This is an interview by Richard Harnett with Robert Page, a former executive at United Press International, who played an important role in the company. The interview took place Sept. 13, 1996, in the lobby of the Stewart Hotel in San Francisco where Page was attending a "Downhold" reunion of former UPI people.
Harnett: I have talked to Lee Keller. After leaving UPI he invested in stocks at time when stocks were low. He is now worth three times what he paid. He is leaving substantial money to the University of Colorado. They set up a freedom of information institute of some kind. He said he has given them a lot of money and is going to leave a lot to them. But he wants to make sure they don't disband the institute or whatever.
Page: He has a son who is a doctor, lives in Florida.
Harnett: That's where he goes in wintertime.
Page: Good guy.
Harnett: He is one of the guys who was there a long time, goes way back in United Press. I am trying collect this history stuff. You were there. Well, tell me when you were there.
Page: I worked for UPI from 1960 to 1980 -- 20 years.
Harnett: That's the period I'd like to hit more on because. you know, Deadline Every Minute.
Page: Took it to 1957.
Harnett: I was there from 1951, but there is nothing left. The company threw away everything.
Page: No records.
Harnett: No records. I called guys there. I asked Pinky Vidacovich. Apparently they moved a couple times, closed bureaus and scattered everything. I talked to the news guy running the national desk. I said, "Are there any files, documents, archives?" He said they were supposed to be in a warehouse someplace. He said, "I sent somebody over to look. The warehouse is gone and there is an apartment building there." They didn't pay the rent, so. They call me. The guy asks: "Who was Frank Bartholomew? Did Walter Cronkite work for UPI?" Hugh Baillie is a totally unknown.
Page: Well, you know, the book (Deadline) covered the first 50 years, 1907 to 1957. And there wasn't another until those guys wrote one recently.
Harnett: Ron Cohen.
Page: Ron Cohen and somebody else.
Harnett: Greg Gordon.
Page: Greg Gordon.
Harnett: It's the same book.
Page: The UPI problem. Scripps-Howard gave it away to Ruhe and Geissler. They stole all the money. They stole the cash flow out of it.
Harnett: I witnessed it.
Page: They took all the cash flow to Nashville. They ruined the business and it went into bankruptcy. Then they hired a guy named Luis Nogales, whom Beaton refused to hire one time. He didn't think much of him. Nogales, with the help of the bankruptcy trustees in Washington, sold it to Mario Vasquez Rana. Did you interview him?
Page: You'd have to go to Mexico. take a translator with you. He sold it to Earl Brian.
Harnett: He's in court.
Page: He is in court. There was a guy named Paul Steinle, who was president for a while. The tragedy of this is we all just watched the disintegration of the business.
Harnett: That's the tragedy. To me the tragedy is not just the disintegration, but UPI for 85 years was a significant player in world news. And I thought it was important, and I think these big publishers would not keep it alive. They said why have two services. Why have AP and UPI when they are writing the same stuff. I hear that some of them already regret it.
Page: AP has no competition. They can raise their rates to whatever they want.
Harnett: People say there is CNN and specials, but they don't know what happened in Boise last night until they get it on AP, and the AP guy can go home at 4 o'clock. He doesn't have to worry about somebody down the street getting a story.
Page: You know, there are some things about journalism that never change. For example, San Diego. You and I know this. You can read the Union-Tribune in San Diego, and read the Chronicle here, in the morning, and at night turn on the 6 o'clock news or 10 o'clock news. All they are doing is still reading pages right out of the newspaper. And that was what was the value of UPI. It kept the AP honest. It gave you a second point of view. What happened to UPI was, of course, the growth of the supplemental news services. If you're a publisher of a substantial size newspaper and are paying UPI $3,000 a week and The New York Times service or Chicago Tribune or Miami Herald, Knight-Ridder comes along and offers you basically their entire editorial output for $300 a week.
