Wall Street to Main Street - Part II

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


When she first came on board, Brooks said, much of the news was corporate announcements of dividends and earnings -- quarterly news conferences by the big steel companies, the oil companies, staples such as the Edison Electric weekly report and the Federal Reserve Report on, as one reporter invariably called it, "the nation's golden stockpile." And, of course, there was the stock market. All had to be moved in just the few hours of wire time not occupied by stock lists. There were a.m. and p.m. versions written for all stories.

Later, with a full-time wire for copy, coverage expanded. The market still was important, but not as important as one young -- and inexperienced -- reporter from one of the many media watchdog publications concluded in a story that headlined "Wire Service Business News Means Stock Market News." She drew that conclusion from the nine daily market leads. She did not understand that a wire served morning and afternoon papers in all time zones and abroad - and radio and audio clients as well - and that all expected up-to-the minute coverage.

Through the years there were experienced reporters, and beginners who learned on the job. Brooks recalls "almost all, with a missing name here or there -- but I know you can't mention them all and I'm sure I'll leave out some who well deserve mention."

In her early years there were, along with Tip Kienlen and Bill Plunkett, Bechtold and Shortal, men like Al Connors, later with Republic Steel Corp., and Ken Hayes. Then came "Vartanig G. "Tonny" Vartan whose byline became a familiar one in the New York Times for many years, Peter Earle, George Harlan, Roland Pease, Tony Scalza, Lew Webel, all of whom had subsequent careers in public relations.

The legendary LeRoy Pope transferred in from newsside during Jesse Bogue's tenure, and stayed -- a star always -- until his forced retirement when the company changed hands. The word came down that people had to go, LeRoy among them. Brooks said, "I protested but was told anyone 70 years old had to go. I said that meant Le Roy was OK -- he was 80! The dour messenger who had brought the news was not amused."

Roz Liston transferred in when Ocean Press News Service was shifted from Special Services to the International Desk during Dean Miller's run in financial. "Actually it was a political thing," Brooks said, "with a job she was entitled to going to a male staffer with pull in high places. She protested. They figured she wouldn't make it in financial. How wrong they were! Liston was -- is -- above all a newsman; she thrives on the news, the reporting, the writing."

She followed Brooks as editor and hung on through the Brian era in what had to be the most difficult -- yet still exciting -- circumstances as still another set of owners spelled out another grand new plan, and actually began to implement it. She took a buyout in 1993 and became editor of New York City's Times-Ledger Newspaper chain, which under her leadership has won more than 100 awards for journalistic excellence through 2003.

Early in her tenure as editor Brooks decided, small staff or not, a couple of "beat" reporters were called for -- up until then all had been generalists except for the market and commodity writers. Energy was big -- and so was the banking beat with Third World financing getting the headlines regularly. Liston was assigned to energy, Mary Tobin to banking and both became acknowledged as among the best in their fields. In typical UPI style, both still pitched in on day-to-day routine when needed.

Tobin, an Ohio newspaper reporter-turned-UPI teletype operator "because the money was better and the hours gave me time for my daughter," made the switch back to news as Brooks' first hire -- a good one. In the post-Scripps upheaval she took her expertise to Market News and International Financing Review before turning freelance. Sadly, Mary died in May of 2001.

Her daughter, Jamie, also was a Unipresser from the time she was a youngster visiting on the weekends, to summer temping and a couple of post-college years spent in NXF.

International banking was an esoteric subject until early 1982, when Mexico declared a moratorium on what was then $90 billion in foreign debt. Lenders became wary of the region and Mexico's problems quickly spread to virtually all of Latin America and parts of countries in Europe and Asia sending what was then called less-developed country (LDC) debt to more than a trillion dollars and to the front page of publications. "An exciting time for a reporter but a potential disaster for the global financial system," Tobin said in an interview not long before her death.

Then Federal Reserve Chairman Paul Volcker played a large role in calming markets but the issue wasn't resolved until 1987 when U.S. Treasury Secretary Nicholas Brady came up with a program under which banks would forgive part of the debt, which became "emerging market" debt and began trading on the open market." At the same time, Tobin, as with all staff members, handled other news, primarily domestic bonds and foreign exchange. "Life never was boring," she said. But emerging markets was the "hot" news that led to offers from other publications. Others paid better but none was as satisfying as UPI."

Liston handled not only domestic energy coverage, but headed a team of UPI reporters which traveled to places such as Brioni, Yugoslavia, Tito's; former island estate; Helsinki, Finland; Quito, Ecuador; Vienna, Austria and Geneva, Switzerland, covering OPEC meetings at which the oil ministers set the prices that reverberated worldwide.

