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A Newsie, once upon a time

Iwas a newsboy. Newsgirl. Paper carrier. Newsie. Once upon a time.

Actually, I was a substitute for the boy next door. When he was sick, or his family was out of town, they called me.

I wasn’t very old when I began — young enough that walking the perimeter of the four blocks on the route seemed like an enormously long distance, and young enough that in the first few years, Dad went along for fear I’d be abducted or something, being a girl alone in the dark and all.

The job is as clear in my mind as if it was yesterday, including the direction I went: from Oakcrest south on Elmwood, east up the hill on Quincy to Catalpa, north on Catalpa to Jefferson, west on Jefferson to Elmwood again. Then, I’d have to go home again and get more papers — I wasn’t strong enough, nor my over-the-shoulder official Morning Sun bag large enough, to carry all 70-ish of them at once. Then, south on Crestwood, around the block to Georgia all the way north to Jefferson, back east to Elmwood, and home to Oakcrest once again, my empty bag flapping against my thigh.

To this day, I can remember which homes had little mail slots in the doors, which customers, by gosh, wanted their papers exactly on the top step perpendicular to the door, thank you very much, and which hedges had an opening I could cut through — remembering to wave a paper in front of my face so the spider web didn’t stick to me.

I wasn’t a morning person then and still am not. Mom had to roust me from bed to go to the curb and drag inside the two big bundles of papers bound with a yellow hard plastic tie. I’d stand at the kitchen counter yawning and fold each paper in thirds, then roll and secure each with a rubber band before slipping it into my bag. Occasionally, I’d become distracted by the headlines on the front page, which most likely set me on the path to wanting my words to one day appear there, too.

But when I headed out into the still-dark morning, especially in spring and early summer, and smelled all the fresh smells and heard the birdsong begin and felt my cheeks grow rosy in the cool air and saw the first hints of morning light, my sleep faded knowing that I was bringing news to the world — or at least my little corner of it.

I have no recollection of what I earned, but I know I spent it on extras — fun stuff. Treats and baseball cards at PICCO, a new cassette player (with headphones!), and the like. I did NOT have to use it to feed myself nor my family.

Not like the real newsies, who famously went on strike in 1899.

What’s this have to do with the arts, you ask?

Because the arts often are inspired by reality. I suppose that’s one thing I’ve always enjoyed about theater, same as I do interviewing people and then writing their stories: whether you’re on stage or in the audience, it allows a person to crawl inside another person’s skin for a bit. To attempt to feel the way they feel, see things from their perspective — good, bad, or otherwise.

The newsboy’s strike of 1899 is what inspired the cult classic Disney movie “ Newsies,” which inspired a Tony Award-winning Broadway musical full of catchy tunes, which then became a licensed show to which community and high school theatres could buy rights and produce.

By some odd coincidence — it wasn’t planned, I swear — the day that “Newsies” opens as Pittsburg Community Theatre’s big summer musical happens to also mark the 120th anniversary of the start of the newsboys’ strike of 1899: July 18.

Here’s what historical records tell us: Back then, newsies bought their bundles of 100 papers from the publishers for 50 cents and they sold each paper for 1 cent for a profit of a half-cent per paper. The Spanish–American War increased newspaper sales, so several publishers, including the big guys Joseph Pulitzer and William Randolph Hearst, raised the cost of a newsboy’s bundle of 100 newspapers to 60¢. That was no problem at first, because the increased sales offset that price for the newsies. People were hungry for news, and there was a lot of it to report.

After the war, Pulitzer’s and Heart’s papers kept the cost at 60 cents per bundle. But newsies were having a harder time hawking papers; the news was more tame, and people weren’t as eager for the headlines.

So the newsies, most of them dependent on whatever pennies they earned in order to eat, decided they’d had enough. They demonstrated across the Brooklyn Bridge for days, halting traffic along with news distribution. Pulitzer’s paper dropped in circulation from 360,000 papers per day to 125,000.

On July 24, they held a city-wide rally sponsored by a state senator, and reportedly attended by 5,000 boys from Manhattan, 2,000 boys from Brooklyn, and several hundred from other areas. Speeches were made, demands were presented.

Finally, on Aug. 1, the papers offered the newsboys a compromise: they’d still have to pay 60 cents per bundle, but the papers would buy back any unsold papers, effectively removing all risk of loss for the newsies. The newsies accepted and the strike ended the next day.

Youth selling and delivering newspapers continued at least into the 1980s. And I was one of them.

I’ll see you at Memorial Auditorium on July 18!

— Andra Bryan Stefanoni is a lifelong Pittsburg resident and arts enthusiast. She is the director of media relations at Pittsburg State University. Feedback: andra.stefanoni@gmail.com

ANDRA BRYAN STEFANONI

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