'UPI's New Management Meets News Execs'

Here's a story by George Garneau from the March 19, 1988 edition of Editor & Publisher:


United Press International will remain a 24-hour-a-day, seven-day-a-week news service, its new management told newspaper and broadcast executives in a closed-door session.

In what was described as a positive encounter with about 20 news executives, UPI managers said the money-losing, privately-owned news agency would no longer compete head-to-head with the cooperative Associated Press in all areas.

Beyond saying UPI would provide "unique services supplementals cannot," no blueprint was laid out for reversing UPI's decline, except to say it would not become a cyclical, supplemental service, according to executives who attended.

UPI executives expressed awareness of the need to change UPI and that "something has to fall by the wayside," and they had to "very quickly discern where focus was going to be," one source said.

Indeed, determining what, exactly, UPI would become was part of the meeting's purpose.

The five-hour tete-a-tete on March 10 at the Park Hyatt Hotel in Washington, D.C., introduced WNW executives and UPI managers to current and former UPI clients. News executives were sounded out on what the news business wants from UPI.

Managers from WNW Group Inc., who said in February they bought management rights to UPI from majority stockholder and former chief executive Mario Vazquez Rana, were rushing to form a business plan, expected within a month, to present to prospective investors. WNW, for World Newswire, is headed by Dr. Earl Brian, a medical doctor and professional investor, as chairman, and Paul Steinle, a broadcast executive, as president.

UPI's new leaders, the latest in several years of continual management shuffling, were widely praised for their candor, in part because they released to news executives a memo to employees that documented UPI's mounting losses since 1985.

The meeting was described as a frank and courteous exchange in which the news service listened with the realization that it could no longer continue past practices. It lacked the hostility that characterized some sessions with former UPI managers.

"This group seemed open to listening and came to the conclusion that a different marketing concept was necessary for UPI," said Bob Brandt, a managing editor at Newsday.

"I was heartened by the fact that they were asking the industry what they should do before doing it first . . . I think it's a stronger, more understanding group than the one before," Brandt said, calling the meeting partly a "credibility-building process."

Paul Davis, news director for WGN-TV in Chicago and chairman of UPI's broadcast advisory board was "fairly positive" about the meeting, maintaining "concern" about management plans.

"I feel I've been down this road before," he said, noting that WNW executives appeared more informed about UPI than previous management. He said they had access to venture capital and were experienced in saving businesses but he was "cautiously optimistic."

"I don't think anybody is a cockeyed optimist. They're all anxious, concerned," Davis observed.

Charles Glover, chief editor of Cox newspapers, described UPI management as open and candid.

"They seemed to have a great deal of confidence in their ability to turn the situation around," Glover said. "I admired their forthrightness and their candor . . . They seem to have a good track record. We mostly listened but came away with a positive feeling about the new owners."

The gathering convinced one executive there was "an enormous reservoir of good will still out there for UPI."

Another in attendance said he was encouraged by the candor of UPI's disclosures and its record of turnarounds.

Some who attended declined to talk about the meeting. Fred Smith, president of Donrey Media Group, refused to comment, saying, "You call UPI, it was their meeting."

Harvey Nagler of WCBS Radio in New York said, "I'm not sure if I'm at liberty to talk about it," and indicated he would call back, but did not.

Steinle told E&P that clients were queried about marketing, and that their responses would contribute to UPI's turnaround plan.

Beyond that, he said of the meeting, "essentially it was confidential," part of the research process seeking frank discussion away from public scrutiny.

Meetings also were being set up with groups of editors and publishers, employees were being consulted, and market research was under way.

"They are extremely confident they can make something work," stated Newsday's Brandt. "They have a track record for turning companies around. I'm not sure they have a track record for turning global wire services around."

Editors said it is up to UPI to answer questions about what kind of products it will produce: Will they be credible, will they be accepted, and will they attract revenue to support the service?

"I'm more hopeful than I've been in the last couple of years," said Tom Winship, former Boston Globe editor and member of UPI's editorial review board who did not attend. "I just hope they do succeed because I feel uncomfortable when any voice is snuffed out in the information business."