Harnett: Their entire output isn't a news service. I know Wally Turner used to get a call from New York. He would come up from the third floor and ask, "What have you got on this?" We would give it to him, then he'd make some calls and do a special. Three days later we get a call from NX to match Wally Turner. Anyway when The New York Times quit us -- that was probably one of the crucial ones -- they said they had their own bureaus. But the $2 million Wally Turner was spending down on the third floor, that $2 million could have kept UPI service. It's gone, and at this point most people don't even know that it's gone, or where it went, or why.
Page: The only place I see a UPI logo today is in La Opinion.
Harnett: Mexican paper.
Page: Spanish language paper in Los Angeles, and The reason I read it is not because I'm fluent in Spanish but my wife is, so she likes to read it and from time to time I pick it up. You cannot find a UPI logo in San Diego. They dropped it. The L.A. Times dropped it.
Harnett: That (La Opinion) is the only paper in California. In fact, I thought they had quit it.
Page: They still have some radio and television.
Harnett: Some radio and television, and from what I hear, overseas. Helen Thomas was out here last year to give a lecture. I talked to her a bit afterwards. I asked her what does UPI do? She said, "We have a lot of clients overseas." I guess in the Mideast, from London where the owners are. But I even get it from guys over there, like John Calcott and people who worked in Geneva and Rome. They dumped them all. They have stringers covering. I guess they have some people in London. I think they have one person here and there. They put out a thing last week saying they are going to have to cut some more people. It's not going to work.
Page: They might as well just call it a day. Rod Beaton had a great line, "Give it a respectable burial."
Harnett: That's what he said. I talked to him. He said he wished we had given it a decent burial.
Page: To let it go on like this, hang by its, it's like a toothache that won't go away.
Harnett: H.L. Stevenson was going to collect the history. I don't think he got at it, but he called me before he died. He said, "I'm going to retire from school and everything and move to Florida and work on it." I was enthusiastic, but he got sick and died.
Page: You know another guy who was going to write a book about UPI was Max Jennings. He's up in Dayton, Ohio. I don't know if ever got around to it. But you know, Dick, one aspect of it. Rod could fill you in on this better than anybody. But when you look at the things that hurt the company. This was before all this, before Scripps-Howard gave it up. One was growth of supplemental services. There is no question it really hurt, because publishers just wanted to save money. They didn't give a damn whether you covered everything. They only needed one source for high school football.
Harnett: And a New York Times byline in their paper.
Page: Yes, it made them look good, or the Chicago Tribune, Miami Herald. Secondly, there back in the 60s UPI could probably have acquired Reuters, had they done it. Or UPI could have gone into financial services. Reuters today is probably a billion dollar company or more. UPI had a shot at that. Scripps-Howard and some of them before Rod, Mims Thomason whom I love. But those guys didn't think there was anything to it. Those two decisions hurt UPI.
Harnett: I've talked to several people about those negotiations with Reuters. I don't know if we could have bought them but we could have competed with them. After I left UPI I worked at a financial news service down in San Mateo, a small startup. I noticed they had Reuters. I was doing stories on reaction to the economic data, calling people. I had be there at 5 o'clock and get a story out by 7. AP came along about 10 o'clock. The president of our company was Bob Murphy. I said, "Get together with UPI because we need market-moving bulletins from all over." He went to New York and spent a couple days. He said he talked to everybody at UPI and they loved it. But he said nobody could sign a deal.
Page: No authority. Those were important mistakes.
Harnett: I've got to get specific steps. For instance, the meeting Beaton and I guess Thomason had in London, negotiating with Reuters. I have a couple versions of that. Mims Thomason was loaded. He stood up and said to the guy from Reuters, "We are here to buy you." And the guy from Reuters stood up and said, "We are going to buy you." And the meeting ended.
Page: Rod was at that meeting. Rod was vice president in Europe at the time. Mims and Keller. Lee was at that. Lee can tell you. Lee was international vice president.
Harnett: I have all kinds of things from Keller.
