1992 Washington Post Story on UPI

Here's a 1992 Washington Post piece by Paul Henderickson on UPI's future:


At UPI, No News Is Bad News; The Stalwart Unipressers, Facing a Daunting Deadline

They were there with the news Chef Boy-ar-dee died. They were there with the report that Lindbergh was safely on the ground at Le Bourget. They were there first those 29 still-chilling Novembers ago when a president's head lurched back in his limo at Dealey Plaza. The bulletin went on the UPI printer at 12:34 p.m. Dallas time. White House correspondent Merriman Smith -- "Smitty," everybody called him -- was riding in a press pool car swerving down Elm Street in Dallas in those bewildering afterseconds. He kept fighting off AP's Jack Bell for control of the radio phone. The 11 words appearing in a clacking black line on a teletype were: "Three shots were fired at President Kennedy's motorcade in downtown Dallas." Thanks to United Press International, small-town editors with their backsides to stoves in New England heard about JFK in Dallas two minutes before the emergency room at Parkland Memorial Hospital received JFK.

Smitty won a Pulitzer for his coverage. And then shot himself within a decade.

The minutes-later Associated Press flash, incidentally, as recounted in William Manchester's "The Death of a President," came out garbled by a grief-stricken operator. "BLOODSTAINED" got on the wire as "BLOOD STAINEZAAC RBMTHING." And the words "HE LAY" came out on the printers as "HE LAAAAAAAAAAAA," as if the machines themselves were disbelieving, could do no more than try to stutter the news.

This is a story about getting news on the wires to a waiting world, and about how one of the grandest and oldest purveyors of this furious, glorious, always underpaid and now semi-anachronistic art is now hanging by a thread. Like the people of Pan Am until they finally gave up the ghost, "Unipressers," those who remain at the bankrupted and shriveled news service, are trying hard not to die. They were supposed to be dead a long time ago, and they know it. There is something plucky and dogged and damnable and downright inspiring in their refusal to take the last breath.

Besides, it's fun being around these guys. They're "wire animals," a vanishing breed in the Cyclopean postmodern age of CNN. They live for the rush of that urgent first paragraph, and the rolling takes that come afterward. They're masters of the "running add," which is to say they can build a story practically in the blink-space it happens. In addition, they're comics. Oppressed people often have the gift of wit. They can turn it on themselves, though just as easily they'll turn it on their heartless masters at home base.

"Hey, know what I got for an advance when I went to the gulf war?" says White House correspondent Tom Ferraro. His pan is dead as dishwater. He's 44. Unmarried. Sitting now in a Dupont Circle bar with tie down and a couple rolled newspapers at his elbows. Contrary to wire-hack myth, nicotine smoke is not pouring out of every orifice, nor do the suit pants stop a couple inches below the knees. In fact, Ferraro's rather natty.

He does talk, though, in a kind of punched, hyperventilated Unipresser's cable-ese. With these guys, brevity is everything.

"Two hundred bucks. That's what they gave me. ... I told them I wanted a gas mask. They said, `Tom, you don't need a gas mask. You won't be in the range of fire.' I said, `I want a gas mask.' 'Okay, Tom, if you'll feel more comfortable with a gas mask, go ahead, I'll take responsibility for the expense.' Know what? I got it in the burbs at a Sunny's Surplus. Cheapest one I could find. Twenty ninety-five, I think. We get there and the Reuter guys have these complete chem-suits, of course."

A minute later he says, with an odd lightness of being: "Demeaning. Exactly. Demeaning. That's the word I've used."

Six U.S. reporters and one photog went to the Persian Gulf for UPI. The company got them a place with two bedrooms. Three beds and a couch in their "suite." "We were literally taking turns sleeping in beds," Ferraro says. "I called up the company. I said, `We really do need more room.' They said, `Get a cot.' "

Couple years back, Ferraro flew to Cartagena, Colombia, on a story. For all his daring, he can get nervous. Those drug thugs of the Medellin cartel got to working on his mind. Just before he left he said to his boss, David Wiessler, a good friend, "Look, the AP guy has this one-day $1 million insurance policy. Whaddayasay?"

Wiessler said, "Be careful."

