'The Wire That Wouldn't Die'

Here's a May 16, 2000, story by Ken Layne from the Online Journalism Review:


The Wire That Wouldn't Die

It was a typically hazy weekend morning at United Press International's Washington headquarters -- hazy, because I was working the 6 a.m.-2 p.m. slot and hadn't gotten enough sleep to process all the wine in my system.

Weekends are slow at any wire, but at UPI last year, such mornings felt like being a security guard at an abandoned building. We had about 12 reporters around the world, and the bulk of my Saturday/Sunday shift involved switching the four teevees through the political talk shows, typing a few offensive quotes from the blowhards, editing the president's radio-address story, and running downstairs to H Street NW for coffee and a smoke every few hours. The 7th-floor newsroom -- the only physical UPI newsroom on Earth -- was empty save for me. (On weekdays, a handful of editors ran the whole wire.)

But on this particular Saturday, the early morning news programs were interrupted with bulletins saying John F. Kennedy Jr.'s small plane was missing. In times past, UPI would have first reported such news, as it did when Kennedy's father was shot in Dallas.

I pecked out an urgent bulletin and tried to reach the Boston and New York reporters, but it was early and nobody was answering (by late 1999, UPI had only "virtual bureaus" in a half-dozen U.S. cities, which meant the few reporters worked from home). Eventually I got the Coast Guard on the phone and independent verification of the search. That's how it went in the final days of the once-great United Press: type the news off the teevee and then get around to reporting.

But within an hour or two, the White House weekend reporter was awake and Helen Thomas, who was on call 24 hours, was on the phone, crying a little because she knew "John John" from the day he was born. She churned out an emotional first-person obituary and we finally had something original to send out. The other news organizations were interviewing Helen by lunchtime, and once again UPI made the news not because of what it could do in the present, but because of its glorious past.

Today, the pathetic shell of UPI announced Helen Thomas' resignation. The battered, anorexic agency has been purchased by the Moonies -- the same Unification Church-controlled outfit that runs the bizarre Washington Times. Arnaud de Borchgrave, the former Times' editor who took over the ruined wire service in late 1998, claimed Monday that Helen would stay. He was wrong.

"I do not intend to stay," she said in a statement quoted by UPI this morning. Helen Thomas, the much-admired "Dean of the White House press corps," will not be a shill for the Moonies' wacko cult. And despite De Borchgrave's claims that UPI won't be tainted by the Rev. Moon's ridiculous and frightening church, there is plenty of evidence to the contrary.

Not that the Moonies gain much by taking the old wire. Of the dozens of journalists I worked with last year, only three or four remain. Hell, a copy editor hired days before I quit in November was in charge of the whole global wire a few months later. UPI has no newspaper clients, no broadcast business (it was sold to AP last fall), a few small Web customers, no real estate, no photo archives, and as of today, no star reporter. All that remains from the powerhouse marriage of Hearst's International News Service and Scripps' United Press is the trademark, a useless Web site, press credentials of now-dubious value at the White House and Pentagon, 20 years of lingering death, and thousands of "unipressers" -- from Walter Cronkite to Thomas L. Friedman -- who watch in sorrow as the hell-raising wire is beaten and degraded time and again.

Other than the heartbreak of watching UPI repeatedly rolled into the morgue, this latest (and, I hope, final) death is a horrifying lesson on how to ruin a news operation in the New Era.

When I returned from Yugoslavia four years ago -- where, like legions of poor wandering free-lancers before me, I was a stringer for UPI and never got paid -- the news service seemed to have a chance online. Yahoo and Excite carried the wire, the Internet promised a cheap new delivery method, and the AP was still trying to figure out this new-fangled Web thing. James Adams, the loudmouth former editor of the Times of London, took over in late 1997 and promised to make the service profitable in six months. No such luck. He quit 15 months later, under a significant cloud, and the absentee Saudi owners (who bought the service out of bankruptcy for less than $4 million in 1992) grabbed De Borchgrave as CEO. Arnaud echoed Adams' "the Net will save us" routine, but just how that would happen never seemed to enter the guy's mind as he wandered from one conservative think-tank conference to the next. As the remaining assets were sold off and more reporters were shown the door, the amateurish operation issued one goofy directive after another. We wouldn't try to compete with AP or Reuters. The future became "electronic newsletters." We were a news agency for the 21st Century, whatever the hell that meant.

UPI vanished from Yahoo, Excite and the databases. If you wanted a clip of your work, a no-name Web site in New York was the only place to find the stuff online. Meanwhile, the shrinking pool of editors kept putting stuff on the wire that nobody read, whether re-written from teevee or filed by the remaining Washington reporters. Some of Arnaud's cronies arrived to type incomprehensible "analysis" of the news, which was another loony attempt to find a business model. There was glee in the newsroom on those rare days when Drudge would link to a Unipress story.

The Moonie Strategy doesn't sound any different than last year's sad End Game, based on the nonsensical statements Arnaud made today:

"I've wanted to take UPI out of the traditional, conventional news agency arena and create our own arena specializing in high-tech, over-the-horizon development, with links to all the key research centers in America."

Whatever, dude.

I know most reporters think they could run a news operation better than management, but in the case of UPI it's actually true. With the mid-1999 staff, a $20 Internet account and one sales rep -- and none of the waterhead managers who shuffled around the H Street headquarters without a single clue -- the wire could have kept and expanded its portal accounts, offered lowball prices to small publishers, and most importantly, offer an alternative to the Associated Press, which has become the Tass of America.

During the dot-com fervor of last year, a vaguely promising UPI, free of the Saudis and Arnaud, could have done an IPO and been flush with cash and talent. And a whole generation of otherwise-bland little content providers would have had the chance to work for a legendary news wire. It is often said that a month at UPI provided more education than years of silly journalism school.

No longer. The shabby remains of United Press are now in the hands of the Moonies, and nobody who claims to be a journalist will come anywhere near it.

R.I.P., UPI -- please, just die this time. And Helen, I hope you're on the phone with the big papers right now, because if that damned Dubya wins the White House, we need you there to give him hell.