How Newspaper Distribution Works


Responsibility for getting the newspaper from the press to the reader falls to the distribution division. Large newspapers publish two, three or even four editions, all of which must be ready to leave the newspaper plant at a certain time. The first edition, sometimes called the bulldog edition, goes to the outer limits of the newspaper's circulation area. This may be several counties or even an entire state. Later editions contain progressively fresher news and go to smaller areas. The final edition, which goes to press after midnight, contains the latest news but covers the smallest geographical area, usually a city.

Any subscriber to a daily newspaper knows that it plops onto the driveway in the wee hours of the morning. Independent contractors called carriers buy copies of the newspaper at a discount and deliver them, using their personal vehicles. When afternoon newspapers were common, those vehicles often were bicycles. The first job for many American youngsters was delivering the afternoon paper in their neighborhood.

The circulation department draws the routes that carriers follow. This department is also responsible for rack sales, newspapers that go into coin-operated dispensers. The circulation department maintains subscribers' billing records, stops and starts deliveries upon request, and uses service runners to deliver missing papers.

Because a newspaper's circulation, the number of people who receive the paper, has a substantial impact on its advertising rates, an independent agency called the Audit Bureau of Circulations examines and certifies circulation numbers. This assures both the advertising division and advertisers that circulation claims are valid.

In 18 hours of highly coordinated work carried out by numerous divisions, what newpaper people call a "rough draft of history" has moved through computer systems, imaging machines and presses that would amaze Gutenberg, to its final destination -- the readers. After 3:30 a.m., few people remain at a newspaper plant. All the other divisions have gone home. The presses have fallen silent, perhaps undergoing maintenance for the remainder of the night. The sudden silence will not last long. In less than four hours, the newspaper, as it must do 365 days a year, will rouse from its short sleep and start all over again.