Victoria Smith Ekstrand. Encyclopedia of Journalism. Editor: Christopher H Sterling. Sage Publication. 2009.
United Press International (UPI), a 1958 amalgamation of the International News Service and United Press, was a major American news agency for more than seven decades. Owned in the early twenty-first century by News World Communications, UPI is now but a shadow of the international news and information provider it once was.
Though founded under its present name in 1958, UPI traces its roots to United Press Associations (UP). Publisher E. W. Scripps, in order to battle AP’s then-restrictive membership policies, had formed three regional Scripps news services in the early 1900s, and merged them to become the UP on June 21, 1907. He argued there should be no restrictions on which papers (369 of them at first) could buy his developing news service. He hired Roy Howard to lead the wire service and it is Howard who is largely credited for the spirit of innovativeness and doggedness at UP, pioneering the use of bylines on wire service reports and offering feature stories long before they appeared on the AP. In its early years, as the number of subscribers doubled, the UP scrounged and scraped to cover the Mexican revolution and the growing labor movement, and then it scored big with coverage of the tragic 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire in New York City.
“Thud-dead! Thud-dead! Thud-dead!” began UP correspondent Bill Shepherd’s account of the gruesome fire that killed 146 people, many of whom jumped from high windows to avoid the flames. “I learned a new sound,” he wrote, “a more horrible sound than description can picture. It was the thud of a speeding, living body on a stone sidewalk” (Gordon and Cohen 1990, 7). Such writing became a hallmark of UP’s approach, and it was well received by newspapers and readers alike. It also became part of the correspondent lore of wire service competitiveness that veteran AP and UPI staffers shared with younger cohorts.
Among these stories of UP’s early years was its handling of the Armistice ending World War I. Receiving word from a bogus informant, the U.S. Embassy in Paris passed word to UP that an armistice had been signed. On November 7, 1918, UP ran the bulletin pronouncing the war’s end and tens of thousands of Americans poured into the streets to celebrate. For hours, the AP stubbornly held out for official word and was subjected to angry demonstrations and cries of being pro-German. When the AP was able to confirm that the Germans had not yet signed the agreement, UP was forced to issue a correction, and the AP was redeemed. Three days later, the war did officially end. The UP restored some of its reputation when roles were reversed in 1927 and the AP prematurely reported that Charles Lindbergh had landed safely after the first solo transatlantic flight from New York to Paris.
Competing after the war with “The Ring” news agency cartel operated by Reuters, Havas, Wolff, and the AP, UP became the first American news service to provide service to subscriber newspapers in Europe, South America, and the Far East. Indeed, its success was such that Reuters invited it to join the ring in 1912. UP turned down the offer and continued to expand. Direct service to Europe came in 1921, China a year later, and, through a subsidiary, colonies of the British Empire by 1922. By 1929, UP was serving nearly 1,200 newspapers in 45 countries. Despite the Depression, that number grew to 1,715 newspapers and radio stations (UP was the first news agency to serve them, starting in 1935) by 1939.
UP staffers often toiled in less than optimum conditions and the agency was seriously understaffed. But the circumstances became something of a badge of honor, and many who went on to television news fame with CBS, including Walter Cronkite, recalled their work for UP as demanding yet enjoyable. As a UP war correspondent, Cronkite covered D-Day, parachuted with the One Hundred and First Airborne, flew bombing missions over Germany, covered the Nuremburg trials, and opened the UP’s first postwar Moscow bureau.
World War II helped boost the UP as newspapers sought the latest and most compelling accounts of the battles in Europe and in the Pacific. UP, with the only news transmission system in Hawaii, helped break the news of the 1941 Pearl Harbor attack. Toward the end of the war, the UP scored major scoops with stories about the crossing of the Rhine River by Allied forces and the joining of American and Russian troops in Germany. The UP gave rise in this period to some of the biggest names in journalism. Besides Cronkite, UP claimed credit for the early careers of David Brinkley, Merriman Smith, Howard K. Smith, H. Allen Smith, Eric Sevareid, and Helen Thomas, among others.