The geopolitics of oil was a front-page story throughout the '70s. In the second OPEC oil price shock in late 1979, triggered by Iranian oil disruption, world prices nearly tripled to a high of $41 a barrel, causing a ripple effect on the economies of the world, and resulting in gas lines at home and abroad -- as long as seven miles as one UPI reporter discovered by driving the distance.

Another most fortunate hire was Jim White, referred by upstate Unipresser Gene Blabey. White, a consummate reporter, covered any business assignment, and produced a major feature series on the handicapped in the workplace before the topic received attention in Washington. He eventually went on to The Wall Street Journal, where he is having a long and varied career that began with coverage of the AT&T breakup, took him to Belgium as deputy managing editor, to CNBC shepherding the WSJ content in that joint venture, and to several beats. Brooks said he and Liston managed somehow -- with hours of their own time "donated" -- and with a lawyer friend vetting it, to do the definitive story on the famed Graiver case.

For more than a year White and Liston tried to track down David Graiver, a young Argentine confidence man who ran a global banking network that stretched into New York City and who vanished in a mysterious plane crash into a Mexican mountainside in August 1976. Graiver's disappearance triggered the collapse of his banking empire on four continents, cost depositors hundreds of millions of dollars that were never found and led to charges he had set up the network to launder money for Argentina's Montenero guerrillas.

With the help of UPI bureaus in South America, Europe, Israel and Asia, the pair linked Graiver to many powerful political and financial players on the world scene and determined that his influence reached into the Nixon White House. Along the way there were late night meetings in coffee shops with elusive sources and other odd encounters, but Graiver remained missing and the money trail was never found.

"Sometimes the reporting on Graiver's far-flung activities was more fascinating than the story itself, " said Liston." We were the only reporters to maintain that Graiver was still alive after the plane crash, based on information we had learned, but even after all these years I'd like to think he may be hiding out somewhere exotic with those millions."

Deskers - editors who make assignments, handle copy and run the wire, are key to a professional operation. Good ones aren't easy to come by. Brooks said she was lucky to get, among many good ones over the years, one of the best -- Don Mullen, long a general desk mainstay - but only because he could not accept the headquarters move to Washington. "Financial was not his love, I knew, but he was a pro and -- he may not appreciate this -- I put up a battle to keep him when a certain new department head with connections sought to steal him. Along with his editing expertise, we got some great writing too; his touch on the roundup, the feature and on the light-and-bright is unmatched."

Mullen wasn't the only transfer from general news. Frank "Rip" Slusser made the move; took to the stock market and went on to a career in the financial community with Standard & Poor's. John Williams was another -- and he, too, stayed in the field, becoming executive vice president at PR Newswire, which provides communications services worldwide for public relations and investor relations professionals. Jack Brannan moved in -- and out to PR at the New York Stock Exchange. Duke Coffey, from Local, and John Sims, from International, contributed importantly and then moved on to Public Relations firms. The department got a bit of a rep as a springboard to PR.

Gail Collins, a long-time UPI staffer, did a stint in financial, then moved on to The Daily News, Newsday and now The New York Times where she was a bylined Op-Ed page columnist and in 2001 was named editorial page editor. Sarah Mahoney (she was Stiansen then) went on to become editor of Ladies Home Journal magazine.

Other names of note in the NXF of the '70s and 80s include Gary Klott, who, while writing about business and the economy, did an outstanding year-end package of tax advice for consumers. It was widely played and resulted in a job move for Klott. Nervous when the company, under the first of the new owners, began talking layoffs based on seniority, the same dour messenger eager to spread the gloom, Klott accepted an offer from The New York Times to become their tax columnist. Author of several books, after leaving the Times Klott was considered the nation's leading syndicated tax columnist and had an award-winning Internet site before his untimely death in 2002.

Brooks says she takes particular pride in some of NXF's "youngsters."

There was Jan Zverina, son of Unipresser Ivan Zverina, who worked one summer as a fill-in clerk. "I can see him now walking in tying his long hair in a pony tail," Brooks said. He kept coming back, made it to newsman. An auto buff, he became UPI's auto writer in Detroit and eventually went on to Bloomberg News and then a senior spot in DaimlerChrysler communications.

Roz Liston picks up with the Earl Brian years:

"Earl planned to revive the flagging wire service by offering financial news targeted at specific newspaper, broadcast and corporate markets. It seemed that at last business news would get the recognition it deserved from the powers at UPI."

