Wall Street to Main Street

(Here's former UPI financial editor Dottie Brooks' history of the "UP/UPI Business News Department.)


"Down back."

That's the phrase that goes with "Financial," as the UP/UPI Business News Department was called.

Ask where the financial department was and you'd be told "down back," physically out of the mainstream of the New York General and Local Desks, International, the Cables Desk, Latam, the Sports Desk. The product just wasn't as exciting as Washington's politics, certainly not as interesting as wars and murders, Hollywood glamour, baseball, football and the latest local news just about anywhere - except when the stock market tanked. Then it made the A-wire.

At least in the early days. It did change -- and more about that to come.

Talk about Financial and you are talking Elmer C. Walzer, a knowledgeable and colorful man -- ECW anecdotes are legion - who headed the department for 35 years, from 1925 until his retirement in 1960.

He wasn't the first, however.

William H. Grimes, an early staffer in the New York bureau, liked to write stories about business, an area in which most of the would-be foreign correspondents had little interest. Client interest centered on Wall Street and UP always had carried some stock reports and market news, along with news considered "big" enough to be of general interest.

Grimes talked to UP President Karl Bickel about business news and became the first to carry the title United Press financial editor.

In April, 1922, a new Teletype circuit was launched -- 7506, the business wire -- to carry news, stock prices and market summaries of special interest to the Wall Street crowd. (It was said business news meant stock market news, but that never was completely true and became less so with passing years.)

Grimes left in 1923, moving over to the Wall Street Journal where he became one of its top editors. "Deadline Every Minute," the UP history, says financial news coverage then became "haphazard."

Staffers Edward J. Condlin, William Johnson, Todd W. Wright and others took the market reports by telephone. Stock price lists from the tickers had to be assembled and sent in a certain format and no one really wanted the chore.

One day in 1925 no one was around the office that had experience with the task. Bureau Manager Morris De Haven Tracy was trying to figure it out when Elmer Walzer, a new member on the news staff, offered to help.

Soon Walzer, a former English professor at Wagner College on Staten Island, was United Press financial editor.

UP began carrying American Stock Exchange (known as the Curb) quotes and over-the-counter prices in 1926. About a year later it put the Big Board on its wires, hiring a team of 15 tabulators to prepare the tables. The tabulators were recruited away from Consolidated News, which had been supplying stock prices to newspapers. Consolidated continued for a time to supply quotes to the Associated Press, but later AP also began its own stock list.

Walzer added many market reports, developed the first special quote products such as a list of the most active stocks. He wrote a daily column, Business Today, for many years one of the most widely published in papers across the country. The financial staff gradually increased, to 35 in 1960, before the end of hand tabulating eliminated many staffers in the stock operation. It climbed again to 41 when the launch of Regional Business News in 1988 created a total of 17 new reporting and editing positions in New York, Washington and other domestic bureaus.

Financial news made the front page unforgettably in 1929 when a booming market collapsed and the great crash tumbled the world into depression.

Walzer, who shepherded the business wire through the crash, the depression, World War II and the Eisenhower '50s, said the financial community "always dreaded the times when Wall Street news hit the front pages" because usually it was bad news, an observation that holds true to this day.

Probably never recognized within UP/I as the professional he was -- it was more interesting to tell stories of his peccadilloes, especially among newsmen uninterested in such an arcane subject as financial news -- Walzer nevertheless was an accomplished newsman and writer. His coverage in 1944 of the first Bretton Woods Conference attested to this.

(At this conference the International Bank for Reconstruction and Development came into being and with it the international monetary system known as The Bretton Woods system, based on stable and adjustable exchange rates, in effect until 1971, when it was reluctantly replaced with a regime of floating exchange rates.)

Do a search on the Internet even today for Walzer Elmer C. and the name pops up among the authors of a 1939 volume on the economic aspects of war.

Still it was fun to talk about his idiosyncrasies, typical of his time in the news business - the drinking, the freeloading, the junketing.

