UNIPRESS - Summary of New Book on UPI History



(Two veteran United Press International editors have completed a history of UP-UPI that covers most of the 20th century. Publication is pending. The authors, Richard Harnett and Billy Ferguson, spent a total of 76 years with the worldwide news agency. Harnett joined United Press in 1951 in San Francisco and worked there as a reporter, editor, special writer and San Francisco bureau manager. He retired in 1997. Harnett published Wirespeak, Codes and Jargon of the News Business in 1997. He lives with his wife, Joyce, in San Mateo, Calif. Ferguson spent 40 years with UP-UPI, starting as a sports writer in the Atlanta bureau and winding up as UPI's managing editor. In between, he sampled much of what the wire service had to offer. He covered state legislatures, racial unrest in the South, the Apollo 11 landing on the moon and the development of UPI broadcast services. He lives with his wife, Betty, in Evanston, Ill.)

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Here's is a summary of UNIPRESS: The World's Most Exciting News Service:

The seeds of United Press International were planted in two sprawling California estates early in the 20th century.

Publishers E.W. Scripps and William Randolph Hearst were as different in most ways as were the two lavish retreats they built to memorialize their success: Scripps' dusty Miromar Ranch in the desert near San Diego and Hearst's gaudy palace at San Simeon.

But the two men shared a vision of the power that the written word would wield in the 20th century. They also shared a common problem: the Associated Press' refusal to serve their newspapers.

In 1907, Scripps launched United Press to compete with the monopolistic Associated Press, and just two years later, Hearst formed International News Service to compete with AP and UP.

The story of how UP and INS battled the AP and each other until they joined forces in 1959, is also a story of the men and women who wrote the running history of the 20th century.

UNIPRESS, the biography of UPI, details the triumphs and travesties of the individuals who brought competition and independence to American journalism and made it the best in the world.

UPI White House Correspondent Merriman Smith was riding in the front seat of the press car just four limousines behind President Kennedy on Nov. 22, 1963, when he heard three shorts. In a split second, he grabbed the car's only mobile phone. Then, as he watched the President's convertible sped away from the motorcade, he dialed the UPI bureau in Dallas and dictated the first words that alerted the world to the assassination of America's 35th president.

"Smitty" held on with a grip of steel as his competition, AP's Jack Bell riding in the rear seat of the press car, tried to get the phone away and alert his office. But "Smitty," a fierce competitor, clung to the phone, dictating details, even as Bell frantically beat on his back.

It was the start of what has been called the greatest reporting job in America's journalism history. It was a high-water mark for United Press International.

That competitive fire that drove Merriman Smith and the rest of UPI was the legacy of a turn-of-the-century dandy who helped start the never-ending war between AP and UPI.

Diminutive Roy Howard forged United Press in his own intense image as he guided both United Press and the Scripps-Howard newspaper empire.

Like Merriman Smith, Howard lived to beat the AP and he was willing to take a chance. His dramatic "beat" on the end of World War I touched off celebrations around the world, but it stained forever his reputation and the credibility of United Press.

Howard's "beat" was based on an official telegram announcing an armistice sent to the commander of the American Navy in the French port of Brest. But the telegram was premature and Howard's Flash was two days ahead of the actual end of the war.

But the history of UPI is not just the big stories and the big names, it's the achievements of people not famous, on stories long forgotten, against huge odds and their strange addiction to working endless hours for little money, even less fame, with flimsy resources and always against the clock.

It's the story of the UPI staffer denied travel expenses hitch-hiking to cover an execution, or a bureau manager requesting permission to send his radio copy on a priority basis so he could go home and put out a fire in his kitchen.

It's a story also of the incredible changes of the 20th Century, from the dispatches on the Lindbergh kidnapping tapped out on Morse keys and Prince Albert tobacco cans to the huge volumes of 1988 election copy collected in computers and relayed by satellites to clients at 5,600 words a minute.

Those changes chronicled by UP and UPI "Around the World, Around the Clock," played a large role in the rise and fall of the proud news agency, from its start in 1907 until 1999 when its beleaguered managers announced that UPI was leaving the wire service business and would seek new systems and new markets.

UNIPRESS traces the fortunes of the world's first independent news service from 1907 when E.W. Scripps launched the United Press with what he called "a bag of wind" to the hurly-burly days of the 1960's when United Press International successfully competed head-to-head with the older and bigger Associated Press. And it examines the painful fall of UPI from the heydays of the 1970s when nearly 7,000 newspapers and broadcast clients subscribed to UPI services.

But the numbers don't tell the real story of UPI. Only those who became "Unipressers" during the 92 years that UPI served journalism can do that. This history lets those men and women tell the story.

