Washington City Paper's Take on UPI

Here's a piece written by Diane Bartz for the Nov. 1, 1991, Washington City Paper:

Electricity once crackled through the newsroom at United Press International, where hordes of reporters rushed their scoops to papers and broadcasters around the globe. Today, as I learned during a five-month stint, UPI is too quiet for its own good. But the thrill of being a Unipresser isn't gone -- yet.

Granted it was a weekend. In August. In Washington. Even so, photographer Bob Davis was surprised when he walked into United Press International's world headquarters at 14th and I Streets NW and found UPI's newsroom deserted: More than 20 computer terminals stood at the ready, but nobody was there. Not a reporter. Not an editor. Not a scurrying cockroach. There for his weekend shift, Davis was accustomed to seeing at least three UPI editors -- foreign, national, and radio -- sitting at their computers and watching TV, shooting the shit, or editing copy coming in from UPI reporters in Cairo, Moscow, Athens, Manhattan, Sacramento.

"Whew," he said when I (the radio editor) emerged from the ladies' room. "I thought we'd gone under and nobody told me."

I laughed. Davis was overreacting, I thought. After all, companies don't usually liquidate over a weekend. And if UPI was troubled, it had survived too many suicide and homicide attempts to die now. But I also knew why Davis, like many longtime Unipressers, was skittish. During the spring, summer and fall that I worked at UPI, staffers were nervous as colts, worried that the 84- year-old news service would suddenly go under. And that they would be the last to know.

When I began working for UPI in May 1991, there were already plenty of reasons not to. UPI employees had been living with instability and uncertainty for years, making heavy sacrifices to keep their employer and their jobs alive. The company had been losing money hand over fist when, in 1982, its owner, Scripps-Howard, paid two Tennessee entrepreneurs $5 million to take it off their hands. Following a 1985 bankruptcy, the service had been sold again to a Mexican media mogul who lost more than $50 million on UPI while he owned it.

The current owner, Infotechnology Inc., bought UPI in 1988 -- only to declare bankruptcy three years later, in March 1991. While UPI was not directly hurt by its owner's bankruptcy, it wasn't helped, either. According to UPI President Pieter VanBennekom, Infotechnology would no longer spend any money on the wire service, because there wasn't any money to speed. The whole sad story had been publicly chronicled in newspapers and, most notably, in Down to the Wire, a 1990 book published by former UPI reporters Greg Gordon and Ron Cohen.

But those were problems that confronted corporate executives in faraway offices. More immediate, from my standpoint, was the fact that in November 1990 the Wire Service Guild -- the union that represents many UPI reporters as well as UPI's archenemy, The Associated Press -- had reluctantly agreed to accept a 35 percent pay cut for all guild-covered employees in order to give the company time to work itself out of its deep financial hole. Under the agreement between the union and VanBennekom's UPI management, the pay cut was supposed to be slowly restored until staffers were once again at full salary. In 1989, a rookie could have expected to pull in about $475 per week as a starting salary. The monthly pay offered to me was a measly $309 per week. (As of this week, staffers are working for 80 percent of their former salaries.)

Why did I take the job? It would be nice to say that I was beguiled by UPI's underdog appeal; its lively features; its gutsy, hard-hitting reportage. But in fact -- living in Boston, where the news market, like everything, was deeply depressed -- I figured there would be more opportunities in Washington. With three years of temporary stints at various wire services, including AP, I shipped off my resume to the usual suspects: AP, Reuters, The Washington Post, the Washington Times. But the recession had hit everywhere. Nobody was hiring -- except UPI. Like most people, I knew the wire service was all but busted. But I also knew that I could live on the pittance they were paying. And that I'd be proud to work for UPI.

Once I knew I was taking the job, I got excited. Like most reporters who find their way to Washington, I liked covering a national beat. I also liked meeting wire-service deadlines. I liked writing, doing it fast, and doing it among some of the most experienced hands in the business. In more farfetched moments, I dreamed of working side by side with UPI's celebrated Helen Thomas: one of the groundbreaking female reporters -- and, today, the doyenne of the White House press corps. I also dreamed of working my way up the journalistic ladder until I became that most coveted of creatures, the foreign correspondent, reporting news out of Latin America for UPI clients all over the world.

My stint, however, started at the bottom of the reportorial ladder: UPI's Metro desk. There, I and another reporter were assigned to cover D.C. and its surrounding suburbs for local UPI clients: newspapers and radio and TV stations. My first hint of how bad things really were came on my first day, when I noticed phone numbers for D.C. Mayor Marion Barry posted in what was to become my first cubicle. The numbers were useless -- Barry had been out of office for more than four months -- but Mayor Sharon Pratt Dixon's numbers had not replaced them. Apparently people at UPI were already so demoralized, there seemed no reason to update one's Rolodex.

