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American Journalism Review
II. UPI: HANGING BY A STRINGER  | American Journalism Review
 AJR  Features
From AJR,   March 1992

II. UPI: HANGING BY A STRINGER   

By Diane Bartz
Diane Bartz, who worked for five months in 1991 at UPIs metro and radio desks in Washington, was among the employees who signed a letter asking the bankruptcy court to replace VanBennekom. She left soon after to take a job with another wire service.      

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   » I. THE DAILY NEWS: TOO TOUGH TO DIE?

It was a few minutes past 4 a.m. on a mild January morning in Washington, D.C. Alone in the newsroom at UPI headquarters, Alan Yonan had just finished a week of reporting from the U.S. Treasury and was heading into the last of 20 hours overtime covering for a foreign desk editor who was out sick.

Despite the hour, Yonan was swamped. President Bush had been in Singapore, so copy was rolling in from Asia. And since the overnight radio writer was also ill, Yonan was behind schedule completing a package of eight radio briefs.

Enter the cavalry. At his apartment halfway across town, Washington Bureau Chief Steve Geimann couldn't sleep. Rising from bed, he checked the wire on his home computer, realized Yonan was in trouble and rattled off four of the briefs. After sending them to headquarters by modem, he dashed off four more and went back to bed. A grateful Yonan used them all.

That kind of seat-of-the-pants dedication and teamwork, combined with substantial cutbacks, complicated legal maneuvering and a healthy dose of gallows humor, has kept 84-year-old United Press International afloat since it asked a federal court in August for protection from some 4,000 creditors. If UPI survives its ongoing Chapter 11 proceeding – its second in six years – the wire service at best will continue to be only a much thinner version of rival Associated Press. And its only clients likely would be financially strapped newspapers and broadcast stations that can't afford the more expensive AP, or new non-media clients such as databases or research institutes. Already UPI has launched a script service for small radio stations sent via fax machine and a dial-in database where non-subscribers pay a small fee to download and use individual stories.

V iewed by many as the feistier and more colorful alternative to AP, UPI has long been considered an underdog. During its heyday in the 1950s and 1960s, when it sent Neil Sheehan to Vietnam and Helen Thomas to the White House, UPI often bested the monolithic AP. The competition became so fierce, in fact, that when John F. Kennedy was assassinated in 1963, UPI's Merriman Smith deliberately monopolized the press car's radio phone so AP's Jack Bell couldn't file his report. Smith's bulletin – "Three shots were fired at President Kennedy's motorcade in downtown Dallas" – beat AP by five minutes. Bell also nearly decked Smith, who won a Pulitzer for his coverage, but swung short.

As late as 1983, UPI reportedly had more than 800 media clients. These days, editors say they aren't sure how many remain, and company officials won't say. Executive Vice President Al Rossiter says such numbers are "proprietary" and confidential. Other sources say the wire has contracts with roughly 100 U.S. dailies and 100 weeklies. But few, if any, major newspapers still receive copy from the heavily indebted wire ($65 million in the red at last count, with just $23 million in assets), and some staffers admit to knowing more about where their copy doesn't appear than where it does. Only twenty-two states still have full-time reporters, according to UPI, with 33 U.S. bureaus still operating. Overseas, there are 47 UPI bureaus.

While bankruptcy hearings continue early this month in New York, many staffers fight fatigue and sagging spirits, worrying day-to-day about whether their jobs will survive until morning. They crack jokes to ease the tension ("At least we've outlasted the Soviet Union," says one editor), but many are disheartened by the feeling that the wire has seen its best days and no longer has the resources to cover the world as it once did. "There's this old UPI 'it-can-be-done' attitude," says Washington desk chief Dave Rosso. "[But] we're working with less all the time. It's very depressing." Radio writer Tracey Webb, who joined UPI in 1985 after graduating from Howard University inWashington, D.C., characterizes morale as "very low." "[UPI]'s not even an underdog anymore."

