Washington City Paper's Take on UPI

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

Back at UPI's White House cubicle, Helen Thomas was preparing to leave. Part of that "preparation" consisted of tossing me two legal-size sheets of paper with the president's schedule for the next week and saying they needed to be type into UPI's computer system. She left. I finished the unemployment story. The announcement came that the president would soon be leaving. And it started to rain.

The next half-hour was spent standing in the drizzle with a throng of other reporters -- waiting for a helicopter to arrive, and, when it did, waiting for the president to emerge from the White House. When Bush strode awkwardly into view, someone shouted out a question about the nascent civil war in Yugoslavia. The president shouted back a single sentence about remarks by Jim Baker the day before. Then he left.

Damp reporters gathered in little groups, saying things like, "I got the first part, but what was the second half?" I called the office and was told they had already heard the quote on CNN, which covered it live.

Given that experience -- and others like it -- probably should have come as no surprise when, in the midst of a hot summer of hard work, UPI's Washington Metro desk closed mysteriously. One day I was called into my editor's office and given the news: the closure was something, he said, that had been in the works. As always, the real reason remained unclear. I could only surmise that UPI was spending more money on salaries than they were receiving from clients. My colleague was transferred to Treasury, while I went to the Radio desk. My new job was to boil articles down into 4 to 5 line broadcast bits, arranging them in packages that disk jockeys could read for their hourly news.

But if the real story behind the Metro desk closure was shrouded in secrecy, that was nothing compared to the constant stream of unpleasant surprises that began to descend upon staffers. Financial storm clouds were gathering once again. Just as photographer Davis had suspected, UPI staffers were invariably the last to know.

There had always been ugly rumors: Layoffs happened in the past, and they would surely happen again. From time to time I would jokingly ask the acting bureau chief, Steve Geimann, if there would be any that day. He would laugh and say something reassuring. Toward the end of the summer, the rumors multiplied. Then came a late-night telephone call to the Washington headquarters on Aug. 26, bringing news that The New York Times' Aug. 27 edition carried an article stating that UPI would declare bankruptcy for a second time on Aug. 28. The call was a friendly tip.

Angry and humiliated, the night editor called one of UPI's top managers to ask whether the news was true. It was. Then why -- for God's sake -- hadn't the employees been told first? And why did the New York Times get to run the story before UPI did? Later, pumping various management people for information, I gathered that UPI President VanBennekom believed that granting the Times an exclusive on UPI's bankruptcy would give him an opportunity to argue in print that closing the company and selling its meager assets would net creditors nothing -- thus buying time for the company.

Say what?

Did he mean to imply a UPI story wouldn't be believable, that the same important point couldn't be made over the wires that VanBennekom ran?

On the eighth floor of the UPI building -- one floor below management's offices -- the staff's bewilderment and frustration grew.

In September, the mortifying process was repeated. This time, a reporter with the British wire service Reuters called the Washington office to confirm a story that massive UPI layoffs would be announced the next day. An international editor gave the Reuters reporter the name of the UPI spokesman, Milt Capps, then furiously dialed the number of his boss, Michael Keats, who held the title of senior vice president in charge of the International desk. Keats insisted he knew nothing about the impending flurry of pink slips and assured his workers they were safe.

In fact, Keats -- despite decades of service to UPI -- was one of 68 people in UPI's domestic offices who were laid off the next day.

Another was photographer Bob Davis.


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