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Spreading the news around

Newsboys come in all styles. Or as the Philadelphia Daily Chronicle put it to its subscribers ack in 1828: "Care has been taken to procure diligent and trustworthy carriers . . . but mistakes may happen.

One of the most diligent and trustworthy carriers in the history of American journalism deposits -- not tosses -- the newspaper on our doorstep at the crack of dawn. He takes the time to talk to every dog, cat, and bird in the neighborhood -- Francis of Assisi with a shoulder bag -- and still makes delivery before 7 o'clock. On weekends he may whistle between his teeth, but his bicycle never, never squeaks.

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On the other hand, mistakes, as the man said, may happen, and one of the worst of them used to travel the same route as our paragon, backfiring his way up the street in an ancient VW to deliver a rival paper. Even his brakes could wake you from a sound sleep -- if you were still sleeping at 20 past nine, which was about as early as the Mistake ever made it.

From a mad, hiccoughing pace of 15 miles per hour or so, he would come to his screaming halt at the foot of the driveway. While stomping the accelerator to keep from stalling, he heaved a half-rolled newspaper out the window in a more or less skyward direction. He was a big, fiercely bearded man, but his toss had all the force of a seal flopping. On his good days the front page just about made the sidewalk, with the classified section sort of ejecting like a space capsule.

We prize the Paragon. But we were strangely dismayed to see the Mistake go. There's something about even a bad newsboy that becomes a habit. Life doesn't seem the same when you no longer have to fish your morning news out of the bird bath or the rose bush or wherever.

For this reason, among others, we were sorry to see the warning in the Wall Street Journal that the news boy may be "a vanishing species." What would Norman Rockwell say?

The Journal made the usual darkling reference to automation. The Los Angeles Times has rolled out a three-wheel truck with an oversizes window to encourage a Jim Palmer throwing motion. The Shawnee, Okla., News-Star is experimenting with "Eddie," an electronic newsboy, or at least an "electric data delivery system." Eddie perches beside the driver and tells him where to pitch the next paper. Eddie, it is hoped, will replace 60 lads with squeaky bicycles, fallible memories, and occasionally silent alarm clocks.

Progress? We're not sure. Can Eddie show up on your porch before Christmas, according to time-honored tradition, "wistfuly lingering at the customer's doorstep in anticipation of gifts"?

The scene so described dates back to 1854, and here is a cue-card, as it were , from 1861:

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I wish you health and wealth and joy --

As far back as 1761, the New York Mercury, according to historians of American journalism, was advertising for "a nice boy" to make deliveries. And before that, around 1722, a nice boy named Ben Franklin was making deliveries of the New England Courant -- as well as helping his older brother set type and work the press.

We do not subscribe to the notion that all newsboys are Horatio Algers who grow up to be princes of industry, or at least the town banker. We've retrieved too many papers from the shrubbery -- before the Paragon came along. And then there were all those strangely figured bills. With the exception of the Paragon , we sort of hope newsboys don't grow up to be bank presidents.

We're convinced, from personal experience, that a newspaper route builds more character in the parents of newsboys than in the newsies themselves. Boy, those cold, gray, rainy mornings when you load a stack of damp papers in the back seat of the car!

Why then do we prefer to think of Ben Franklin rather than Eddie the robot, who probably knows when we're going to take our vacation before we do and can hit a porch with the precison of an MX missile? The answer is simple. With the news what it is, we need all the human touch we can get, right down to the off-key whistling. In fact, on some days our newsboy has our permission to chuck the whole thing in the bush es. Being a paragon, he'll know when.

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