Elmer had a prodigious capacity for alcohol -- not unique in an era of "hard-living" newsmen. He drank at lunch -- Scotch usually, occasionally martinis; you could tell which because the gin made him testy -- some might say mean -- while mellow might best describe the effect of Scotch.

After a brief nap at his desk, he would pop up, yell "soup," thus sending a copy boy (they were boys in those days) scurrying to the deli and he was all set for the closing stock market lead, his Bizday (the daily Business Today column) and an evening on the town. His recuperative powers were legendary, which could not be said for at least one aspiring assistant (toady) who tried to keep up with him. His intake, by his own assessment in later years, was a fifth a day, perhaps a bit of a boast but not far off the mark.

As mentioned, "freeloading" and "freebies" -- accepting the hospitality and gifts of public relations practitioners and the companies they represented -- was common, although it did not, as many thought, necessarily "buy" favor or coverage. And not all the PR guys were trying to buy anything -- they enjoyed most of the partying, too. For most newsmen, it was seen as one of the "perks" of an underpaid job. Lunches, the trips or "junkets," which, fun though they might be, usually were newsworthy, Christmas gifts (read it booze) were part of the early years, dwindling to the out-of-the ordinary by the '70s as business news began to come into its own.

This came about as the public began to realize, especially after the first oil embargo of 1973, that things economic had a very real meaning in their everyday lives. Around the same time, would-be newsmen (called journalists by the pretentious) were looking to business news as their specialty of choice, seeing opportunity in the growing interest, and eager to take on investigative reporting in the aftermath of the Woodward and Bernstein Watergate revelations that toppled President Nixon.

It was in those years, too, UPI business news coverage - once primarily the province of New York Financial - was broadened and staff recruited (officially and unofficially) in bureaus across the country - and even abroad. It wasn't always easy to entice a general reporter (there wasn't money to hire specialists in all the bureaus). It was accomplished in part by means of "Business Horizons," a weekly package of business and financial features - bylined, of course, always a lure for a writer - which gained immediate popularity with papers and readers.

The daily wire, too, no longer was just news for the business community or the investor, but also carried news for the ordinary reader -- so-called "personal finance" copy.

This demonstrated that in business and financial reporting, as with all news, people are the story -- not just dreaded numbers as many imagined. Once this bugaboo was laid to rest, New York staff output was augmented by increased bureau input and staffers were assigned to full-time business coverage in bureaus such as Chicago, Dallas, Los Angeles, Miami. There was an auto writer in Detroit. Financial had long had a man in Washington covering government agencies such as Treasury, the Commerce Department, the Securities & Exchange Commission and another man was transferred from New York.

As always is the case, people made the difference on the job, too. The newsmen and women worked as they did because they loved it. The camaraderie and competitiveness at UP and UPI were fact. In financial, as elsewhere in the company, people performed against great odds. No one really knows why, although one old-timer was known to wonder if the company hired masochists or created them. It surely was not paternalism, or even good top management, and certainly not money, which attracted. But Unipressers cared, often far beyond the call -- and in every corner of what was once a far-flung news operation.

That old timer is Dottie (Dorothea M.) Brooks, who signed on to NXF March 19, 1945 and left "with great sadness on Aug. 31, 1987, to accept an interesting job offer because, at my near-retirement age, but with no desire whatever to do so, I just didn't have the time to ride it out on the merry-go-round of ownership change."

Of her first week on the job, she remembers calling home a couple of times a day to inform that she "can't work in this crazy place." Crazy it often was, but never dull, Brooks said. "No Pollyanna, I won't say I loved it all, all the time. I often went home swearing never to return, but I never woke up in the morning that I wasn't eager to get back to it. To earn your living at something you enjoyed so much -- that's a blessing."

Men were off to war. Brooks said when she signed on there were in financial three women on the editorial staff, Shirley Abell, a reporter, and Sigrid De Lima and Nirvana Alichanian, clerks, along with several female stock tabulators. "I got the job because there was a war, no doubt about it," she said. "I took it because it was a foot in the door, a wedge to use to move on to something more exciting."