F ounded in 1907 by the publisher E. W. Scripps, United Press merged with William Randolph Hearst's International News Service in 1958 to become UPI. But the cornerstone for the wire's cash-flow problems had been laid 13 years earlier, in 1945, when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that AP had violated antitrust laws by refusing to sell its copy to more than one paper in any market. (UPI sold to everyone.) Following the court decision, many newspapers received both UPI and AP. Years later, with money tight and newspapers forced to choose, the decision meant more clients for AP and heavy debts for UPI.

The wire was sold in 1982, again in 1986 after filing Chapter 11, and again in 1988 to Virginia-based Infotechnology Inc., which itself filed for bankruptcy a year ago. Today, while some newspapers say they keep both wires to prevent AP from growing fat and lazy, others have dropped UPI and added those operated by major newspapers or foreign services such as Reuters.

Unipressers, as they call themselves, have become accustomed to the bumpy ride. "I started seven years ago and a week later they filed for bankruptcy," Yonan says. "Those who wanted more stability have left."

Already stretched to the breaking point in some places, the wire has laid off 64 union-covered employees, five managers and six part-timers since October. And in the late fall and early winter at least seven Washington reporters quit to take other jobs, including those who covered agriculture, the environment, the Treasury, the Justice Department, the Pentagon, Health and Human Services and Congress. UPI says it now has about 500 employees worldwide, in addition to at least 1,000 stringers, many of whom have been hired only recently to replace full-time correspondents. At least one former staffer, however, says that there are at most 200 stringers, "and that's being generous."

Whatever the numbers, stringers have become a sore point for many Unipressers. Treasury reporter Teresa Simons Robinson, for instance, was not affected by the recent layoffs but quit anyway. "I could no longer in good conscience continue to work for UPI," says Simons Robinson, who was laid off from the Sacramento bureau in 1990 before being rehired in Washington, D.C. "They thought they could do everything with stringers."

The Wire Service Guild and many UPI staffers believe stringers will destroy what remains of the wire's reputation. In September, several Unipressers argued in bankruptcy court that Chief Executive Officer Pieter VanBennekom's decision to replace full-time beat reporters with part-time stringers constituted mismanagement and that he should be replaced. Just calling in stringers to cover press conferences meant wire reports would lack background needed for context. Further, the employees argued, there would be no chance of scooping AP because stringers can't develop sources as well as full-timers can.

UPI executives disagree. "Stringers have greatly enhanced our coverage," Rossiter says, "because we have far more to call on" than full-timers. "Some people have charged that stringers aren't as experienced, but many are longtime journalists who are far more experienced and knowledgeable than the [full-time] reporters we had before."

The arguments against VanBennekom didn't convince Judge Francis Conrad, and the decision to use string-ers still rankles. "I don't think stringers can replace correspondents, and anyone telling you otherwise is bull- shitting," says chief correspondent Leon Daniel, who says he gave up his position as managing editor of the international desk in 1988 rather than follow orders to slash his roster of foreign correspondents.

M ore crucial than the stringer decision is the belief among many former and present UPI staff members that management has failed repeatedly to tell them the ugly truth. Many felt humiliated to learn from an article in the August 27 New York Times – not from their UPI bosses – that the news service would declare bankruptcy the next day.

They were again the last to know in September when a Reuter reporter called the D.C. newsroom to confirm that layoffs would be announced the next day. Baffled, an international editor phoned his boss, Senior Vice President Michael Keats, who offered assurances that the desk was protected and insisted he knew nothing of any impending pink slips. In fact, within 24 hours Keats lost his own job; a few weeks later, the five international editors were told to transfer to the desk's new location in London or forfeit their jobs. One transferred, another moved to an empty slot on the radio desk and three others were out of work. Meanwhile, UPI reporters in Moscow learned about the layoffs from the Soviet news agency Tass.

