UPI’s Salvation

In 1982 two young Baha’i entrepreneurs whose media savvy consisted of the lessons learned in a year of running Joliet’s Channel 66 purchased storied United Press International for a price you could have handled yourself. The Scripps-Howard newspaper chain paid Doug Ruhe and Bill Geissler $5 million to take the gallant 75-year-old, perennially unprofitable wire service off its hands.

Ruhe and Geissler met the staff at headquarters in New York, and did not impress them. Former Unipressers Gregory Gordon and Ronald Cohen would describe the moment in Down to the Wire, their 1990 book on UPI’s calamitous 80s:

“Unipressers shared two basic emotions. The first was a feeling that “anything has got to be better than what we’ve been going through.’ The second was a healthy skepticism. They worried that Scripps, the corporate sugar daddy, had entrusted its sickly child to rank amateurs. . . . Had Scripps turned over United Press International to people without the necessary brains, experience, connections, and cash to have a chance to succeed?”

Scripps had done exactly that. Ruhe and Geissler were in way over their heads, and UPI declared bankruptcy in 1985.

The wire service’s next savior was one of the wealthiest men in Mexico, Mario Vazquez-Rana, owner of the El Sol newspaper group. Two years later Vazquez-Rana stagggered away $70 million poorer. He’d rescued the wire service from bankruptcy, but now it was losing up to $2 million a month.

UPI’s new parent was Infotechnology, Inc., run by a former Vietnam combat surgeon named Earl Brian who had in mind some sort of synergistic relationship with his Financial News Network. By last August UPI was $65 million in debt and back in Chapter 11, as were Financial News Network and Infotechnology.

An ad appeared in the Positions Wanted column of Editor & Publisher. It said: “For 84 years UPI has served the news industry. We, the reporters, editors and photographers of UPI are proud of that history and that service. Many of us now face layoffs or management decisions that make it impossible to continue that tradition with integrity. We offer talent, experience, dedication, integrity and loyalty and, regretfully, we now seek new professional homes where those attributes are valued.”

The employees behind the ad weren’t fired, possibly because they were irreplaceable. UPI claimed a worldwide staff of 1,500 ten years ago. The trade magazine Newsinc. said last November that the wire was down to 300 full-time employees. Wage concessions and layoffs long ago became a way of life.

The Newsinc. article quoted an unnamed newspaper consultant on UPI’s prospects. “I have something called the Greatest Fool Theory,” he explained. “If there’s a fool to buy, there’s probably a greater fool who’ll buy it next. But at some point you reach the greatest fool, because there’s no one else.”

On May 13, two days before UPI was due to run out of money, a greater fool emerged–a fool of God, no less! Ordered onto the auction block by a bankruptcy judge, UPI in its entirety received one bid–of $6 million (contingent on a study of the books) by televangelist Pat Robertson.

If suddenly from out of nowhere, which is how he entered the bidding for UPI, Robertson were to acquire the Chicago Tribune, honorable journalists would soon be seen sailing out the Tower’s windows onto Michigan Avenue. Even at the Sun-Times–and think of what that paper’s been through these last ten years–the arrival of Robertson would encourage defenestration. Survivors of UPI’s decade on the brink tried to think positively.

“He’s making all the right noises,” said Marcy Kreiter, the Chicago-based regional editor. “He won’t interfere with the editorial content. He’ll let us do our jobs. He wants to build the wire service back up.”

When times were better we worked at UPI. It was one of two experiences–the Navy was the other–as an underpaid and battered pawn inside a great institution enthralled with its traditions. These were of course the best years of our life. The three reporters in the Saint Louis bureau covered not just the metropolitan area but the eastern half of Missouri. The boss screamed “Hit it hard and keep it short!” We pounded out breaking news stories sitting at the teletype.

These days, executive editor Steve Geimann in Washington does the talking for UPI. Geimann would rather call Robertson a “successful businessman” than a preacher; he likes to remind skeptics that Robertson’s “been in the broadcasting business since the early 1960s.” (If Robertson goes ahead with the purchase, UPI will be owned by the U.S. Media Corporation, the for-profit subsidiary of Robertson’s nonprofit Christian Broadcasting Network.)