With a couple of years on her local paper, she was told she was coming on as a newsman at first year scale of $35, but would have to break in on the many clerical jobs so important to the operation in those days. Clerks took over-the-counter quotations by phone, gathered commodity quotes for William J. Plunkett, the commodity editor, and for the dozens of pages of "tabular" material. They called for routine information, filled out more forms - one was 19 legal length pages. Often they read selected stories to "pony" clients such as Tass News Agency. Several times a day they ran stock tables page by page from tabulators to teletype operators, slipping them deftly behind sheets on the copyholder, and removing the finished page at the nod of the operator who punched directly onto the wire - and woe to the runner who messed up and caused Eddie Bungue to lose rhythm.

In those days, stock lists moved on the same financial wire as the news copy -- taking precedence and taking up at least half the available time. Tabulators each worked 10 or 12 long sheets of stocks, reading the ticker tapes, changing last prices and highs and lows as necessary with each transaction, and figuring net changes for each when the call came for a sending.

Walzer, providentially, had cornered the market on No. 2 pencils, metal pencil tops and the replaceable erasers to go with them, all in short supply during the war years. (Some remain to this day, along with a metal-ball stylus once used for editing.) Tabulators went through at least a couple of erasers a day as they changed prices on their section of the lists.

These men, with S. Richard "Dick" Brown running the stock operation until he retired in 1976, were pros at what they did. They worked the lists by hand until volume climbed around the million-share daily mark (the closing lists that day did not move until late night) and computers took over, so that only a few were required to maintain the lists.

Pros too were the special operators who entered those figures with seldom a typo. Hard to comprehend in these days when volumes run to billions daily, Brooks remembers one 80,000-share Big Board session -- remembers it because she was writing the market in those days and an editor called to complain that the report was dull -- "where would you find the news in 80,000-share volume?"

Pros, too, in their way, were the all-important copy boys, performing lunch runs and other errands, but primarily "pasting" the lists and making books -- books, not book, although that went on too.

The stock lists as punched by the operators came out on narrow gummed tape -- the kind used for telegrams -- and copy boys cut and pasted the quotes onto printed sheets for checking.

The book-making kept the news operation running. "Books" were 13 sheets of thin yellow paper, called "flimsy," which were assembled from a pad by copy boys who inserted double-faced black carbon paper every second sheet so it printed on one and showed through to another, a dirty job and dirtier still when the barrel of used carbons caught fire from a carelessly discarded cigarette. Newsmen used these to write their stories so that there would be copies for all the wires that might use them -- the general desk for the A or B wire, perhaps local, many to the foreign desk - possibly one for Special Services or Ocean Press. Woe to the writer, perhaps unhappy with his lead, who tossed a partly used book. The copy boys had their ways of getting even.

Stock pasters and bookmakers par excellence in the early postwar days were Hank (Henry J.) Bechtold and Bob (Robert G.) Shortal. Both moved on through the ranks of the clerks and into reporting (Bechtold eventually succeeded Walzer as editor) and then into the ranks of Public Relations as so many newsmen did when the pressures of growing families dictated larger salaries than UP/I provided.

Shortal went first -- to Cities Service Corp. Bechtold, after less than a year as editor, signed on with RCA, where Shortal eventually joined him. Lifelong friends, the two still get a kick out of their big book-making caper. "Tip" (Theodore Werner) Kienlen who ran the operation under Walzer, ordered the two to produce "books up to my a--," as he headed out early one afternoon. Upon his return the next morning, he had to pick his way to his desk through dozens of copy boxes filled with books -- a few weeks' worth at least."

The jump from clerk to newsman, how did you make it? Brooks said she started by picking up rewrite copy assigned to Charlie McKillop, who was given to long lunches. These were routine stories to be written from a news release, or Dow Jones copy. She'd sign off with McKillop's initials, and leave them on his desk -- and then check later to see how the desk had edited them.