Thomas, who joined UP in 1943, began as a radio news writer for the agency and was one of its longest-serving and best-known correspondents. Early on in her career, she covered several capital beats including the Department of Justice, FBI, and Capitol Hill. In 1960, she began covering Presidentelect John F. Kennedy and has reported on every White House administration since. She resigned from UPI in 2000, when the agency was acquired by News World Communications. She is known for her hard-hitting questions and persistence during briefings and press conferences, and more recently stridently challenged President George W. Bush on his reasons for going to war in Iraq.
When she first joined the UPI White House staff, Thomas worked for UPI’s Merriman Smith—known to UP colleagues as “Smitty.” Smith had covered the administrations of President Roosevelt and President Truman, but he is most remembered for his coverage of the assassination of President Kennedy. Riding several cars behind the President in the Dallas motorcade on November 22, 1963, Smith was able to grab the car phone first, battling AP’s Jack Bell, who pounded on Smith’s back for the phone. Smith dictated to UPI that three shots had been fired at the motorcade. Arriving at Parkland Hospital, he was able to confirm that the President had been hit and was first to report that the President had died, minutes ahead of AP. He flew back to Washington, D.C., in Air Force One with new President Lyndon Johnson and Mrs. Kennedy and witnessed Johnson’s swearing in. For his coverage of the assassination, Smith received the Pulitzer Prize, one of ten eventually earned by the agency.
In the early 1950s, UP expanded its technology with the teletypesetter, which allowed news stories to be set into type at subscribing newspapers. It began a newsfilm service for television stations as well as a facsimile service for news pictures in 1952. The news agency turned 50 in 1957. But all was not well behind the scenes.
The amalgamated UPI was formed in 1958 when UP merged with William Randolph Hearst’s International News Service (INS) under Scripps’s leadership. The merger was the ironic result of a 1945 federal antitrust action against the Associated Press, which, for many years, had refused membership (and thus news service) to many of Scripps’s and Hearst’s newspapers. When the government ruled that AP’s actions constituted a violation of antitrust law, the AP was forced to open up its membership to any paper or broadcast station willing to pay for its service. Many papers subsequently dropped the weaker agencies for the AP, leaving the UP and INS financially weak.
Discussions to merge the two wire services had taken place many times, some as early as the 1920s, but the changing competitive landscape created by the AP lawsuit made the situation one of some peril. On May 24, 1958, UP and INS became United Press International (UPI) serving roughly 5,600 print and broadcast clients. The AP at that point served more than 7,000 U.S. and international news organizations.
The coverage of Kennedy’s assassination five years later was proof that despite the financial urgency of the merger, UPI could provide a lively news report of aggressive spot news and interpretation that often matched the AP’s dependable and accurate, if more stodgy, news reporting. UPI began an audio service of news and actualities for radio stations the year of the merger. But UPI’s doggedness would not be enough to sustain the agency as a long-term competitor.
During the 1960s, both UPI and AP were roughly comparable in terms of their financial security, technological innovation, and customer relations. UPI was at least marginally profitable. By 1970, however, UPI was beginning to suffer pressure from the costs associated with technology upgrades, aggressive news coverage by broadcast television, and the decline in number of local daily newspapers. The chief subscriber problem was that fewer papers could afford subscriptions to two at least partially overlapping news agencies—-and given the choice, they nearly always chose the more robust AP. UPI was soon losing $3 million to $4 million a year.
