'UPI in Latin America'

Here's a story by George Garneau from the Nov. 26, 1988 edition of Editor & Publisher:


When United Press International executives toured their new Mexico City bureau in August, the communication system crashed, disabling half the new headquarters of its Spanish language service.

The incident, shutting down news transmission for hours, underscored some hazards of operating a news service in foreign nations, where even electricity cannot be taken for granted.

Obtaining an adequate power supply was only part of the challenge in moving the UPI's Latin American desk from corporate headquarters in Washington, D.C., to command centers in Mexico City and Caracas, Venezuela.

Considered for at least 10 years, the move was designed to cut costs and to put editors closer to sources, clients and news of the region.

But moving the Latin American desk has drawn criticism and warnings from staff and former editors who say local staff working in the region for less pay will be more subject to corrupting political and financial pressures than veteran, U.S. based Hispanic editors.

"They want to get rid of us and hire cheap labor," said one staffer. "When you hire at low salaries, people will do about what journalists do there: they work for the government, for political parties, for private enterprise."

Luis Nogales, a former UPI chairman and executive officer, opposed moving the Latin American desk for fear it would "jeopardize the objectivity of the report, because no country in the world has quite the freedom of press of the United States," he said.

"Local people at times are subject to local pressures," Nogales stated.

Though he knew of no attempts to influence news directly, he said reporters had been threatened, their residences ransacked -- but influences are subtle, as well as overt.

"When you know a political leader is in detention and being tortured in Argentina or Chile and you report it through UPI, you have saved his life. UPI has saved lives in Latin America," one staffer said. "I don't know if this will continue."

Pieter VanBennekom, UPI international vice president, said the move was designed to improve service and that cost savings were not a primary motivation.

Placing editors in the countries they cover will eliminate symptoms of "Potomac fever" from the report, he remarked.

The premise that locally hired editors are inferior is "a very dangerous argument that borders on racism," he said, dismissing assertions that wire service journalists in the area were exposed to extra pressure.

"The UPI system doesn't allow for playing with the news. UPI has one set of standards for a journalist's integrity and we are going to follow them," VanBennekom said, questioning the "self-serving rhetoric" of critics.

The Latin American desk -- also known as Latam or Chester desk (from UPI lore referring to either a radio transmitter in Chester, Pa., or a long forgotten telex operator by that name) is the heart of UPI's Spanish-language wire, which for much of this century has been the pre-eminent international news service in Central and South America.

Beginning when UPI founding editor Roy Howard sign La Nacion as a subscriber in Buenos Aires in 1916, Latin America has been one of UPI's most successful and lucrative markets. Despite financial woes and management instability in recent years, clients remain fiercely loyal as a result of long personal relationships with UPI, news service veterans say.

Latam editors determine what news will be available to millions of people in Central and South America. They edit Spanish copy from the region, translate English copy from around the world and report news of regional interest.

Established in Buenos Aires in 1919, the Latam desk moved to New York in 1940 after it was shut down by the government.

Returning to the region, UPI is not alone in operating its Spanish-language wire from Latin America. While Reuters' Spanish-language wire is based in Buenos Aires, the Agence France-Press Spanish-language runs from its Paris headquarters, Associated Press from New York and the Spanish national service, EFE, from Madrid.

AP considered but declined to move Spanish-language operations southward in 1983 because it anticipated problems hiring qualified personnel and providing communications from countries where unstable labor, political and technical situations can cripple business, according to Larry Heinzerling, AP deputy of world services.

"We thought there were too many risks and not enough advantage," he observed.

Present and former UPI managers and Latam staffers expressed differing views of the move. Few, even some who approve, would speak on the record.

Of about 12 Washington-based Hispanic editors (down from about 20 two years ago), two or three will remain in Washington by December, one will move to Miami and one to London. Latam editor Herman Beals remains in Washington. In September, UPI quietly began shifting control of the Spanish language wire to Mexico City for the morning news cycle and Caracas for the afternoon cycle and sports.

"It's something that has to be judged by results," said one Latam editor. "There's no overriding reason why it won't work," he said, noting Reuters' example.

Other veteran Latam editors were offered pay cuts of 50 percent to 75 percent to return to the region -- or layoffs.

Several said the move had already hurt the news report because staff hired locally had less training and were poorly paid.

Mexico City staffers earned a fraction of Washington salaries and as little as half the pay of competing news services, according to UPI sources.

In recent months, the UPI bureau has become a "farm team" for other news agencies, according to a memo from Mexico City bureau chief Frederick Kiel to VanBennekom. He warned in August about continued "rapid turnover" and "resentful" UPI staffers unless pay was raised.