It sort of goes like this: Pop the jokes, pop the ironies, don't think about it very long. "I remember when the New York Times canceled us," Ferraro says. "I responded by canceling my subscription." (He's grinning.)

"I've described it as being married to a terminally ill patient," he says. "On one level you want her to die, so you can get on with your life. On the other you don't want to give up, you don't want her to give up." (He's moving his head up and down, nodding.)

"You do it for the rushes you get," he says. "You did it for the things you're going to do." (Is he aware he just went into the past tense?)

"Well, there's still the rush, yeah," he says, "but you see, there's no ... clients anymore."

And yet ... in a couple more minutes Tom Ferraro, who'll probably stick it out till they sell the place down to the last file cabinet, turns ink-stained wit again. He's been a Unipresser two decades. Really, it's all he ever wanted to be. He's like a fiddler on some perpetually broken roof saying, "Ahhhh, so what?" At least ah so what today. Maybe a miracle will happen tomorrow.

"You know, I've had these screaming fights on the phone with the bosses over things they've done to us in the last couple years," he says. "Helen Thomas said to me, `Uh, Tom, you have to restrain your telephone talk. I don't know that that's the best way to get your point across.' I said, `But Helen, I don't want them to think I'm sucking up.' "

Trying Harder, Liking It Better

They were ever Avis to Hertz, Pepsi to Coke, and in a perverse sense liked it that way. They thought of themselves as trying harder, having more fun. They were a poorer and smaller and more maligned and less respected wire but often sprightlier by half than their competition, and they knew it, and also knew they sometimes were considered a shade too reckless with the facts. Those three letters, "UPI." Instant recognition, globally.

"Around the World, Around the Clock," they used to say.

And two weeks ago a bankruptcy judge granted UPI's request to auction off the news service tomorrow. Is it the final knell? Maybe. But the people who run the company say they feel certain a buyer or investor is going to come forth: God from a bank vault. It should be said they've been trying to find a buyer for two years. And yet this wouldn't be the first time the company had been within yards of extinction and lived to tell.

They've been under bankruptcy protection since August. It's the second time in six years. Revolving-door owners and Chapter 11 filings and the $200 advance to the Persian Gulf are a way of life when you work at UPI. It must be a little like living in the face of The Bomb. After a while, you can even bear it.

Walter Cronkite was once a Unipresser, before he went to wireless glory. David Brinkley is an alum. So is Neil Sheehan. He was 25 when they sent him to Saigon in 1962, compensating him at $75 a week. It must have seemed all the adventure in the world. Howard K. Smith, Eric Sevareid, Harrison Salisbury, Westbrook Pegler, William Shirer, Charles Collingwood: Unipressers all. The most celebrated Unipresser of this age, of course, is Helen Thomas. She's been there decades and is synonymous with those three letters, UPI.

Some three decades ago, the company had 6,000 employees and was said to serve 5,000 newspaper and broadcast clients throughout the world. What went wrong? In a sense the world went wrong. The business changed, the times changed. Other wires rose. How many clients now? Hard to know. Bit of a secret. Somewhere "over 100" newspapers, says the executive editor, Steve Geimann. Some of those are college papers. A lot are small dailies and weeklies.

The Associated Press, which is a not-for-profit cooperative, has 1,558 domestic newspaper members.

But the San Diego Union-Tribune remains a full UPI subscriber. The New York Post is a client and so are both papers in Detroit. The Los Angeles Times subscribes to the metro wire. The Washington Post, having previously dropped the service entirely, has recently signed up again as a "select news" client. Which is to say that instead of paying a flat weekly rate, a select client now pays a fee for "connect time" and then makes an additional payment for the specific story used. UPI came up with this scheme as another way of trying to hang on. Hard times prompt creative thinking. Another path to survival in the future, the executive editor says, will be in the continuation of a strong non-media client base: research institutes, government agencies, sports teams, Fortune 500 companies.

But the red-hot heart of it is still the old red-hot heart: news.

UPI doesn't have phones at Andrews Air Force Base any longer. They have to schlep over and plug their computers into the phones of Agence France-Presse. They're good guys at AFP. They feel sorry.

