Washington City Paper's Take on UPI - Add



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


All of the layoffs were to occur in UPI's domestic bureaus: a relief, surely, for foreign correspondents. Even so, how demeaning it must have been for UPI's Moscow reporters when, on Sept. 7, they learned the fate of their U.S. counterparts from none other than the Soviet news agency, Tass!

In Washington, reporters and editors began to leave the office every day saying, "See you tomorrow -- if we're still here." And every morning, I scoured the business pages to see if there was anything new about my company. If there were any such stories, I doubted it would carry a UPI byline.

Whom to blame? Some people claimed that Infotech had taken a lot of UPI money; others alluded to gross mismanagement on the part of UPI. I suspected that the shrinking news industry was slowly killing the already snakebitten news service. In truth, we didn't have the faintest idea who was at fault. But there was one thing we did know. While top management was playing its game of "I've got a secret," a list appeared in the office with the salaries of UPI officials. They ranged from $45,000 for an editor in Buenos Aires to $86,522 for VanBennekom. Word also leaked out that VanBennekom had received a $25,000 bonus the day before the bankruptcy filing. He had also, we discovered, assured himself a $135,000 severance package. (VanBennekom insisted to union officials that he hadn't wanted the bonus, but that it had been forced on him by UPI's board of directors, "to secure stability for the company.")

VanBennekom's bonus was pathetically small by modern corporate robber- baron standards. Even so, UPI employees were incensed. They were doubly incensed when they learned that as part of the bankruptcy agreement, UPI's lawyers had asked the judge to strip the union contract of hard-won provisions that 1.) assured severance pay for laid-off workers and 2.) forced the company to lay off people with the least seniority first. Both provisions were granted. This meant that the agency's most senior, most well-paid journalists were at the greatest risk of being axed. And their departure would cost the company the most in terms of value lost.

Amidst the destruction, management delivered a final kick. On Sept. 18, 1991 -- about the same time that the 68-name layoff list was published -- Human Services Director Ann Kott issued a memo announcing that all (count them, all) vacation days earned before the bankruptcy filing were null, at least until UPI was out of bankruptcy. More than that, the memo promised -- without apparent irony -- that the policy would be enforced "humanely" with those in "pressing need" accommodated.

Staffers tried to console themselves by pointing to the 600 people laid off at Time Warner Inc., just one year after Chairman Steven J. Ross made $78 million in salary, bonuses, and stock options. But it didn't work. And UPI management soon found out why totalitarian societies ban photocopiers.

Because if we didn't know who -- or what -- had delivered the hardest blow to UPI, we did know that it came from the vicinity of Pieter VanBennekom. Staffers retaliated with a high-tech burning in effigy. Overnight, photocopied reproductions of the man who got the measly $25,000 bonus appeared everywhere in the cavernous newsroom. Like Zelig, VanBennekom's face appeared in a photo of Rumanian gymnast Nadia Comaneci. A VanBennekom head topped the tiny figures that distinguish the men's and women's bathrooms. Another was taped to the crisper inside the refrigerator. Here was the company's president in a tiny cartoon car whizzing across a file cabinet! Here he was again, his head atop the sizable body of Roseanne Barr Arnold clutching her crotch.

Walking around the newsroom became surreal. Drawers that hadn't been used in weeks would, when opened, yield a Pieter VanBennekom head attached. Taking a sip of coffee would bring into view, yes, a quarter-sized Pieter VanBennekom head attached to the bottom of the cup. And VanBennekom "gift- wrap" appeared, with neat rows of heads line up across the page.

Fruitless, yes. Hysterical, yes. But at lest we were laughing instead of crying -- or drinking heavily. Many staffers were scared about the layoffs. People who'd been with UPI for years knew they would never find as good a job. And so the VanBennekom heads were funny. Not just for days, but for weeks. Walking into the newsroom in the morning, people would see VanBennekom's head pasted to the minute hand of the clock, slowly rotating around the dial, and cathartic laughter would fill the room.

One manager even proposed a new place to put a tiny VanBennekom head, then warned me never, never to tell anyone about his suggestion.

Humor gave way to pathos on Oct. 1: the day the layoffs took effect. Poignant goodbye messages from laid-off staffers in Baton Rouge, New York, Norfolk, Pittsburgh, and other cities flooded the message wire. "Seeking some relative job security, I have decided to run for the presidency of Haiti," one said. Another read: "I had the best job on Earth and the best years of my life here. Well, the later ones were a little rough but still no regret."

"I came to UPI two weeks past my 21st birthday filled with the romantic vision that I would help to provide a valued service for journalism," read a third. "I have . . . learned some tough lessons about corporate loyalty and economics."

Even Unipressers who survived the cuts did not necessarily keep their jobs. Soon reporters who lost their vacations discovered that they had lost their beats as well: Reporters who lived and flourished on Capitol Hill and in the bowels of federal agencies were moved to tedious desk jobs. Stringers, we discovered, would take their beats. But why any experienced reporters would string for UPI -- which by then owed thousands of dollars to stringers around the world -- was a mystery. That fact was not lost on Amy Chubb, the news editor of the Fresno Daily Report.

In a Sept. 25 letter to VanBennekom, she wrote: "What you have done . . . is to trade excellent, timely coverage for second-rate stories from nameless stringers." The bitter letter, posted in the newsroom, closed with the fateful prediction: "When the UPI ship sinks under the weight of greedy, ill-informed decisions, I am certain the only people who will (be left) in a healthy financial condition will be you and the bankruptcy attorneys."

