Click here to skip down to the story of my time at UPI.
A wire service is an organization which gathers news and distributes it to newspapers, radio stations and TV stations. Before the Internet, this required leased lines from the phone company and teletype machines. The two main U.S. wire services were the Associated Press (AP) and United Press International (UPI).
I entered that world in August 1974, and departed it in November 1976. During those 27 months, I averaged five stories a day, each of about 1,000 words—about 2.7 million words. For comparison, in four years at MIT, I wrote about 500,000 words for The Tech; in 15 months, I wrote about 500,000 words for the Oregon Journal, and in 20 years I wrote 4 million words for various CMP publications. In short, nearly half my output as a professional journalist came during my first 15 months. It’s simple math; I wrote three stories a week at The Tech, five a day at UPI, five a week at the Oregon Journal and five a month at CMP.
The productivity requirements at AP and UPI were so staggering that my ability to meet them set me up for the rest of my career. Nothing I ever had to do again compared to the amount of work I had to do there.
Also, nearly all of my favorites journalism stories (including a few not included here) come from those 15 months.
My arrival in the wire service universe resulted from my relationship with my friend, roommate and eventually my best man, Norman Sandler, who had worked for UPI in Des Moines. Our careers were intertwined; I only knew to apply to a wire service because of him. I only got my first job because in August, when AP Boston needed someone, I was available as a result of turning down a job in Washingon, D.C. which Norman took instead.
These are tales of friendship competition, journalism, and sheer blind luck. They made me who I am, and they led directly to every other job in my career.
1974 AP Boston
“Hello, Paul” said John Mattill, as I seated myself next to him in the F&T Diner in Kendall Square in July 1974, a month after I graduated. The food wasn’t much, but it was just yards from the Alumni Association office where Mattill edited Technology Review, the MIT alumni magazine. In the previous two years, he’d bought three articles and five columns from me, including my first professional sale, a profile of the university president. I didn’t know why he’d asked me to lunch; nothing much happened at MIT when there were few students around.
“How’s your summer been?” he asked me.
“Pretty good. I’m the paid production shop manager at The Tech, so I make sure we complete all our typesetting jobs. It’s a major source of income for the paper. And for me.”
“I’ll tell you why I asked you here. One of my associate editors is leaving. I want to replace him with someone whose job it would be to concentrate on MIT news in the magazine. Perfect for you,” he said. “That’s what you’ve been doing for us for two years, and you like the atmosphere here at MIT don’t you?”
Like wasn’t a strong enough word. I loved MIT. I liked the leisurely lunches, the lassitude, the athletic facilities, art, cheap movies, and the thrill of dealing constantly with the sometimes probing, always different minds of generations of undergraduates.
When the previous production manager had resigned 10 months earlier, I reluctantly took on the job. Without production shop income, there would be no The Tech. Alas, it cut into my time in the second half of my term as editor, but when duty calls, needs must. There was still no successor in sight, so I had decided to run the production shop until June of 1975
“Yes, I would love to work for Tech Review.” I said.
“Just fill out this form. It’s a formality,” John said, sliding a slim document across the table. He took the completed form with him.
I floated for a few days. Then John called: “Paul, we went with Chris Santos.”
“Well, thanks for calling,” I said. I was flabbergasted. Two weeks earlier, I had been content with the idea of running the production shop for another year. Then John had dropped the Tech Review job in front of me, before snatching it away. I don’t know why, but suddenly my whole outlook changed. . All thought of my extra year at MIT vanished from my head. I tapped a sophomore to take over from me as production manager, then put out a dozen panicky applications to a variety of news organizations, including the Globe, the Herald, the AP and UPI.
Thursday, Aug. 1, 1974.
A high in the 80s, and rain. Another hot, muggy Boston summer day. Ken Hoskins, the news editor of AP Boston, took the elevator to the Associated Press bureau at 260 Summer Street, on the second floor above Joe’s Bar in Boston’s South End. He shook his head as he walked past. “A bar under a wire service bureau. How trite.” One of the newsmen had married the bartender’s daughter a few weeks earlier, cementing the place’s status as the semi-official AP hangout.