Geimann's been here nine years. He's a former Washington bureau chief. Like most Unipressers, he talks fast, deadline every minute. He joined in Albany, N.Y., as a rewrite guy for the radio broadcast service. He was so proud of that little UPI bumper sticker they gave him for his gray unwashed Mercury Lynx. "When I joined we had 16 people in Upstate New York," he says, some weariness getting in in spite of himself. "Now we have a person and a half."

How many employees currently? Maybe about 500 worldwide. Understandably, the executive editor isn't keen to sit around and hand out stats on the number of subscribers or what the payroll is. In court papers filed last month, the company stipulated it had 30 U.S. news bureaus and 47 international offices in such cities as Toronto, London, Moscow, Hong Kong, Buenos Aires, Lima. In Latin America, UPI is still a player. The company listed liabilities of $52.8 million against assets of $18.2 million. UPI's parent company is Infotechnology Inc. of New York. It's bankrupt too. In its bankruptcy filing last summer, UPI said it owed 4,000 creditors in 47 countries.

Headquarters is in downtown Washington on I Street. The home offices used to be on a couple of floors of the New York Daily News building on 42nd Street in Manhattan. Now there was an operation: cables desk, foreign desk, sports desk, general news, financial, features, metro, photo, teletype operators by the carload, rows of Brylcreem guys in shirts rolled to the elbow and with Camels dangling at their lips ripping copy out of hulky machines under low-hanging fluorescent lights.

Last August the wire's rank and file, which is to say the guys who actually get out the copy, discovered via the New York Times -- and not from their bosses -- that the company was about to declare bankruptcy. That was a downer and a half, having to get word from somebody else in the business. There was and is a lot of animosity toward President Pieter VanBennekom; he's been hung in effigy around the office.

Last September the shoe leather guys and rim guys were once again nearly the last to know about a new round of layoffs. They caught on when a Reuter reporter called up. "Hey, is it true?" he said.

Once, a Unipresser could get out of bed and know his byline on a big one was popping onto A1 in papers across the world. There it was, your own name, and under it three other stirring words: "United Press International." Now, the ones who remain are a little like people wadding notes into bottles and pushing them out to sea: They have no real idea if anyone out there is actually using anything they write.

And yet for such slings of humiliation and rotten luck there are days, there are stories, when the Unipress guys can still come out first. Last month two staffers in Peru got out an "urgent" about chaos in the government 15 minutes before it was on CBS or CNN. Fifteen minutes, that's eternity. One of the Lima guys bolted to the office in his pajamas. Last month also it was the Unipressers, not the AP or CNN or Reuter or Newhouse or Knight-Ridder guys, who were first on the Manuel Noriega verdict in Miami.

They had it, had it first.

After the riots broke in Los Angeles, a UPI radio guy got hit over the head with a beer bottle, got knocked to the ground, got kicked in the face. He was dictating from a pay phone.

Lost Names From the Wire

Rosso's talking. Rosso's big and beefy and bearded. He came to work today in tennis shoes and a black nylon jacket. His full name is Dave Rosso but all anyone ever seems to call him is "Rosso." Maybe his wife calls him that. He's the Washington news editor. Nice guy.

"I can read the tea leaves," he says, "but I want to stay, I want to keep the dream alive."

He's been a Unipresser for 22 years. Started out on the switchboard. Took him 17 years to get off weekends. Was in at 6 this morning. That bad day in 1970 when Merriman Smith shot himself, Rosso was just a greenhorn manning the phones. He worked double shifts. He wrote across the top of the overtime slip, "Death in the family."

"I love the process," he says. "I really do. I can't describe it beyond that. I take the stuff home to my wife. I show her what the guy reported and what I did to fix it, and both of us working like crazy, and she'll say, `Mmm, I kind of like that one better.' Wrong!"

Once he had Unipressers all over town phoning in stuff. Now there are two on the Hill, one at State, one at the Supreme Court, three at the White House. One guy covers Treasury, Commerce, Labor all by himself. Lonely guy.

Almost blithely: "Oh, we've been fed stories (by management) over the years: `We need these cuts out of you now, but we will bring it back up.' It never comes back up, not all the way."

Then: "I don't know who we're feeding copy to. I don't have any idea. We're in the information business. And we're working in an information vacuum."

