Los Angeles Times Editorial on UPI Radio Sale

Here's an Aug. 10, 1999, editorial from The Los Angeles Times on the sale of UPI Radio:

It was just a few paragraphs in some newspapers last week, a mention on a few newscasts. United Press International is getting out of the broadcast news business, selling its last radio contracts to a once-loathed rival, the Associated Press.

The radio service was UPI's last presence in mainstream news gathering, aside from the enduring Helen Thomas, still reporting from the White House and dean of its press corps. The wire service's latest president, Arnaud de Borchgrave, tried to spin the story as a move to new niches on the Internet, but the bottom line was more jobs lost, most of the remaining bureaus closed.

It has been nearly 15 years since UPI, born United Press in 1907, could honestly boast of being the hard-hustling and highly competitive Avis to AP's Hertz. The competition was intense and global, with a few minutes' advantage on a big story the prize. Merriman Smith, in 1963 the UPI White House correspondent, successfully tied up the only phone in the press car when John F. Kennedy was shot in Dallas. The flash and bulletin bells rang first, by six minutes, on the clattering UPI Teletype machines in newsrooms, and Smith stayed ahead, winning a Pulitzer. That was also a time when the wire services mattered more and other news organizations often didn't travel with the president.

The Scripps Howard media company divested a slightly unprofitable UPI in 1982, and the wire service suffered a succession of owners from outside the news business, often from outside the United States. They laid off staff in waves and sold whatever part of the business would bring a price, including its priceless photo library. Business steadily drifted away until UPI had virtually no newspaper clients. The radio business persisted longer, but it too is finally gone.

Much of the void has been filled by the British news service, Reuters, by smaller services and by newspaper companies (including The Times) that sell their stories to other news organizations. The world is different and the Teletypes are gone, but AP long-timers admit they miss the head-to-head competition. Outside the major cities, there's no one to keep AP on its toes.

UPI does leave a legacy in newsrooms around the world, where ex-Unipressers (Walter Cronkite is the most famous alumnus) swap fond stories of long hours, bad pay and the adrenaline rush of meeting deadlines around the clock. It was a fine education.