“I expect and have been told he intends to run UPI as a business, a business covering news,” said Geimann. “And the way you run a successful business covering news is to provide a service people want to buy. What they want to buy is quality, fairness, balance, accuracy, speed, expertise, professionalism. And those qualities describe what UPI has been for 85 years.”

Then why did it go bankrupt? we asked him.

Overlooking incompetence, Geimann favored us with a history lesson. “The economy has been enormously devastating to the newspaper and broadcasting industry,” he said, pointing out that most of the papers that have gone belly up in the last several years have been afternoon papers. Those PM papers were UPI’s earliest and most loyal clients. UPI was founded in 1907 to combat the Associated Press monopoly; a cooperative owned by its member papers, the AP originally allowed only one franchise in each city, and most franchisees were morning papers.

Would you still call UPI a full-service wire? we asked Geimann.

“We cover the biggest stories of the day. We cover sports, we cover business, we cover state news in selected states, probably close to two dozen. But we also provide pictures, a radio network, a broadcast report. A newspaper or radio station could subscribe to UPI and have its needs met.”

Including a radio station in Saint Louis? we asked him. We thought of all the old clients there we used to write radio briefs for every hour.

“Yeah, we could satisfy that need,” said Geimann.

We can’t take him seriously. Certainly not about Robertson, who had this to say about UPI on his daily talk show, the 700 Club: “Remember some years ago, way back in the 70s, we began praying for all aspects of life–religious life, governmental life, education, the media, arts and entertainment, etc.–and all of these facets are part of what God wants to touch. He wants to touch it with his truth and his love, and so this is maybe one little opportunity, so we’ll see.”

Only the shell-shocked could possibly believe that a preacher who’s been praying for two decades for God to touch the media would buy a media company that’s been losing money in trickles or torrents for 30 years straight and not intend to help God favor it with a little truth and love.

“Face it,” said Marcy Kreiter defiantly, “journalists are anarchists. We’re not going to take orders from somebody else. Journalists are troublemakers.”

A Unipresser since 1973, Kreiter hangs in because she still likes to beat the AP and sometimes still does. We met her in the UPI’s new Chicago bureau, which is nothing like the big and noisy one we remember. The teletypes are gone and so are most of the people.

How’s Saint Louis? we asked Kreiter.

“We don’t have a Saint Louis bureau now,” she admitted. “Steve Whitworth, who was our last bureau reporter down there, is stringing for us now. But he’s working from his house.”

So we also can’t take Geimann seriously about meeting clients’ needs. Actually Whitworth’s working from his parents’ house, tapping out two 700-word radio packages a day on his laptop. UPI isn’t even listed in the Saint Louis phone book. Whitworth covers Saint Louis and eastern Missouri, and also western Missouri and even Kansas City, because there’s no UPI bureau there either.

Geimann has galloped upward through the ranks from radio rewrite man in Albany in 1983 to head of the operation in 1992. In your nine years of promotions, we asked him, have you had more pay raises or pay cuts?

“Let’s see. I have to sit down and count,” he said. “Hey, everybody at UPI is underpaid. You can quote me on that. Pat Robertson said something to that effect when he met with the staff. He said, your wages are a lot lower than I’m accustomed to.”

Or, Putting It Another Way…

Representatives of the Japanese American Citizens League, the Asian American Bar Association, and Clergy and Laity Concerned came in for a chat last week. An item in the previous Hot Type had appalled them. It was the item that spoke of the Japanese as “the ones who can respectably be bashed now, for their sly, relentless, antlike invasion of the American economy,” of Koreans as “the ones whose energy and industry should serve as an example to us all,” and of the recent looters of Korean shops in Los Angeles as “self-pitying wastrels of the inner city blind to the opportunities go-getters seize.”

The lesson here is that no matter how ironically racial stereotypes are applied, they’re going to offend their usual victims. And as the members of the distressed delegation were, in a sense, the very people on whose behalf we’d written, we saw no reason to complain that they’d missed the point. Instead we told our visitors we’d be happy to make it again in language that everyone will understand.

So here goes. It’s become socially OK for respectable Americans to blame their country’s economic miseries on the Japanese. Racism is contagious, and when resentful Americans at the bottom of the pecking order bash other Asians, they’re walking like so-called decent people talk. Scapegoating pervades American society, from the top down.