It was late June and approaching 2 a.m.
The streets were quiet and dark, and there was a refreshing chill to the night air.
Inside a Hermantown warehouse, Heather Taipale was putting together bundles of papers for the newspaper carriers who gathered and flowed through an open freight door in the watchable and soothing manner of a human aquarium.
Taipale is a district manager for the Duluth News Tribune. She hires carriers, fills routes and, at the start of every day, preps the stacks of papers, fresh from the nearby printing press. After the carriers chat a bit with one another, they gather up the newspapers in armloads and carts, drop the papers into their vehicles and go.
“My position’s been eliminated,” Taipale, a 17-year News Tribune employee, said. “It’s sad to see everything coming to an end. I was hoping to retire here, but you’ve got to roll with the times, I guess.”
In May, the Duluth News Tribune announced it was ending a daily delivery tradition dating back to 1870 by moving to a two-day print frequency and switching to mail delivery starting Wednesday.
As recently as spring, many in the company thought the transition to being a mostly online news source would take up to 10 years. Newspaper leadership in Duluth and at company headquarters in Fargo, North Dakota, said the COVID-19 pandemic and resulting loss of advertising revenue accelerated the company’s decision.
“We thought we had longer by way of carriers,” News Tribune circulation director Brent Theisen said, “but the pandemic kicked the door in on us.”
“I do feel like that had a big part in it,” Deb Geissler said. “I have to say I’m very, very, very sad.”
Geissler is a 23-year carrier who started when her two sons, Zach and Casey, were preteen boys working their first jobs and picking up bundles of newspapers dropped for them on street corners.
Geissler and her family are one of 99 contracted carriers losing their routes. Eight carriers will be retained to help supply convenience stores and other marketplaces that will continue to sell the twice-weekly print product.
“You can’t take anything away from the level of service they’ve provided,” Theisen said. “They’re running their own business. They’re a delivery service.”
To mark the end of an era, the News Tribune spent part of that June morning with Geissler and her son, Zach, and also Dave and Tina Wittke to observe as their routes unfolded. The Geisslers delivered papers from West Duluth to Morgan Park; the Wittkes deliver throughout Gary-New Duluth.
For both families, the work has been a lifestyle — one that has commandeered their overnights in a way that requires a grit that has gone mostly unregarded.
“I can probably count on one hand the number of weekends we took off in 17 years,” Tina Wittke said. “One vacation, three or four weekends, that’s it.”
“You have to be willing to get up at an ungodly hour 365 days a year,” Zach Geissler said. “You have to be willing to work through all possible elements, and you have to be willing to deal with any of the people that you come across — whether they're intoxicated, unseemly or in distress.”
Driving their route through West Duluth, Deb wore a headlamp and Zach was comfy in sweatpants. They toggled back and forth between which one of them took the paper to the door. They tripped down quiet streets, revealed a plethora of dead ends, cut through alleys and ambled up porch steps to give people their news. Blocks that once featured four or five customers’ houses in a row, now had only one or sometimes two. Since the announcement, some customers have dropped the paper altogether.
“We know our customers and that paper is like gold to some of them,” Deb said. “The majority of them want to read the paper before they go to work. We could have 3 feet of snow, have to park the car a block away and we’d have people standing on their porch, tapping their foot.”
The Geisslers are almost always awake before their alarm. When one of them was sick, that person would drive and bring along a bucket. When they’d witness a domestic incident or vandals or a drunken crash, they’d call the police. When the snow banks were high, they’d roll their bodies down and land on their feet on the way to the door. And when a loyal customer suddenly stopped getting the paper, Deb would sometimes see their face in the obituaries section after she got home and sat down to read the paper before her shift as a dermatology assistant at one of the local hospitals.
For as routine as the job has been, it was always delivering to them something new.
“The one thing that’s going to be hard to fill is spending so much time with my mom,” Zach, 38, said. “We’re together from the time we leave the house until the time we come home. In the quote-unquote real world, you can’t do that.”
When the News Tribune hopped over to the Wittke’s route, it found Dave Wittke with a traditional newspaper carrier’s bag slung over his shoulder as he spoke over a fence to two of his favorites.
“These are Shiloh and Sadie,” Dave Wittke said as he started his walking route on 99th Avenue West by petting the dogs’ muzzles. “They’re my buddies.”
The Wittkes like to divide and conquer, delivering papers to the Gary-New Duluth neighborhood in which they’ve raised their two now-grown children. They started delivering papers so they’d be able to have one parent home during the day. Tina works reception at a Superior machine and fabrication company, and Dave’s now hunting for permanent work.
“I’m a morning person,” Tina said. “I love listening to the wolves and coyotes howling at each other.”
Dave strolls down the middle of vacant streets, the whisper of sunrise a crescendo to light as he strode. Free-spirited, chatty and tall with proud shoulders like Hibbing basketballer Kevin McHale, Wittke passed dogs and cats whose names he knows by heart. He brings along a pouch for dog treats. Several times he’s recovered wandering pets for their owners.
“I’m going to be missing all of my animal friends,” Dave said. “They come and see me. I look for them and they look for me.”
Tina drives her portions of the route, and the couple covers 16-18 miles per day throughout the neighborhood. One time, a woman who didn’t take the paper, but knew Dave’s movements well found him to give him hot chocolate on a bitterly cold day.
“That’s still with me today,” he said. “I can’t believe that happened. It was so nice.”
There’s no bitterness about the end, they said. In fact, the Wittkes are looking forward to free weekends, and being able to leave town for more than a few hours in a day.
“We’re looking forward to not being tied down to Duluth,” Tina said. “We can go places and do things.”