So you're doing your job every day -

"That's right," he cuts in. "With no (expletive) idea if anybody's reading it."

More of this. A broad-shouldered semi-profane man who's dressed like a trucker wipes a tear with his thumb. He grooves his thumb down the ridge of his nose. "Didn't know it would get to me," he says, caught between the tear and some more laughing. He goes into a story. "Over a year ago we lost a couple hundred all at once. Big big pink slip orgy. I saw a message come across, `There's going to be a big party in Dallas.' And these were names I'd dealt with over the message wire for years. I told my wife, `We're flying to Dallas.' No way could we afford to fly to Dallas. So we flew to Dallas. There were about 50 people at this party. Names. Names. Names from the message wire. I was putting faces with names. It was like a reunion of people I'd never met."

Did you cry?

"Nope," Rosso says. "But it was a rough ride home the next day."

WIBs and Downholds

Know what a WIB is? It's a Unipresser's lingo for "World in Brief." WIBs go out over the company's radio service. You take brief print copy and make it even briefer for broadcast.

Know what a "downhold" is? It's Unipress cable-ese for "hold down the expenses." That's come over the message wire to bureaus 10,000 times in this company's history.

This company began in 1907. It was founded by E.W. Scripps and known then as United Press (the "International" was to come in 1958 after the merger with William Randolph Hearst's International News Service) and was a privately owned wire service transmitting 12,000 words of Morse code daily over leased telegraph lines to 369 afternoon newspapers. Pretty much from the beginning it was scramble and Scotch tape and baling wire, to use the words of Gregory Gordon and Ronald E. Cohen in their righteously angry 1990 book, "Down to the Wire: UPI's Fight for Survival." It's about greed and corporate mismanagement, among other things. Gordon and Cohen are two ex-Unipressers.

This is the service that chronicled the 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire in New York. A bureau reporter saw the sweatshop workers leaping to their deaths from the upper floors and filed: "Thud-dead! Thud-dead! Thud-dead! Sixty-two `thud-deads.' "

Iris Krasnow, a latter-day feature writer, once pulled off an interview with Queen Noor of Jordan. Krasnow teaches at American University now. You talk to her for an hour and you see how much she misses it - sometimes. She spent two hours with the queen at the Carlyle Hotel in New York, and the queen, who isn't paid to think about filthy lucre, said, "How can you do a story on me without seeing me in my country? Can you come on Wednesday? I have a light week."

"I'll be there. Done," said Krasnow, who barely had train fare back to Washington. But she got there. "I'm sitting having orange juice and almonds in Queen Noor's parlor in Jordan and her little children are running around in their designer haircuts and Reeboks," she says. "I was at the company five years. We were dying for five years. And I had a lot of life in those five years."

Nobody's Home

David Wiessler's leading a tour of world headquarters. He's the senior political editor. There may be 10 bodies in here, although that would probably be counting generously. The place looks like a going news operation: trashed desks and cigarette-burnt rugs and cockeyed window shades and half-empty quarts of orange juice spoiling on cabinets.

There's a sports desk, but nobody's home. "Oh, yeah, I think a couple years it's been closed," Wiessler says.

Wiessler's 49, has a graduate degree in history. He started in the Dallas bureau. He doesn't know what he'll do if the shrunken shebang goes under. People say he's a major talent, a wonderful writer. And he seems like a man out of dreams.

Dave Rosso's gone for the day. But there's Lucien Carr, reading copy. Carr was one of the early Beats in the Village. They do write-ups of him in biographies of Jack Kerouac. Unipressers tell you these two things about Carr, who doesn't like to do interviews: That he may be wearing the same yellowed white shirt he had on the day he came to work in the '40s. And for years he was nothing but the soul of the desk operation.

There's a fake Christmas tree in the middle of what was once the metro wire. But the metro wire is now just some shoved-together file cabinets and a big blue Igloo ice chest. "I don't know," Wiessler says, studying the fake tree. "'Cause nobody took it down, I guess." He keeps studying it.

"Yeah," he says, walking you past Carr, Carr not looking up, Wiessler himself seeming to be speaking not to you but to the dry still air. "We used to take the story by the throat and shake it around and bang it on the table. And, and, we ... just ... can't ... do that anymore."