The introduction of computers in the 1970s and satellites (where UPI was a pioneer) a decade later proved to be an enormous expense and led to major personnel shifts and some layoffs. On March 18, 1974, the reporters’ Wire Service Guild struck UPI, the first strike ever in the agency’s history. The financial stresses began to show. In the summer of 1974, UPI established a 15-member Newspaper Advisory Board to address common management concerns and policies for all UPI subscribers. By 1977, the board approved UPI rate hikes of 9.5 percent and ended its practice of price bargaining to gain subscribers. In 1978, during negotiations with the Wire Service Guild, UPI asked for a wage freeze for most of one year to help offset a $2.2 million annual jump in its costs of leased telecommunications circuits. The union agreed to the request. The situation grew dire enough by 1979 that UPI sought to entice more than 40 news organizations to become partners in UPI, but the request failed, and the Scripps Company put UPI up for sale in 1980, at which point UPI served more than 7,000 subscribers (including 2,250 in 92 countries), most of which were broadcasters. Indeed, UPI was the world’s largest privately owned news service. But the inception of Cable News Network (CNN) that same year was another indicator of the changing news agency marketplace. UPI operated 177 bureaus around the world with some 1,200 staff in the United States and 580 abroad.
On June 2, 1982, Scripps sold the New York – based UPI for a nominal one dollar to Media News Corporation, a group specially formed to acquire the troubled agency. It was reported in the trade press that Scripps had given Media News $12 million in cash and forgiven debt to rid itself of the continued costs of operating UPI. The UPI Audio service became the UPI Radio Network in 1983. But the new owner could not stop the financial losses that continued to mount. In 1984, the guild at UPI accepted a 25 percent pay cut for three months and the firing of 100 staff. The atmosphere affected the leadership, and by 1985, just three years after the ownership change, UPI was forced to file for bankruptcy.
A year later Mario Vazquez Rana, a millionaire publisher of daily newspapers in Mexico, bought the agency and invested almost $7 million on new technology. But Rana’s acquisition prompted cancellations by many subscribing newspapers and other clients and led to the resignations of several top managers. Industry leaders viewed the sale to Rana as further evidence of UPI’s decline. Others viewed Rana’s inability to speak English and his unfamiliarity with American journalism as significant hurdles to rescuing UPI. In 1988, Rana handed off control of UPI to Dr. Earl W. Brian and sold his World News Wire (WNW), part of the Financial News Network, an irrevocable proxy to operate UPI for at least ten years. Under the agreement, Rana gave up all management and financial obligations, though he retained ownership. Dr. Brian was chairman of Infotechnology, Inc., an information technology company based in New York, and that company became a minority investor in WNW. But faced with rising costs and declining subscribers, WNW cut more jobs. In 1990, the Securities and Exchange Commission announced a formal investigation into the company, and WNW announced that it might be forced to sell due to UPI’s increasing debt.
In 1991, UPI filed again for bankruptcy, listing total liabilities at $65 million owing to some 4,000 creditors. It was serving just 16 percent of American daily papers, down from more than half in 1966. It emerged from bankruptcy again in 1992 thanks to a group of Saudi investors. Middle East Broadcasting Center Ltd., a London-based television news and entertainment company, acquired UPI in bankruptcy court for nearly $4 million in cash. The court selected the Saudi investors over religious broadcaster Pat Robertson, who also sought control of the wire service. At the time, UPI had about 450 full-time staff members and 2,000 part-time employees. By 1997, however, those numbers were down to about 300 staff members and 800 parttimers, serving about 1,000 broadcast and 1,000 newspaper and Internet clients. The UPI Radio Network accounted for about half the new service’s income, but was closed down in August 1999. UPI adopted a new writing style for its main news feed, limiting its stories to no more than 350 words.
In May 2000, News World Communications, a conservative media group founded by the Rev. Sun Myung Moon that includes The Washington Times newspaper, purchased UPI for an undisclosed sum, pledging to retain its editorial independence. At the time of that sale, UPI had dwindled to 157 employees and the Washington, D.C., headquarters building was soon put up for sale. The rest was a slow but continuing dwindling of people and capacity. By 2007, it appeared that UPI had only a handful of reporters, all based in Washington and no longer reporting breaking news.
United Press International (UPI) began in 1907 as United Press and became UPI in 1958 when UP merged with the International News Service. While UP and later UPI maintained an active competitive alternative to the Associated Press for much of the twentieth century, it ultimately failed due to the costs of changes in information technology and within the newspaper business that began in the 1970s. Surviving “Unipressers” left behind a record of which they could be proud.