'U.P.I. Plans to Thrive in 350 Words or Less,' says NYT


Here is a March 31, 1997 story written by Iver Peterson of The New York Times:

WASHINGTON -- Since 1986, United Press International has been through three owners, two bankruptcies and one court-order liquidation. Not surprisingly, the company's latest owners have been looking for a better brand of journalism.

Starting with a reorganization in September, they hope they can find it by satisfying the country's appetite for bite-size bits of news.

Unable to compete with The Associated Press or Reuters, U.P.I. is strengthening its radio broadcast arm while developing a kind of niche journalism, selling fragments of news to customers ranging from a San Francisco paging service that puts headlines on pager screens to a Kentucky enterprise that wants to flash headlines in small streaming lights installed in bars to religious broadcasters who have begun adding news broadcasts as a way of keeping their listeners tuned in.

"There are a lot of people out there who are trying to figure out which lanes of the 'infobahn' they want to be in, and we are making a living by providing them with information in any form they can use it," said Howard Dicus, who was named U.P.I's general manager for news on March 14. "This is a place that has come so close to dying that we have really had to struggle to find new markets, and now that we are making enough money to at least make it worth saving the place, we will keep trying even harder."

U.P.I. is still far from profitable -- Mr. Dicus said it would take $2 million more a month in revenue to put it "well into the black" -- and its management only recently completed the last of many cost-cutting programs. It has replaced most of its top news and business executives and closed all of its European bureaus except for the one in London, where Middle East Broadcasting Center Ltd., the news service's owner has its headquarters.

Middle East Broadcasting, which acquired U.P.I. in 1992, is owned by a group of Saudi investors, including a brother-in-law of King Fahd of Saudi Arabia.

Most domestic news bureaus have also been closed, and national coverage is now directed out of news desks in New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, Dallas, Miami and Washington.

Abroad as a home, U.P.I. now relies heavily on freelance reporters to file from places were bureaus no longer operate. The company has also merged its traditionally separate news desk and broadcast desk, illustrating radio's pre-eminence in the news service.

When its owners changed hands in 1992, U.P.I. had about 450 full-time staff members and 2,000 part-time employees. Those numbers are now down to about 300 staff members and 800 part-timers. Thomas D. Johnson, director of marketing and sales, said. The news service has about 1,000 broadcast clients and 1,000 newspaper and World Wide Web site clients, Mr. Johnson said, but he would not be more specific. "Talk to me in about six months, and maybe I'll tell you then," he said.

U.P.I. sells its news articles to the Yahoo search engine on the World Wide Web and to the Clarinet Communications Corporation, which maintains a news site on the Web.

What is certain, however, is that there are far fewer of the traditional American papers that once were its bread-and-butter clients. The Editor and Publisher Yearbook, an industry guide, lists almost three dozen dailies as U.P.I. clients, Mr. Dicus said the list also included the Armed Forces Radio Network and Bloomberg News Radio.

Niche users of U.P.I.'s headline service, called the Short Service, meanwhile, include several 900-number telephone news services; Brite Voice Systems, a telecommunications business, and Beeper Plus of Las Vegas, Nev., and Silent Radio of Chatsworth, Calif., which display news summaries on pagers.

Perhaps making a virtue of necessity, U.P.I., has also adopted a new writing style, devoid of flourish or interpretation and limited to no more than 350 words, half the length of a typical Associated Press or Reuters article.

"We also noticed that a lot of papers were putting out USA Today-style news summaries of one or two lines each, running down one column of the page," said Mr. Dicus. "It all seemed to be leading us in the direction of keeping a flat news wire but making the pieces shorter, so you could read it over the air, while keeping the visual conventions of the traditional wire."

U.P.I. has also developed the Short Service, which sells "spotlights, two-sentence news summaries for clients wanting only the briefest summaries for broadcast or display by radio, beepers or on the Internet.

Inventing an electronic information service is a daunting task, as Mr. Dicus acknowledged. Dow Jones & Company has struggled to make its Telerate market information service profitable, and profits from Internet-based information services, another part of U.P.I.'s stategy, have so far proved illusory. But Mr. Dicus maintained that the current rescue effort is building on the failures and successes of the past, and he said that the management was accustomed to challenges.

Print reporters were particularly upset that editors followed the radio convention of putting datelines on reports even if a reporter had not traveled to the site but had gathered the information by telephone from a distance. This practice, known as "jumping datelines," violates a strict print journalism rule, but Mr. Dicus confirmed that the news service used datelines from "where the news is," regardless of whether a correspondent was on the scene. He called it a longstanding domestic radio practice that U.P.I. also applies to reports from overseas.

Still, many reporters, including some of U.P.I.'s biggest stars, say they are simply glad that the company is still around.