UPI on Auction Block - 1992

Here's a story by Janet Cawley from the May 8, 1992 Chicago Tribune:

WASHINGTON -- It was held together with the journalistic equivalent of Scotch tape and baling wire, offered rock-bottom wages for round-the-clock work, was persistently understaffed, constantly chaotic, proudly perverse and -- for most who worked there -- probably the most fun they ever had.

When United Press International, nee United Press, is auctioned Tuesday, it may well spell the end of the wire service as it was known, though agency executives are optimistic that it will continue in some form.

Without a new buyer, the company -- already drastically shrunken to about 500 people from about 1,850 eight years ago -- has said it cannot continue to operate after May 15.

But if the proud days of the past, when UPI was a worthy head-to-head competitor of The Associated Press, are gone, the legendary characters and stories and esprit remain as vivid as the heartstopping sound of 10 Teletype bells announcing an earthshaking flash. The memories tumble out of ex-Unipressers almost as rapidly as the copy used to spew out its old Teletype machines.

For openers, there's the exchange of messages that is the essence of UPI and its philosophy. A staff member, whose identity has been lost in the frequent retelling, was working alone when a natural disaster of immense proportions occurred. As usual with UPI, he was the only one there to work the phones, to write and transmit stories and to provide radio spots. When restive editors in New York sent him a message asking where the latest story was and telling him to hurry up, he sent back, "Give me a break. I only have two hands.

To which an editor immediately sent a return message: "Fire the crippled bastard."

That was UPI. Being outstaffed about 6-1 by AP was par for the course, and Unipressers were simply expected to outperform their competitors -- in less time and with less money too.

It's a tradition that went way back. Bob Musel, whose career at UPI spanned more than 50 years in the United States and overseas, recalls that when covering the Lindbergh baby kidnapping trial, he discovered one of his competitors was Damon Runyon. When Musel's editors in New York complained that newspapers seemed to be using competing Heart stories from the trial rather than UPI's, Musel explained that the fabled Runyon was writing the Heart stories. "So what?" the editor snapped back. "Outwrite him."

In its 85 years, UPI has counted on its payroll such famous names as Walter Cronkite, David Brinkley, Eric Sevareid, Harrison Salisbury and William Shirer. Some well-known bylines, such as Helen Thomas and Leon Daniel, are still there.

The agency, which had bureaus around the world, was founded by E.W. Scripps in 1907, as United Press and became UPI in 1958, when it merged with William Randolph Heart's International News Service, also won nine Pulitzer Prizes for writing and photography.

But it is the sense of family and fun -- words evoked again and again by ex-Unipressers -- that is remembered.

"There was an esprit de corps," Musel said, "probably because we were all genteelly starving, and I've never known anything like it."

R.C. Longworth, who worked both overseas and in the States for UPI and is now a senior writer at the Chicago Tribune, said: "We never talked about when we were hired by UPI but when we 'joined' it, as though it was a club. No one ever 'worked for' UPI, instead we 'belonged' to it and, years after they quit, when ex-Unipressers talk about 'we' and 'us,' they mean the old outfit, not their current employer. Army vets talk the same way and probably for the same reasons."

Because UPI bureaus were so woefully understaffed, everyone got to do everything -- whether they wanted to or not. Even before it became more commonplace, men covered fashion shows and women covered sports. Reporters knew how to take the machines apart and repair them with only a screwdriver and a flashlight.

UPI had its own language -- bureau names were always referred to in shorthand by two letters -- some understandable, such as NX for New York, others less so, such as HC for Los Angeles and HX for Chicago. The familiar signoff between staff members was "73s," which translated as cheers, or best wishes, and remains in frequent use today in correspondence among ex-Unipressers.

One of the beauties about working for UPI was that having absolutely no familiarity with the subject of a story was never a drawback.

Mike Hughes, who spent 30 years at UPI and was editor in chief and executive vice president when he left in 1986, still laughs when he recalls a trip he made to the Midwest while serving as sports editor in New York. En route from a vacation in Kansas to give a speech in Michigan, he arrived in Omaha at 7 a.m. and decided to kill time at the UPI bureau there before his 2 p.m. flight to Chicago. As he waited in the door, the sole staff member said, "The bureau chief just died of a heart attack this morning and I have to go to the dentist, so you take care of the bureau." As he ran out the door he shouted back one more thing, "And don't forget the hogs at 11 a.m."

Hughes, who hadn't a clue to what the mean meant ("I was the sports editor and hadn't been to this part of the world."), called the Chicago bureau, where he found out that "doing the hogs" meant reporting the 11 a.m. hog prices. He took care of that and the wheat prices as well, and generally had the bureau humming by the time the staff member returned and observed, "You're a pretty good Unipresser."

For Unipressers, there was a real sense of exhilaration when it came to beating archrival AP, often through a mixture of cunning, talent, tenacity and sheer hard work.