Brian, a neurosurgeon who had founded Financial News Network, threw most of his enormous but undisciplined energy into a service he called Regional Business News for newspapers, broadcasters and non-media clients. It was up to Liston to translate his vision into a product that could be sold as nine separate wires offering financial news tailored to distinct geographic sections of the country.

Her first move was to hire three veteran editors in New York: Ivan Zverina from the International Desk, David Dugas, who had been handling obituaries and updating the editorial archives and Lillian O'Connell whose varied background included years as editor of Ocean Press, and later the Life Style package, the International wire, editor of Foreign Features and work on the Cables Desk. Zverina and O'Connell took over the Financial Wire and Dugas set up the editing for RBN as business stories began pouring in from around the country and overseas. Business news under Brian was suddenly in.

Bob Webster, who transferred from Los Angeles to New York, was named RBN editor and eventually moved to Washington as an economics reporter. Roberto Dias, a sports staffer in Ohio, joined the Business Desk as the editing staff swelled to 10 strong. Jeff Reynolds and Isabelle Clary eventually took over the financial wire editing duties in Washington.

Familiar UPI bylines were recruited for business beat reporter slots from domestic bureaus and foreign postings: Isabelle Clary, Ellen Wulfhorst, Brendan Murphy, Bud Andrews. Longtime Unipresser Frank Sakdalan wrote 10 stock market leads a day.

"It was a heady time in the early days of RBN," Liston said. "UPI was turning out some of the best business stories in the industry and Ruth Youngblood went so far as to win UPI an honorable mention for economic reporting from the Overseas Press Club."

The Financial Wire flourished, but Regional Business News did not turn out to be UPI's savior. Although some newspapers and non-media clients signed up for the service, it needed far more original reporting from each geographic area to succeed. "On the other hand," Liston said, "RBN was a solid enough concept that Michael Bloomberg modeled his early financial service on the UPI regional product and hired away a number of the RBN reporters for Bloomberg News.

"In fact, Bloomberg has been able to pull off much of what Earl Brian had planned for UPI by integrating wire service news, television coverage, non-media information, market quotations, and radio broadcasts into an around-the-clock source of financial information."

The RBN staff was among the last at UPI to be hit by layoffs as Brian's legal troubles mounted, ending in his eventual jailing, and the service had to be abandoned.

Last, but not least, cliché though that is, two very important people through it all: Frank Schnaue and Hector Noa. Copy boys both -- they began at the tender age of 17 -- the two are still with the company, carrying on the old tradition against all odds.

Schnaue, coming from a family of newsies, did everything in the book along the way. Liston considered him the backbone of her news operation. He became financial editor upon her departure and is still going strong producing business copy.

Noa learned his jobs, copy boy, clerk, did them well, and then started helping with the computerized stock operation. Brooks, who was responsible for the stock service after Brown's retirement, named him manager and, under Liston, he used that expertise to help create special stock tables and other tabular items for RBN - and that brings us back to the stock market.

With the move of UPI computers to Dallas after the 1977 blackout in New York City, there were months of absolute chaos, brought about by the refusal of experienced stock programmers to make the move without the promise of return to New York and severance if they did not like it after the lists were up and running, the refusal of management to consider the possible consequences, the hiring of outsiders who understood nothing of the complexity or urgency attached to the product.

No need for detail, but many were the all-night sessions when Noa and Brooks -- and Noa's wife, with their baby sleeping in a car bed on a desk -- waited for early editions of the paper to enter closing prices into the computer by hand so that previous prices would be in place for the opening. John Collins, the only experienced programmer to make the move and an unheralded hero if there ever was one, struggled to fix whatever the technical problem at the Dallas end. The new crew always "would take care of it in the morning."

Asked often by staff and husband, "Why not just let it go?" Brooks said the answer always was "We just can't." Hector Noa at this writing still plies his specialty as tabular guru and sometime market writer for UPI in his "virtual office" at their home in Florida.

Stock tables -- many eyes glaze over, but they were a big part of UP/I history, and UP/I was a groundbreaker in the field, if not always a willing one. Over the years, there were efforts to dispense with the service -- not entirely an idea without merit. The production was costly.