Nor were outright layoffs the only technique UPI came up with for getting rid of employees. Other pressures were also applied. It wasn't long before international editors learned that they would be moving to London, where the cost of living was estimated to be 25 percent higher. None of the standard compensations -- a round-trip ticket, living or moving expenses -- was offered. As a result, only one of the five deskers decided to move. The other four (as UPI had surely been hoping) decided to quit.

UPI was being decimated. And the effects of inexperience began to show, in both reporting and editing. The Johannesburg bureau, which files directly to some clients outside the United States, came up with a doozy of an example on Oct. 8. That day, UPI sent out a story that a reporter had lifted from The Sowetan, a South African paper, which said two Zionist prophets in Swaziland were trying to rescue six women who had been abducted and impregnated by a "merman." But, the UPI reporter straightforwardly wrote, the rescue attempt was delayed because one of the Zionists had a nosebleed and the other a fever. Needless to say, there are no "mermen," and no experienced UPI editor would have sent that story to clients.

During this period I learned that my job was secure. After all, I was a veritable bargain for UPI. But that was nothing compared to another irony I daily faced. At one of the most demoralized moments in UPI's increasingly demoralized history, I was coming to see why people loved working there. At AP, I already knew, bureaus are populated by ambitious, sometimes back-stabbing reporters who compete against one another for big stories. At The Washington Post, staffers were kept on edge by Ben Bradlee's "creative tension." At UPI -- where the esprit de corps has always been legendary -- staffers, laid-off and otherwise, pooled their money and purchased an ad in Editor & Publisher inviting newspapers to hire them. Reporter Karen Timmons then set up a hot line, where people could call in to find out about available openings.

At the same time, I had realized my initial dream of working with true veterans. Although writing radio scripts meant no more trips to the White House, I did get to set near the World desk, headed by Lucian "Lou" Carr. Carr, now in his 60s, had worked with the wire service for at least four decades: "More than half of UPI's life," he liked to say, and more than all of mine. It was Carr who came to the rescue when his friend, Jack Kerouac, became irritated at having to change paper while speed-typing On the Road, stealing a roll of teletype paper to make Kerouac's task easier. "I didn't steal it," Carr once drawled. "I just stuck it under my arm and brought it home."

Sine then, Lou Carr had worn well. Bearded, chain-smoking, he had not become dated. Nor had he become inaccessible after being booted up to management. In fact, I discovered, if Helen Thomas is UPI's external facade, Carr is one of the internal bolts, a season, hard-working editor holding the company together through charisma and rewriting skills. He ensured that copy coming in from overworked staffers and inexperienced stringers would meet wire-service standards.

I was never formally introduced to Carr, a Missourian who claims to have been born in a "New York abortion mill." (My mother always said I was one of their failures," he says.) Instead, I was innocently getting coffee one day when a depressed staffer waylaid Carr by the coffee machine and said UPI's big problem was that it spent too much energy trying to beat AP.

That's how we get our rocks off around here, kicking AP in the ass. Right, babe?" Carr roared, apparently at me. I agreed. Like most wire-service animals, I thrive on adrenalin, and there's no bigger adrenalin rush than keeping ahead of AP on a big story. We cheered, for example, when CNN credited UPI with being the first to report that U.S. government officials had found evidence that photos purporting to be of U.S. servicemen shot down in Indochina during the Vietnam War had been faked.

Carr was a great source of newsroom lore: When a debate over smoking in the office turned to suggestions that smokers take up chewing tobacco, Carr announced that chewing tobacco was part of the irretrievable past. "We used to have cuspidors before we got the women and the rugs." But he was reluctant to share his insights into UPI's gradual demise. Other veterans were more forthcoming. Over coffee one day, UPI's religion writer, David Anderson, reminisced about his 24 years at the company.

Anderson started his career in 1967 in Washington the proverbial way: as a copy boy, fetching the coffee and changing typewriter ribbons for the real reporters. He would have preferred, he said, not to work at all -- and to concentrate his energies on radical politics -- but his wife quit her job so Anderson felt it was his turn to find steady work. From copy boy, he was promoted to dictationist. His first reporting job came during the 1968 civil- rights and anti-war riots. He was hooked.

Back then, Anderson recanted, part of the wire-service thrill was rushing to the phone, passing along a story to telegraph operators, and muscling into the afternoon papers. Now, p.m. papers are rarer than dinosaurs -- and the remaining morning papers have more wire services than ever from which to pick and choose. The result? Nostalgia, for people like Anderson. "Helen (Thomas) would pay to do what she does. I went years feeling that way: that it was a privilege to do what we did."

I felt the same way. So when word came through that a job was available to me at another wire service's Washington bureau, I was ambivalent about accepting it. Other Unipressers were envious of my good luck: "I wish I could say I had another job," more than one wistfully told me. But I didn't feel lucky, and I didn't particularly want to go. I didn't like rewriting radio copy, but I liked working with experienced, funny veterans like Lucian Carr. I liked the camaraderie of the newsroom. I liked the Pieter VanBennekom heads. I wanted UPI to be as it was in the mid-1960s: a tough competitor to the monolithic AP. I wanted to cut a path through the journalistic terrain of the wire service, maybe landing that dream job in Latin America. But that terrain was shifting underneath everyone's feet.

I also wanted to avoid any ugly "bumping" disputes. When an older, more experienced reporter was laid off, I feared, he or she might demand my job -- only to have UPI management insist I could do it "better" (read: cheaper.) My departure, I reasoned, would also mean one few layoff down the line.

So I gave notice. On my last day, Oct. 11, I cleaned out my desk and swapped home telephone numbers with colleagues. Leaving, I noticed that Marion Barry's telephone numbers were still on the wall of my former Metro cubicle. Brown and neglected, the scrap of paper somehow seemed to perfectly capture the grander corporate shipwreck that is UPI. I decided to leave them posted. They're still there.

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