Page: This was before I got to Europe. Rod told me the story 50 times. He picks him (Thomason) up at the airport, Heathrow, and they drive down to Brighton. Tom Curran's son-in-law was the top Reuters executive. I don't remember his name now, Rod would know it. They went ahead with this meeting. Mims was loaded, according to Rod. Mims walked in basically pissed off because he didn't want to go to London but came over. Basically he walked in and said, "I'm here to buy you guys." And the Reuters guy said, "No, you've got it the other way around. We're here to buy you." And Mims says, "In that case I guess there's no meeting." He literally got up and told Beaton, "Drive me back to London."
But you know, if you look at the UPI's problems, clearly one was this whole effort with Reuters, not getting into the financial or supplemental, certainly against the AP. You go back to the history of rates and being able to sustain a reasonable income level. The UPI and the AP used to fight dollar for dollar at the bottom of the rate structure, and small market radio, and argue over paper and ribbons. AP would go in and say, "We'll sell you the wire for $40 a week." Then we go in and say, "We will sell for $40 a week, but you gotta buy paper and ribbons." The problem was even if you turn around and give the paper and ribbons away while those rates were comparable we could do very well against the AP. But where we couldn't was up above. For example, when I got to the Chicago Sun Times and the Boston Herald I discovered what I always knew, the great disparity in the rates. In Chicago, for example, the Sun Times was paying the AP $12,500 a week and were paying the UPI $5,000 a week. Well, you could take that gap at every major newspaper in the country and that was the difference, Dick, between UPI's revenue base and the AP revenue base.
Harnett: I remember years ago Roger Tatarian came out San Francisco. We were walking around the block talking. I said, "You sell small radio station for 40 bucks. You take from better customers and give it to them." He said the San Francisco Chronicle paid AP at that time about $5,000 week and paid us half that "so they have a lot more money to throw around."
Page: You are absolutely right.
Harnett: I guess Beaton tried to impose some minimums. When I filed the wire I used to see these messages to New York from our sales reps. "We got this radio station. Wire haul $15 , paper $2 and ribbons."
Page: Your cost.
Harnett: Rest of it profit. I said, "What about us producing it?" They said we had the news anyway. The were selling telco services and paper. They figured the news was free.
Page: The reality of it was that UPI was losing money on every one of those kind of deals. What newspapers had (for advertising) was a rate card. UPI never had a rate card. I first went on the road in Indiana. I worked for a great guy, Jep Cadou, God bless him. He was wonderful. I would say to Jep, "I'm going to see so-and-so. What should I charge him?" He'd say, "Let's think about it." And maybe we'd call Dale Johns and ask him what we should charge. But basically it was whatever you could get.
Harnett: Somebody told me recently one of our sales rep's, maybe Payette, had a "flinch" system. You'd go in and tell the customer the contract is so much, and if the guy didn't flinch you'd say, "plus paper." And you'd add things until the guy flinched, then settle for it. Wayne Sargent told me -- I had a long talk with him -- he advocated setting minimums. But he said he had hard time getting it across because there were big sales people like Cal Thornton, who didn't believe in that.
Page: Wayne was a very good salesman. I worked for Wayne. And when I worked for Wayne in New York, Dick Fales and I, we really tried to set some minimum rates. Somebody like Doug Gripp would call in from L.A., and I'm not using Doug as an example, Doug's a favorite guy. I'd say, "Charge him so much." And he'd say, "Oh, he won't pay that." That was typical, and we all suffered from that, everyone of us. We would go into negotiations thinking, you know, I gotta get x, but would settle for y. More often than not you'd settle for y because you couldn't get x or didn't have the guts to ask for it and you wanted a deal.
You know, when you think of those three things, that really hurt UPI more than anything else. Clearly, Dick, the service was as good as AP. I tell you, when I worked in Asia our services from New York were superior, totally superior. We had better communications. You know, UPI would spend money on hardware. We had Unifax. It was as good as Photofax.
Page: We had the first electronic newsrooms, and we had the most sophisticated communications system in the Orient, far superior to the AP. And we had a better service and we had better rates, and we had more customers. We had stronger revenue in the Orient than they had.
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