By now, the story of how UPI White House correspondent Merriman Smith scored the beat on John Kennedy's assassination has passed into legend. Smith and his AP counterpart, Jack Bell, shared one car -- and one phone -- in the presidential motorcade. When shots rang out, Smith dove for the phone and began dictating bulletins to his office while Bell fought for the receiver. Dodging roundhouse swings, Smith kept talking into the phone, at one point even asking the office to read back his story in order to stall and keep Bell from reaching AP. Smith managed to hold out and hold on, scoring a stunning triumph over AP and eventually earning a Pulitzer Prize for his coverage of one of the century's most competitive stories.

Staff members took pride in outwitting AP, censors, government officials and anything or anyone else standing in their way.

Mike Keats, a 34-year UPI veteran who was senior vice president for international relations when he was fired last year, recalls arriving in Afghanistan in 1980, just after the Soviets invaded and American correspondents were being kicked out. Keats, traveling on an Australian passport, told military officials that the letters of his company stood for United Paint Industry and was allowed to remain, making UPI the only U.S. news organization represented at the early stages of the fighting.

Sometimes simplicity won the day. In 1976, when television networks were entering the computer age and had dozens of highly paid experts to crunch numbers on election night, UPI tried something more elementary. It relied on its 50 state political editors to determine when their state had gone to either candidate, then message the information and electoral votes involved. Huge sheets of paper were hung in the Washington bureau and staff members added the totals by hand with grease pencils.

"When the Mississippi editor called his state for Carter, that put us over the top," said Ron Cohen, former UPI Washington news editor, bureau chief and managing editor. "I put out a flash -- 'Carter wins the presidency'.'" He recalls the networks cranking out the same verdict with their computers about a half-hour later and AP coming in even later.

The company was legendary for its stinginess.

This is the outfit, after all, that gave a bureau manager a 50 cents-a-week raise. My own personal feeling was that if I ever wrote a book about UPI, I would title it "Couldn't You Have Taken the Bus?" which was the invariable, groaning response whenever a staff member submitted an expense account with a taxi fare, no matter how desperately it might have been needed for the story."

When Walter Cronkite was cutting his journalistic teeth at UPI, he filed an expense account for several calls from the scene of a story to his office. Rather than reimburse him, the bureau chief said, "My God, don't you know about the pins"? -- or words to that effect -- and instructed him how to jiggle pins in a phone so he could make calls without actually inserting money.

RIght behind the stories about UPI's miserliness come the ones about its characters. Eccentricity was practically a job requirement.

What Unipresser could forget the London Teletype operator who, when he worked the overnight shift, dressed in pajamas and slippers? Or the malodorous fashion write who was said to have won an exclusive interview with Yves St. Laurent simply by threatening to sit in the designer's outer office and disgust his visitors?

Or Al Webb, who covered the space program, Vietnam (where he earned a medal for bravery for rescuing a wounded Marine officer), the Middle East and countless stories in between for UPI? But he may be best remembered for his singular eating habits (he lived at one point on nothing but divinity fudge), his houseful of cats, a much-remarked-upon toupee and a devil-may-care attitude that reduced colleagues to helpless laughter.

Jack Griffin, who spent almost 40 years at UPI and left as deputy managing editor, recalls Webb once denying a story that he had flown a private plane from Texas to Chicago using only a Texaco roadmap. "He claimed it was Mobil," Griffin says.

Sometimes, it was the stringer, those part-time employees in far-flung places who worked for even less money -- if that was possible -- who stand out.

Longworth recalls the one in Zanzibar (now Tanzania) who filed a well-informed report of a coup there that ended "with the regretful announcement that he was resigning as our stringer because he had just been named foreign minister."

Keats has less-than-found memories of a Canary Island stringer, cranked into action in the late 1950s to cover the launch of a hot-air balloon in a trans-Atlantic race that promised a huge prize to the winner. "He had a name something like Forsythe Bumbley," Keats said. "I should have been suspicious right then."

Bumbley, or whatever his name was, handled the takeoff just fine and "two days later he called and said, 'They made it. The balloon is down in Brazil.'"

So Keats filed the story, the London paper sponsoring the race was exultant and came out with big headlines, the congratulations poured in -- then Keats began to realize that UPI was suspiciously alone with the touchdown.

"So finally we asked the stringer where he got the news (of the landing) and he said, 'Oh, ESP.' The guy was a card-carrying member of some cult. And the poor buggers (on the balloon) were (later) found floating in the Atlantic in a dinghy."

My own favorite member of our eccentric and eclectic staff came from when I was working the overnight shift in New York and a wacko from the street -- disheveled, dirty, talking nonsense and practically foaming at the mouth -- somehow wandered into the newsroom. Security was called and, as the two burly guards rushed past my desk, surveying me and the people I happily worked with every night, I heard one officer say to the other, "Which one do you think it is?"

If there was one thing that UPI and its staff clung to, it was an edict Musel says the New York bureau manager delivered to the 17-year-old Musel with his first reporters' card.

"This is what you make of it," Musel quoted him as saying. "It can be so much cardboard or a ringside seat to history. One thing it's not is a license to bore people."

73s, UPI.


(Janet Cawley, a reporter in the Chicago Tribune's Washington bureau, spent nine years with UPI in Montreal, New York and London.)