The history tells how the world-wide news wholesaler operated, in intimate detail provided by many of the 10,000 to 15,000 people who toiled for the company at some time in their careers and are still proud of being "Unipressers." It was, they usually say, the most memorable time of their working days.

The many voices are needed to tell the real story of United Press International, why so many were willing to do so much with so little and for so little.

There was glamor and glory, but there was drudgery and disquiet. UPI's people were eager for the glory and adept at the drudgery. They loved nothing more than the big story, but they were always ready to take the daily livestock market.

In the May, 1933, issue of Fortune Magazine, the author Stephen Vincent Benet wrote:

"UP is neither a charity nor a philanthropy. It is a business concern and its members work for profit. But there is another motive that drives them quite as strongly. You can call it pride of profession or professional zest or enthusiasm or self-hypnosis. But, whatever you call it, it is as common to the stockholding executives to the lunch-money copy boy --- it is indeed the strongest of bonds that hold UP together. And what it boils down to, when the sentiment and the wisecracks are both skimmed off, is an actual and genuine love of the game."

E.W. Scripps, the founder of United Press, built his newspaper empire from a shoestring. He started UP with, he said, a few dollars and "a bag of wind." Yet, he said, it was the best thing he ever did.

Scripps is generally pictured as a maverick publisher, a political liberal and friend of labor. This history discloses that he was, in reality, a cunning, conservative businessman who happened to understand that most newspaper readers were not capitalists.

E.W. advocated infanticide to limit the population, he demeaned women and was a racial and religious bigot.

The dark side of E.W. Scripps has been overlooked by subsidized biographers. It is not overlooked in UNIPRESS.

E.W., who rarely left his ranch at Miromar, was proud of the fact that he had no hands-on relationships with his newspaper or UP. But he knew how to get the most from others.

Scripps' business plan was simple. He gave underlings a stake in what he called the "concern" -- always a minority stake -- which would have no value until they paid for the shares with dividends they earned for themselves and for him.

William Randolph Hearst, who founded the International News Service, was the antitheses of the reclusive Scripps. He was born to immense wealth, inherited his first newspaper, the San Francisco Examiner, and became totally involved in running the paper. "Citizen" Hearst pioneered sensational news coverage, later called "yellow journalism." One-sided reports in Hearst's newspapers of Spanish atrocities in Cuba are generally credited with starting the Spanish-American war.

The soul of United Press at the start was Roy Howard, the diminutive dynamo who was the first general manager of the news agency. Given almost no resources , Howard scratched like a cornered bobcat to get news and sell it. He traveled the world, signing on clients in Europe, South America and Asia, where all other new agencies were handcuffed by the cartel that Reuters dominated.

Howard was always personally out in front, interviewing world leaders, covering a boxing match, pleading with a publisher to by the UP wire. His enthusiasm and enterprise, even his frugality, were infectious.

UNIPRESS provide intimate looks at those who followed Howard at the helm of UP and later UPI.

The first was Carl Bickel, a dapper, well-bred gentleman who started his journalism career by walking 35 miles to San Francisco to help cover the great earthquake of 1906. He was president from 1922 to 1935. It was Bickel's vision that saw the infant broadcasting industry as a vehicle for news as well as entertainment.

After Bickel came Hugh Baillie, a formidable, crew-cut, Marine-like battle tank. The one-time gun-toting crime reporter kept a bayonet as a paper weight on his desk and directed United Press into what author Reynolds Packard called "whambo-zambo" journalism, putting life and drama into news coverage.

Frank Bartholomew (1955-1962) was the last of UPI's reporter-president. He was an occassional correspondent at the front in World War II and Korea. When he took over the presidency he had one burning obsession. He wanted to get International News Service, Hearst's wire, and bring it into United Press. He succeeded and UP became UPI in the spring of 1958.

After Bartholomew, UPI turned to the business side for its leadership, spurred by a growing flow of red ink. First it was Mims Thomason and then Rod Beaton, but neither could stop UPI's losses.

In 1982, Scripps Howard gave up on UPI and sold it for one dollar to two men who called themselves "entrepreneurs," but had little experience as managers and none in the business of producing and selling news.

Bill Geissler and Doug Ruhe picked Bill Small as their president, but the former network news chief, shared their lack of knowledge in news wholesales and soon the turnstyle to the top of UPI was spinning as fast as UPI was plummeting toward oblivion. UPI had 13 chief executives in the 17 years after UPI was sold.

UNIPRESS charts the influence of these men with the news events that made the history of the 20th Century, but it digs much deeper into the workings, the people and soul of UPI.

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