are delivered by youngsters. They get paid the same as adults, 10 to 12 cents a copy. It's often a part-time job for grown-ups and retired couples will do and people with disabilities. Jaxson Kuhlmann showing us around his carrier route says he gets a check every two weeks for about $45.
KUHLMANN: I spend it once in a while. And I'm saving up for a trip to Washington D.C. It's a class trip and I'm saving up for that. Then with the church group, we're saving to go to that National Youth Gathering in 2016 in Louisiana.
ADAMS: Some of these houses are protected by small dogs on top of the couch, scratching at the window. On the route today, Jaxson says hi to a woman who comes to the door for her paper. He waves to a man in a lawn chair out in front of his garage, listening to music without his hearing aids. And we meet a contractor who's working next door. It turns out this guy once delivered papers right here in the town of Caroll.
SAM SCHMITT: I used to do it when I was little.
ADAMS: Sam Schmitt best remembers Christmastime. His favorite Christmas carrier tip, locally-famous cinnamon rolls.
SCHMITT: Every year, I'd get a big, old plate of those for Christmas. It was great, because it one of them old ladies that don't cook like that anymore.
ADAMS: I talked some with Jaxson about being out in the neighborhood alone - the things that could happen. What if you smelled smoke?
KUHLMANN: I would probably run to the next-door neighbor and bang on the door - tell them to call 911. I don't have a cell phone yet, at least. I might get one at the end of the summer. So I'll carry that in case of emergency.
ADAMS: A standard carrier chore is now done away with. No more collecting, knocking on doors with your receipt book. It's credit card billing now. Ann Wilson, who's a co-owner of the paper, recalls helping her brother with collections. Here's a story she's been telling for 50 years.
ANN WILSON: I remember a time when I was doing substitute for my brother in collecting. And there was one that he couldn't get money from, so I went to try. And she brought the money to the door in pennies and then dropped them on the porch.
ADAMS: One of Ann's sons, Doug Burns, now the vice president for news, carried a route for many years as a kid. But he has a bit of misgiving about the way it's all going now.
DOUG BURNS: You see more parents around their kids, helping their kids with the route, rather than, you know, realizing that this was maybe the first opportunity for a young person to have independence. There was sort of a beautiful solitude in delivering papers in the era that I did it that I think is probably missing from the experience today.
ADAMS: Our carrier on this afternoon, Jaxson Kuhlmann, says he's not especially worried about his paper route. He's only ever about three blocks away from home. And the streets do seem safe. But there is crime and violence in his town of Caroll. And every day, as he walks between porches, he's reading the front page.
KUHLMANN: Like there was a stabbing a couple weeks ago, where one man stabbed his girlfriend 'cause he got mad at her. And there's drug dealers around here and stuff like that. And they try to get kids to do bad things and stuff like that. But you don't see them very often. But when you do, you just don't acknowledge them. You don't talk to them.
ADAMS: We come to the end of the paper route.
KUHLMANN: We're done.
ADAMS: We're done.
And Jaxson goes to wash the ink off his hands and get back to his regular 11-year-old afternoon. The family that owns and runs the Caroll, Iowa Daily Times Harold believes the most important news they cover is about the young people - the schools, the sports, the arts. And it just makes sense to have them delivering those stories. Noah Adams, NPR News.
CORNISH: Did you deliver the newspaper as a kid? And do you have photographic evidence? Share your photos with us on Instagram. Use the #nprpaper. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.