There were other disturbing signs -- like far too many desks with nobody in them. Like many newsrooms, UPI's Washington headquarters are airy, dirty, cluttered, and big. Unlike most newsrooms, they are often unnervingly empty. Five desks stood available to the writers who convert print copy into radio and television scripts; just one of these was actually occupied. Similarly, on any given day, you'd find one lonely soul sitting amidst the five desks available to the international desk, which packages stories coming in from domestic and foreign UPI correspondents, then dispatches them to clients overseas. Ditto for the Washington desk, where copy from Congress and the White House is edited. The World desk, where foreign and domestic copy is rewritten for U.S. newspapers, boasted anywhere from one to three people, but had room for five. It was clear that thanks to gradual layoffs and resignations, UPI's staff had already been decimated, both in Washington and worldwide. Less clear were actual numbers. Nobody much liked to talk about the ghost-ship feel of the office, least of all UPI management, and while news stories would appear from time to time offering a number like 450 for UPI's total employment, I had -- and still have -- a strong feeling that the official figure was a fiction.

To my great pleasure, however -- and to the dismay of local clients -- I also learned that in UPI's Washington bureau, Metro desk reporters spent the bulk of their time backing up the service's National desk. Part of the reason probably lay in the understaffing of the National desk. But I suspected that it also had to do with the fact that UPI had few, if any, remaining D.C. clients. During my earlier stint with AP, I had been given a list of all my subscribing clients; when a client merged with another one, or went bankrupt and dropped, I was told. At UPI, no such list existed. Nor did I actually talk to clients very often. In fact, were it not for the occasional (and gratifying) instance when I'd hear something that I'd written broadcast over WTOP-FM, I would have suspected that I had no clients at all.

Given all this, I didn't mind being called upon for national assignments. What reporter doesn't eat up the chance to throw over city council squabbles in favor of senatorial brouhahas? Even so, the experience showed me UPI's most serious problem: a staff of unseasoned and overworked reporters.

It was a living example. Nothing, not even prior wire-service experience, could have prepared me for the day -- July 5, to be exact -- when my colleague on the Metro desk went on vacation, as did the Treasury reporter and the bulk of UPI's four White House reporters. Through a series of managerial misunderstandings, after two whole months at UPI, I ended up covering all three beats.

The day began around 8 a.m., when, having already done a couple of quick assignments for Metro subscribers, I made a 16-block dash to the Labor Department, where unemployment figures were to be released. Among deadline journalists, there's vicious competition for these monthly figures because they affect stock prices. To prevent the embargo from being broken, reporters are closely controlled. Under the drill, they must arrive before the time of the release, write a quick story on computers there at the department, then transmit the story to editors, who send it to clients. Understanding the complex figures and writing the story within the deadline is tough enough, but doubly tough when you're alone. When I'd done this trick before, I'd looked around the press room and realized how badly outgunned UPI was. Dow Jones and Reuters would have three financial reporters hovering over, say, a routine retail-sales story, while I, a lowly Metro desk replacement for the financial reporter, was alone -- and worried about Metro stories left undone at the main office.

But the job had to be done. I banged out your basic, general 300-word unemployment story at the Labor Department ("unemployment was up ...") then rushed back to the office to call the Metropolitan Police Department, find out if there had been any D.C. murders, and try to write a 100-word item on any victims. But my Treasury duties weren't finished. Following the quick morning story, it was customary to call analysts and write a longer, more comprehensive unemployment piece. I called the analysts. I also typed up a table of figures for clients in different states. But before I could heave a sigh of relief, I got the bad news. There was a special format for the table, and it needed to be redone.

It was about then -- somewhere around noon -- that I discovered I was going to the White House

Helen Thomas was heading to the president's vacation home in Kennebunkport; the press plane would be leaving before Air Force One. UPI may be willing to leave its other beats untended, but the president must have a reporter with him at all times; what happened if he had a heart attack in the brief interval between Thomas' departure and his?

What would happen, of course, is that I would work like hell trying to cover it.

Loaded down with the unwritten unemployment story and the charts that needed to be revised, I arrived at the exalted White House press office: a subterranean warren of nondescript cubicles and booths, full of reporters and photographers awaiting the next published statement. There I also met Helen Thomas, a simultaneously warm and imperious woman in her mid-'70s. The eternal reporter, Thomas immediately asked me several questions about myself: I stammered quick answers, but not quick enough. "Well, I'll get the rest of your life story later," she remarked elliptically (did I seem to be droning on?) and handed me a question about peanut quotas from the agriculture reporter. "Take care of it," she commanded.

Take care of it? OK, I would. But first, she decided, I needed a tour of the press area. Intent on the undone unemployment story, I had a hard time distinguishing my surroundings. Thomas showed me the vending machines, displaying them with a knowing look (did I look like a big eater?) Then came the briefing room, followed by a low-ceiling basement office filled with photocopied presidential statements and detestable young White House staffers in carefully pressed shirts and neatly knotted ties. We proceeded up a set of stairs, toward an ordinary-looking set of doors that, presumably, led to somewhere extraordinary. "Don't ever go through there," confided Helen, with relish, "or you'll get shot."

Next, the woman who'd occupied the White House longer than Bush, Reagan, Carter, Ford, Nix, and Johnson put together padded into a set of immaculate rooms as if she owned them. "That's Marlin's office." She gestured toward a large office; it went without saying that the "Marlin" in question was White House Press Secretary Marlin Fitzwater. Thomas asked to see Fitzwater's assistant, Judy Smith. We were ushered into her office. Thomas introduced me, announced I had a question, and strode out of the office. Smith turned to me politely; I stammered out my question about those peanut quotas. She said she would get back to me. And she did -- first, to say that no announcement would be made that day, apparently thanks to my query. I hoped the ag reporter was ecstatic.


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