It was at the end of her first year that she had her first (and one of very few ever) run-ins with UP/I authority - women in those days tended instead to "maneuver." A Newspaper Guild notice of classification status arrived showing that, instead of first year newsman, she was listed as third-year clerk -- the pay was the same but . . .

Ready to quit, she remembers throwing caution to the wind and challenging Walzer in the newsroom. Always hating confrontation, he said it wasn't up to him; it was Mickel -- "L.B. "save-a-nickel" Mickel, superintendent of bureaus. Dottie says she steamed down the hall to Mickel's office only to have him assure her it was "all up to Elmer." Back down the hall to demand "newsman or clerk?" The answer led to the next 40 years, but she still did clerk's jobs off and on for what seemed like eternity.

The "women" were let go one day as the men returned from war -- all but Abell and Brooks. Abell left the company and New York to marry. Brooks was it on the distaff side until the mid-'60s -- except for the delightful Ann Corcoran, secretary to Walzer for a couple of years. Who knows how he finagled that expense!

What about moving on to something more exciting? Brooks said, accidental or not, she'd found her niche in financial, especially when she moved onto the desk and later when she had responsibility for product. "I cared about the news. I wanted us to be right, to have the best story and have it first, to beat the opposition. But what was really rewarding for me was the people and making it all come together. That's what I remember and value most."

With Bechtold's departure in July, 1960, Jesse C. Bogue, who had been manager of the Chicago bureau for 15 years, then Central Division news manager, and had moved to New York under bureau chief Fran Leary, was named to run the financial department and Brooks was named assistant financial editor.

When Bogue became assistant managing editor for UPI news services in August 1965, William D. Laffler, from the New York overnight staff, took over the job of financial editor, and in April 1968, Dean C. Miller, formerly head of the radio operation in Chicago, moved into that spot.

Following a Guild strike, Miller was relieved of the responsibility for stocks and Dick Brown, the man who had run it for so long and who had worked during the strike, moved into management as financial editor, with Miller given the title of business editor

While the move, if not its timing, rightly recognized Brown's expertise and long service, the change in titles caused more than a little confusion in the business community. At the time "financial editor" was the common editorial title and Brooks said she found herself explaining to many a public relations practitioner that, no, Miller was the man who made those decisions, and he really was the one to invite to lunch.

When Miller moved on in 1974 to Combustion Engineering Corp., Brooks became editor, albeit with the caveat from Editor-in-Chief H. L. Stevenson that the department might be disbanded.

Needless to say, it wasn't. Business news was growing in importance. Stevenson, although not personally interested in business news, did recognize this trend and was as supportive as circumstances allowed.

Unfortunately, according to Brooks, not much was allowed. For whatever reasons, Scripps saw no potential at a time when foresight might have allowed UPI to move to the forefront in a burgeoning field.

Without going into the complexities and upheavals of the post-Scripps ownerships and managements, Brooks said there was, with each, the initial rush of hope that finally this would be "it." "Each," she said, "recognized the potential of the business-financial product and there was a stimulation, a rush of optimism, soon dashed by the realties. Even so," she said, "there was a satisfaction in their interest. They asked questions, they listened. For the first time someone seemed to understand."

Of course, at least with the Ruhe-Geissler combo, they brought in "consultants" by the carload. Brooks said along about the third or fourth she'd had it. He deposited himself in a chair, yellow pad in hand, and demanded, "Now tell me all you know." The uncharacteristic answer: "You don't have that many pads," sent him scurrying never to return.

On the other hand, another consultant, one Bob Brown, was responsible for the largest raise she'd ever had and an additional title, director of financial product. That after she opened the conversation by asking what piece of the company he was after.

And it should be noted Ruhe brought in Luis Nogales. "Luis," Brooks said, "offered what I believed to be the best hope, not only for financial product but for the company as a whole. He was smart, realistic and he cared. Unfortunately, it was not to be."

Unfulfilled potential or not, the UPI business news report more than held its own with the competition over the years.

MORE (Click here for Part II)