There were many well-known UPI names associated with stocks at one time or another: Dick Brown, of course, for 40 years or more, his right hand in the days of hand tabulating, "Smitty," the hard-working Arthur B. Schmidt. In sales, Brooks remembers Pete Willett, also largely responsible for setting up the computerized Unistox system, and then in 1972 Bob, (C. Robert) Woodsum was named Director of Stock Market Services, in charge of selling the various financial products. In later years Vince Crosbie was closely involved in marketing the financial product -- he was National Sales Director/Financial -- and endeavoring to develop the financial product for non-media.

Working closely with Willett and Woodsum was Curly (Reynold) Di Cuia. Chief teletype operator in New York, Curly later became chief of the Unistox operation, but more -- something few people knew or cared about -- he was an expert on the intricacies of typesetting. When ANPA decided to get into the newspaper coding business Curly, as one Unipresser involved in the issue put it, "carried a huge load." Hyphenation, justification, start of message, end of message, how to end a paragraph, Curly had the answers. Curly, accustomed to working amid news tickers, spoke in a loud, clear voice, one that could be heard on a bad telephone circuit or across the room, a voice that suggested his geographic origins pretty well. He was virtually unknown to UPI news people. But Curly was comfortable in boardrooms such as those of the American Newspaper Publishers Association. When Travis Hughs needed a hand with a startup newspaper in Virginia, Gannett's USA Today, it was Curly he called to help out on sorting out the handling of UPI and AP copy by computers. Curly's work played a part in a number of computer innovations, including the Internet.

UPI was the first to computerize with its "Unistox" system. The Harris computer terminal used for maintaining the computerized lists was the forerunner of those which came not too long after when UPI again was first -- computerizing the editing system.

Brooks recalled spending an hour or so at the stock computer after the tabulators (those few who maintained the lists were still called by that title) left for the day. "Knowing the editorial tubes were coming, I would just practice typing and, believe, it was frustrating. The keyboards were extremely sensitive -- you could fill a line with one letter if your touch was too heavy. And it was too heavy after years of pounding a manual Remington or Underwood."

When the editorial tubes did come in, Brooks said, it made for easier, tighter editing, more rewriting, but it also made for sloppier writing. And for a long time as the new system was debugged, it made for swear-producing frustration. No sooner a story would be written, or edited, than the cry of "crash" would go up. It took a while, but the changes it wrought were monumental.

Brooks recalled Ed Craig, a local desker, and a fine one, transplanted to work the financial wire, found the transition to computer really difficult. "I'd hear, 'Dottie, come here, look, it made a mistake.' I'd hate to have to say, 'but Ed, you did thus or so.' I always hoped somehow it would be the computer's mistake."

The new stock system came about because of a competitor -- the Associated Press.

In 1960 Frank Bartholomew, president of UPI, said he had broached an idea to the AP. To save money the news agencies could create a subsidiary to handle the stock lists and other tabular material that was the same in both services. There was no real competition on the content of this material and the cost duplication was paid by the newspaper clients of both services. Bartholomew said the cost of duplicated stock wires went into the pocket of the telephone companies. A jointly owned subsidiary corporation could handle non-competitive material and the saving would be passed back to publishers.

AP was not receptive to the idea, Bart said in an interview published in Editor and Publisher. At that time both news services were seeking technical solutions to the problem of moving huge stock lists to their newspaper clients quickly every day. United Press foresaw an expenditure of $2 million to inaugurate a computerized system.

The objective was a high-speed stock transmission system that would be appropriate to the needs of the wire service and its newspaper subscribers, one that would not become obsolete before it was paid for.

The system finally agreed on by UPI was developed by Scantlin Electronics, Inc., of Los Angeles. Twelve wires could simultaneously spit out sections of the list in 12 tape streams at a speed which matched the performance of 12 Linotypes. Transmission of the entire New York Stock Exchange list would take 12 minutes. UP thought this 12-channel system was better than a faster one-tape system which would leave the tape piled up at the newspaper office until it could be cut and fed to the Linotypes.

Technical improvements continued to come at a rapid clip. A printer was developed which could pelt out 3,400 words, or 1,100 lines a minute. The entire New York Exchange closing price list could be moved in 90 seconds.

In 1970, when UPI had 200 clients for the high-speed Unistox service, the company switched its computer stock operations from Scantlin Inc., to its own new computers in New York, and later to Dallas.

The computerized stock system, although UPI had sought a way out, nevertheless was a big success.

But a lot of the excitement and fun was gone.

No longer did Chester Seeman trumpet "American close," followed by Mike Caifa's "Lock it up," at which you could feel the electricity in the room as humans strained to get the lists out to waiting newspapers.


Click here to return to Part I.