As he walked in, the summer intern asked, “Ken, can I talk to you?”
“Sure, let’s go to the conference room.”
“You can always tell a Harvard Man. But you can’t tell him much.” That old cliché went through Hoskins’ mind as the AP Boston news editor sat down with his summer intern. A number of illustrious Harvard men had held the post over the years, including famous journalist James Fallows in 1971, before he went on to become one of Nader’s Raiders and a Jimmy Carter speechwriter.
The intern, however, didn’t seem all that interested in the job, and Hoskins’ suspicions were aroused when he asked for a private conference.
“What’s up,” the news editor asked the young man, after they had settled in.
“I know I committed to working the whole summer, but Dad’s decided to take the family to Europe for August, so Friday has to be my last day,” he replied.
Hoskins fumed. Only the previous day, Bureau Chief James M. Ragsdale, a martinet known to all behind his back as “ragbag,” had called him in to go over a cost-cutting memo from the AP President. “Either we cut expenses 13%, or all bureaus will have a cutback in personnel,” Ragsdale told his news editor. “That’s two people in Boston. I don’t want to lose two people. Type stories on the backs of old stories. Cut back on cabs. No one goes out of town. And no overtime!”
The order echoed in Hoskin’s mind as the intern babbled on about the wonderful sights he would soon be enjoying, “probably someplace without 100% humidity and 100 degree temperatures,” Hoskins thought. Then his mind turned to the vacation schedule. Boston was loaded down with veteran newsmen, all of whom earned four weeks of vacation a year under the Wire Service Guild contract. Their vacations stretched through the end of the year. Finding replacements for them would bust the budget. Leaving their tricks (shifts) uncovered would wreak havoc with the report the AP sold to area newspaper and radio stations, leaving an opening for United Press International.
In a desperation move, Ken said, “If you leave a month early, I can’t recommend you as a rehire at the AP.”
“That’s OK,” said the intern. “Dad’s put in a word for me at the New York Times, where I can start as a copyboy after we get back.”
The news editor went back to his desk, just to the left of the news desk. It was only 9:30 in the morning, and his day was already turning to shit. The Bureau Chief’s secretary was steaming towards him. That was seldom good news.
“Ken, that kid from MIT is here.”
“The one who sent in a job application last week. You told him to come by the office.”
Hoskins pulled open the lower right-hand drawer of his desk. It was double-sized and set up like a file cabinet drawer. There were several dozen hanging folders, all containing job applications.
Glancing at the labels, he ran through the applicants in his head. How many of them would want a temporary job? And, under the Guild contract, how much salary would he have to pay for their years of experience? Twenty feet away was a kid with no experience—the cheapest body available!
“Please bring him into the conference room,” Hoskins said. He grabbed the résumé, still sitting on his desk from the week before.
Standing in the “lobby,” waiting to hear if he would get an interview, Paul Schindler looked around. He’d been in the UPI bureau because his friend Norm Sandler worked there. He’d never been in the AP bureau before, even though his friend David Tenenbaum freelanced photos there. The AP office was just slightly neater and less shopworn than UPI’s. People dressed nicer; slacks and ties and dresses, rather than sweatshirts and shorts.
Standing in the AP bureau was like standing in a factory because of the noise: the constant clacking of multiple teletype printers and punchers. The room was L-shaped, with offices on the leg in front of the elevator, then the news desk and teletype machines along the right leg. Straight ahead was the conference room, where the secretary who had greeted him was waving at him to come in.
Hoskins joined him.
“I see you did a summer stint at the Oregon Journal. It’s a UPI paper, but we’ll try not to hold that against you. We like newspaper experience.”
“And I see you just graduated from MIT,” he continued. “We’re in the process of computerizing. Each hub has a DEC minicomputer; the minicomputers are connected to one in New York. Right now, we’re only running the radio wire on the DEC system, but eventually we’ll eliminate the operators who punch the teletype tape and use computers on the news side. Do you know anything about computers?” He didn’t really listen to the answer. The kid went to MIT; of course, he knew computers.
