Friday, April 8, 2011

Still Life with Robin: Deliver Us from Inconvenience

by Peggy Robin

In last week’s column I bemoaned the wretched state of our mail service. Fortunately, we have easy recourse to newer and better forms of communication, and so have switched to email for bills and other correspondence, as much as possible. Snail mail is so 20th century! This week I intend to expound on something else that’s so 20th Century but this time with words of praise. The subject is our newspaper delivery. We get two daily papers, the Washington Post and the New York Times. For the past few months our home delivery has been spot-on. Both papers have been arriving on time, regardless of the weather, and on the majority of mornings are found squarely on the doormat, each wrapped in its protective plastic sleeve. In the case of the Times, it’s a double bagged in wet weather, with the end of the bag tied neatly in a knot, the better to keep the contents dry.

In the case of the Washington Post, the good delivery experience represents an abrupt change in the right direction, and not a moment too soon. Our past history with the Post’s home delivery could be represented on a graph as a series of sharp zigzags between the ludicrously inept to pitch-perfect and back again, and then back again and again. During the deep slumps, it’s been so bad we’ve been sorely tempted to cancel our subscription and rely entirely on the online version. It’s fortunate that we’re in the middle of a near-perfect home delivery phase, because at this point in the cycle, the Post has completely redesigned its online layout, with the new web version having changed overnight from something adequately readable to something bizarrely and treacherously unnavigable. My husband Bill, who prefers online reading to handling large, unwieldy sheets of newsprint, says now the only sure way to locate any particular article in the online version is to Google the exact words of the headline as seen in the print version and then click on the Google results.

The Post’s ombudsman Patrick Pexton reported in his March 25 column that reader feedback on the web redesign is running eight-to-one against, with lots of readers saying one variation or another of the pungent phrase: “It stinks.” Aware of the large number of glitches, the Post management has promised that substantial improvements are in the works, but until those fixes are in place, the online reading experience is analogous to getting your print newspaper delivered in a windstorm that scatters all the pages randomly across your lawn. You look out over the mess and sigh, rather than trudge all over trying to pick up the pieces and put them in some logical order. It’s that bad.

Still, back in the bad old days of poor home delivery, the analogy I used above could literally be used to describe the physical state of our newspaper in the early morning. The worst period of time was admittedly far in the past, before we lived in our present house. Though we previously were in a house three blocks down the hill and around the corner from our house today, our newspaper delivery seemed a world away. And make that the Third World. (Our mail delivery, on the other hand, was one of the glories of Cleveland Park -- as I noted in a fit of nostalgia in my column last week.) Back in those days, on any given morning, either the Times or the Post, or on in the worst case scenario, both, were as likely as not to be found in the rosebushes (snagged on the thorns) or out in the middle of our high-traffic street. As for hitting the doormat … never happened. Not once. What did happen, at least every other month, is that the paper would end up on the roof of the porch, or maybe dangling from the gutter. I’m too afraid of heights to have opened a window and gone out to retrieve it, and so I let them accumulate until late in the fall, when I had the gutter cleaner take them down as part of his regular maintenance. One year he brought down eight papers.

I’m a complainer by nature, so every so often I would call or send a note to the circulation manager to suggest that our paper delivery person take more care with his aim. There might follow a period of improved delivery, of perhaps some weeks or even months, and then the bush/street/roof shots would resume. That cycle persisted right up until the day we moved.

Our first days in our new house, still in Cleveland Park but on a different carrier route, made us feel as if we’d been bumped up from coach to first class, as far as our Washington Post delivery was concerned. I remember waking up that first morning, opening the front door, and being astonished and delighted to see the Post neatly folded on the doormat. It was bliss. And that state of affairs lasted for years. Except for the very worst snowstorms, the paper was reliably there, reliably dry, safely tucked inside its plastic sleeve, day in and day out. I remember, too, meeting our neighbors for the first time and telling them how happy we were to live on a block with such a competent and dedicated carrier. And then one of them smiled and supplied the reason, which I suppose I should have guessed on my own: Somewhere along this same carrier paper route lived the Grahams, the owners of the Post. Small wonder that the Post’s best carrier was assigned to the job.

Still, all good things must come to an end, and a few years ago, we lost our famous neighbor, Don Graham, to Dupont Circle. Literally overnight, our Post delivery went from top notch to bottom rung. That meant days of wet papers, missing papers, papers out in the road. And then a few weeks ago, I walked out my front door one morning and saw my Post neatly on the doormat, just as it used to be in those bygone Graham-neighbor days. Around the same time, and somewhat mysteriously, the Times delivery, which has also gone through cycles of good/not-good delivery, began appearing perfectly positioned on the doormat as well. Perhaps I shouldn’t be writing this; it could jinx the whole thing, reminding the Forces of Chaos that somewhere things are going too smoothly for someone, and that shouldn’t be allowed. At least not when it comes to newsprint.

But there it is, I’ve said it. I don’t expect it to last, though. I keep hearing dire predictions that print newspapers are on their last legs. Still, it’s far from certain that the online-only model will work economically to deliver the same quality and breadth of news and analysis that we currently enjoy in print. Online-only papers present practical challenges, as well. It seems that both the Post and the Times have a long way to go before their web editions are as easy to navigate as turning pages of the actual print editions. Till then I’ll keep picking the paper up from my doorstep first thing in the morning. And another good thing about doing so: If I happen to spill my morning coffee over a few pages, I can still read the news, even though it’s soaked and stained. Try that with your Kindle or your fancy-schmancy iPad!

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