Salaries in Mexico were "adjusted dramatically" to stabilize staff, VanBennekom told E&P.

Concerns run beyond low pay -- a hallmark of UPI since its inception in 1907 -- to issues with potential to color the news.

"The biggest danger is if you've got inexperienced editors and translators who are not familiar with major stories and nuances. It could result in problems with accuracy and balance, which are as important or more so in that part of the world as elsewhere," said a former top UPI news executive.

Latam staffers say stringers, who often work jobs at local papers or in other occupations, know they can pay a price for reporting that offends local powers. That problem compounds when their editors are subject to the same local forces -- instead of being removed in Washington.

"We know this happens all the time," one staffer said. "When you have a central desk with editors paid by UPI, we can check and ask questions. Now, a good part of what we do will be done in those countries by editors with low salaries. That is why I see a threat to the UPI service."

VanBennekom said journalists who have been killed in the region -- a plaque in the National Press Club lists over 100 journalists killed "in pursuit of truth" in Central and Latin America -- were involved in "local beefs" that did not involve international wire service reporting.

"I don't accept the argument that you have reporters in Latin America who are exposed to extra pressure," he said, excepting areas of conflict such as Nicaragua and El Salvador.

Mexico is notorious for widespread bribery of journalists, who are among its worst-paid professionals. Especially in Mexico City, political reporters routinely take payoffs -- known as embutes, literally: stuffings -- from the government.

The news media generally serve as "the propaganda wing of the government and ruling party," reporter Peter Copeland wrote in a Scripps Howard news story.

"I think we are going to have a better flow of information," Homero Hinojosa, associate managing editor of the highly regarded El Norte of Monterrey, Mexico, said in welcoming the UPI move.

He expected it would improve speed, accuracy and vocabulary -- and remove the "American filter" from the UPI report.

But Hinojosa said UPI would have to pay professional salaries and avoid alliances with special interests.

"The big challenge for UPI in Mexico City is to remain independent, to remain accurate, to remain professional in a city where there is a very political environment and where reporters are exposed to bribes from the government," he said.

"Just because wages are lower in those countries does not mean the talent is less," said Gary Neeleman, a Los Angeles Times Syndicate marketing executive and 27-year UPI veteran in jobs from international vice president to Brazil correspondent.

"I know journalists in those countries who can write rings around most U.S. journalists . . . I want to debunk the 'fact' that just because somebody is a local hire he's inferior."

Neeleman said the move does not necessarily mean diminished quality and it is too early to gauge its impact.

Some Latin American editors, because of regional differences, preferred the credibility of a U.S.-based news service, several executives said.

Neeleman noted "some suspicion of the Mexican brand of journalism" in telling of a Mexican publisher who at an Inter American Press Association meeting, attacked UPI's purchase by Marion Vazquez Rana, a Mexican publisher with close ties to the government -- only to have a Brazilian publisher just as vehemently defend UPI.

El Tiempo, a Bogota paper that had canceled UPI when Vazquez took over, subscribed again after Vazquez backed out of the business, executive said.

Alberto Schazin, vice president for South America and a 30 year UPI veteran, applauded the move of operations to Latin America, which he has supported for years. He said Latam editors will be "more in contact with Latin American reality and Latin American newspapers" and less "under the influence of the U.S. media."

Only communications obstacles prevented the move earlier, Schazin said, adding, that concerns about hiring qualified staff made no sense in view of the fact current editors themselves came from the region.

"The main problem," VanBennekom said, "is the supply of electricity, which sometimes goes out."

He said UPI was seeking equipment to insure uninterrupted electrical power in Mexico City.

"I thought it was a good idea then and a good idea now," said John Virtue, a Miami News copy editor who managed part of UPI's Latin American division and planned a similar move in 1977. He discounted financial or political pressures as threatening the report, but said strikes in Mexico City can result in businesses being padlocked.

Latam staffers who were offered transfers and pay cuts questioned why reporters for the English-language service retained full pay when they transferred to the region.

"I don't now if they did it because we are Latinos or if they wanted to make proposals we were not going to accept," said one.

VanBennekom denied trying to get rid of current editors, saying they were offered jobs with compensation in which they would "come out very nice."

"If they chose not to take it, it's their business," said the former Mexican resident.

Editors who are subjected to local pressures might be worse overall than editors who are isolated in Washington, suggested former UPI president Nogales. He advocated rotating Latam editors between Washington and the region.