The following was written by former Unipresser Ken Layne, now a columnist for Online Journalism Review:
The Wire That Still Ain't Dead
My one-time boss, former United Press International CEO and longtime Newsweek foreign correspondent Arnaud de Borchgrave, sent an e-mail this week. Since it's the first personal e-mail I have received from Mr. de Borchgrave, it seemed right to share it.
From: "Arnaud" To: email@example.com Subject: UPI revisited Date: Tue, 13 Feb 2001 Ken Layne, Time to revisit UPI with its top-notch staff of professional journalists -- John O'Sullivan, Martin Walker, Roland Flamini; Martin Sieff, all prize-winning editors and reporters. I have stepped down as President and CEO to return to reporting and have just completed an exclusive interview with Colombia's President Pastrana both before and after last week's jungle negotiations with FARC leader Manuel Marulanda. For the sake of honest journalism, time to eat a little crow. Arnaud de Borchgrave Editor-at-Large, UPI
My ex-boss - it would be wrong to say I knew him, although we said hello in the elevator a few times - must have read my remembrance published by OJR last year. It was just after the Unification Church bought the wire service's bones.
I'm not sure of the occasion of my Free Crow Dinner, but if somebody's going to pay the tab, I guess I should consider eating the crow. It goes best with a hearty Chilean cabernet, I'm told.
Yes, UPI still exists in some form. That was never in doubt after the Moonies bought it. They've kept the Washington Times (where de Borchgrave served as editor) afloat for many years, even though the paper has never flirted with the idea of profit. But Washington is a healthier town by having two newspapers with different political views. That's the very reason why any journalist would want to see a thriving UPI. It's disgusting to see the nation's dwindling dailies filled with the same AP copy.
Sadly, I don't see much difference between today's UPI and the one I left two Christmases ago. The penny-pinching Saudi owners are gone, and that's got to make payday a happier occasion for the current little crew of Unipressers. But a quick search of the Dow Jones database or Lexis-Nexis proves UPI has but two regular appearances in the newspapers: Helen Thomas' speaking engagements and the obituary page. Most reporters over 50 have done time for United Press. And as Fletch says, one reason to work for a paper is the guarantee of a nice big obit.
There were scant newspaper clients when I toiled on the D.C. desk, but at least we had Helen. Helen Thomas was the face and voice of UPI, keeping the wire's name and brand alive even when few would ever see her copy ... or any UPI copy. By 1999, when polls showed a suddenly huge news audience on the Web, UPI had lost its place on Yahoo and Excite, for reasons I've never understood. (There's a UPI channel at iSyndicate, but many of the individual feeds are dead - and many others like Sports and World News promise "several updates each week.") And Helen is now with the Hearst Syndicate, giving Dubya hell from his first visit to the White House as president-elect. UPI lost its White House press seat when Helen went to Hearst. The radio network was closed in 1999, as well, and it's been years since television relied on the wire.
The UPI site, barely changed since I worked there, lists something called DotPlanet as the featured client in the categories of National News and Washington News, yet there is no UPI content to be found on this site. You can, however, find links to Reuters and AP. A site called InfoSpace does have UPI stories. According to the company's press release page, InfoSpace is a "a leading global provider of cross-platform merchant and consumer infrastructure services on wireless, broadband and narrowband platforms" that just fired 250 employees. I mean, I wish InfoSpace luck and all, but UPI used to be on Yahoo. The featured Sports client is Sportsmax.com, which appears to be gone. The rest of the client links go to something called UnitedStates.com, and it's not worth my time trying to figure it out. All the links from UPI's page to this site are dead, as is the Featured Client for News Photos. Nonetheless, a few UPI photos have turned up in print this year, including a football picture and a Gale Norton shot in Business Week. (The photo editor used to tell me UPI's only income came from photographs.)
UPI's biggest online presence is the same as two years ago: via the Drudge Report. I remember the desk editors cheering whenever Drudge linked to one of our stories. Someone would read us! Matt Drudge faithfully links to UPI stories wherever you can find them, generally on a mysterious site called Virtual New York. Now that this site has search capabilities, the handy search box for UPI is back. Drudge's dedication to having every sort of news wire on his page provides the biggest potential readership for UPI copy.
During those Final Days before the Unification Church arrived, we often heard plans of rebuilding the wire on specialty news, industry feeds, defense newsletters. I've found a little evidence that this idea survives in a fashion, with Pentagon briefs (likely by the very talented Pam Hess, one of the handful remaining from 1999) appearing in the Periscope Daily Defense News Capsules. And de Borchgrave's alma mater, the Washington Times, has used some of his fine coverage from Bogota. It is, quite possibly, our next Vietnam down in Colombia, and we need all possible news on the subject.
Douglas D.M. Joo, head of News World Communications, replaced de Borchgrave as CEO in December. And de Borchgrave is indeed on the road again, doing what he does best: getting interviews with elusive world leaders. One of the main reasons I went to work for United Press in 1999 was because of de Borchgrave. He was a veteran journalist, a world traveler, dedicated to the old wire. Despite the good intentions, he didn't turn UPI around. The "award-winning journalists" he mentions were there when I left, with the exception of ex- National Review editor John O'Sullivan. If O'Sullivan can gain for UPI the conservative cachet of a National Review, then the old wire has some hope.
Conservative media flourished in the Clinton years, and outlets like Fox News and the Sciafe publications would likely benefit from a healthy UPI. So why haven't they stepped up to the plate? Whatever the reason, there is ample opportunity - even during the recession Dubya so desperately wants - for a news wire that serves the 33 percent of this nation that despises the Clinton Era. I like journalists a lot more than political people, so it would delight me to see UPI thrive. I'm watching - and, believe it or not, I'm wishing UPI all the best.
But when a company goes bankrupt every few years and the strategy changes with each new regime and the clients keep falling away and one day you're selling News Analysis and the next day Local Sports Scores, the Media Industry loses faith, whether they lean to the left or the right. Because media is about money these days - except for the aforementioned Unification Church and Sciafe charaties. For most in the media, UPI hasn't mattered since the early 1980s, maybe the 1970s. And when United Press completely missed the Internet Boom, well ....
So, Mr. de Borchgrave, I'll take a rain check on that Crow Dinner for now. After all, the title of my last UPI column was "The Wire That Wouldn't Die."