Being kept in the dark has hardly been the only snub suffered by Unipressers. About the time of the autumn layoffs, the union charged that VanBennekom had received a $25,000 bonus the day before the bankruptcy filing. Moreover, at virtually the same time that he asked Judge Conrad to strip the union contract of provisions that assured severance and other benefits to dismissed employees, the 46-year-old CEO guaranteed himself a $135,000 golden parachute. As if that weren't enough, all vacation time staffers had accumulated before the bankruptcy was abruptly cancelled.

Unipressers, who had agreed to a 35 percent pay cut in November 1990 and who watched it creep slowly down to a 20 percent cut, could not let a bonus that equals what many take home annually after four years service go unnoticed. Office wags began sliding books on corporate greed under the door of VanBennekom's newsroom office at UPI headquarters, although he was rarely, if ever, there.

Satire as revenge soon followed: Photocopied, doctored photos of VanBennekom started appearing everywhere. The first showed the U.S.S. Arizona going down in Pearl Harbor with a suave VanBennekom standing passively before the sinking ship. Next came a photo of the doomed Hindenburg, again with VanBennekom in the foreground. More images followed, including an elaborate mobile made of coat hangers and carefully balanced VanBennekom faces of all sizes that appeared hanging from the newsroom ceiling.

The effigies, which one staffer says "made coming to the office fun," were eventually removed – except for the twirling Pieters. The mobile continued to rotate slowly above the empty cubicles that once housed the D.C. metro desk, which closed in July. More recently one staffer has taken to wearing a mask and wielding a red plastic pitchfork in a mock attempt to stave off attacking creditors.

VanBennekom, who joined UPI in 1969 as an editor in Mexico City, appears unruffled. He says he takes the ribbing in stride, adding that staffers have a tradition of singling out owners and management "like targets in the shooting gallery."

"It doesn't bother me at all," he says. "I have a job to do and I'm doing it to the best of my ability."

U nder federal bankruptcy laws, UPI cannot accumulate new debt. But when VanBennekom is asked if UPI is breaking even, the CEO hints that the wire is still living beyond its meager means.

"Unfortunately..you don't know until you close the books on a particular month," he says, adding that the company hopes to report that UPI has not lost money in the first months of 1992. That bottom line could be crucial. Judge Conrad could decide this month to replace UPI management if he or any major creditors feel the wire would have a better chance with a new executive team.

Meanwhile, layoffs continue: Two staffers in New York, one in Chicago, one in Los Angeles and one in Washington, D.C., learnedduring the first week of January that they had lost their jobs.

In the end, UPI's long history may ensure its survival. J. Peter Byrne, a Georgetown University law professor who specializes in bankruptcy cases, says judges are often reluctant to shut down companies they consider American institutions. "It's human nature," he says. But there are no guarantees. Sentimentality didn't prevent bankruptcy courts from killing off Eastern and Pan Am airlines, he points out, indicating judges may be more comfortable with such closures.

I f UPI survives, VanBennekom believes it can build its client base by serving non-media clients such as databases, research institutes, government agencies and sports teams. "The newspaper industry is very tough at this point," he says. "We had more or less foreseen [this]." In the trenches, Daniel and others envision UPI courting smaller newspapers or broadcasters unwilling or unable to pay AP's higher fees. Geimann says he sees a "leaner, smaller UPI – bargain basement."

Others are skeptical. "People aren't taking words of encouragement too seriously," says the Washington desk's Rosso, who began with UPI in 1969 answering phones. "We don't feel confident about it."

Confident or not, UPI remains in business. But staffers say the workplace is especially depressing when farewell messages from dismissed colleagues flood the wire. "Seeking some relative job security, I have decided to run for the presidency of Haiti," one reads. Another begins: "Twenty-two years ago, fresh journalism degree in hand, I took off my cap and gown and flew the same day to my first assignment with UPI in Raleigh, North Carolina. It has been a fast, thoroughly exhilarating ride – except for the past few years which, in some respects, has been [like] watching my mother die, painfully, of cancer." l

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