Schindler wasn’t so sure; he’d spent almost no time on minicomputers. “On the other hand,” he said to himself, “they just want me to use them. They’re not asking me to repair them.” So, he exuded confidence, apparently successfully.
“Let’s see how good you are,” Hoskins said. There was a spelling test (“Worcester,” “Framingham,” “Wellesley,” “Sargent” (the governor) and a few other names and places), a news test, (“Name the US Senators from Massachusetts. The British Prime Minister. What is Richard Nixon’s middle initial?) and a news-writing test.
I aced all of the AP tests. The hardest was the news-writing test. A typewriter was wheeled into the conference room—an act that, two years later, would have been impossible since there were no more typewriters in the newsroom. But on this sultry summer day, AP news stories were still pounded out the way they had been nearly a century earlier, on typewriters.
I was given a photocopied sheet of facts about a news story. There were quotations from various people. I was told to write a 250-word story in 10 minutes. Then, I was given a new sheet with more and different facts, and told to write a new “top” for the story, that salvaged as much material as possible from the original. Topping stories was then a very common tactic for wire services, due to the limited amount of time and space on the wires that went to client newspapers. Instead of rewriting the whole story, you just rewrote the parts that changed. Finally, I was given a third sheet, and asked to do a “write-through.” There were style errors (it took me some time to memorize the style book). The lede (first paragraph) was too long. But there were no typos and no grammar errors, and I met all the deadlines.
“Congratulations Newsman Schindler. Can you start Monday?” Ken asked
Monday, August 5, 1974
I arrive at Summer Street at 8:45 am. This is the only week in my AP career when I worked 9-5, Monday-Friday. I arrive 15 minutes before Hoskins. “Nice hustle,” he said. “Here’s your paperwork.”
As I was writing my Social Security on a form for the third time, Ragsdale’s secretary trotted over and handed me a letter to sign, acknowledging that I am only a temporary employe (that's how they spell it at the AP and UPI, known collectively as “the wires.”). Conveniently, by the end of my fifth month, I had forgotten I signed this letter.
“OK Paul,” said the desk supervisor, “Here’s a story from yesterday, with the opinions of four members of the Massachusetts congressional delegation on the Nixon impeachment. I need you to contact the entire delegation. We’re going to keep a tally. We’ll need it by noon for the PMs (afternoon newspapers)”
“How many members are there?” I asked him.
“Seven, I think,” he said. I check the Almanac, there are 12.
In an effort to save time, I call my roommate Norman Sandler at his summer job in the Congressional Office of Technology Assessment. I figure he’ll have a directory. He does. He gives me all the phone numbers.
“I know most of these guys,” Sandler said. “Be careful not to mispronounce Gerry Studds’ name,” he advises. “Paul Cronin is a dick. He won’t be around long.” The deadline for the story is noon, by which time I have reached 10 congressional offices. My story runs four takes (pages).
The desk editor looks at my story and sighs. “You have a soft lede (first paragraph). This is a news story, not a feature. Your second graf (paragraph) is too long. Where are your “Rs” and “Ds?” AP style is, ‘Tip O’Neill, D-Mass.’”
That wasn’t all. “Your second reference to Rep. Heckler is “Heckler.” Where’s her courtesy title?” I should have known this; we had the same rule at the Oregon Journal, women get a second reference courtesy title, usually Mrs. Or Miss. If the title Ms. is used, there must be a parenthetical "as she prefers to be known."
Jim the radio editor, is sitting next to me. He leans over and says quietly, “Ginny, Shelly and Betty refuse to type Miss or Mrs. Sometimes they are added by the desk, but some of the editors are scared of the women. And sometimes, they’re running the desk!”
I am handed an article clipped from that morning’s Boston Globe (we rarely use stories from the Herald American, a racy down-market tabloid). It runs about 12 inches. “Cut it down to one take (two inches), he says.”
That was my first morning; lunch was at 12:30. I walk over to a nearby workingman’s diner. The food is cheap, ample and plain. Perfect for a person on a wire service salary. I enjoy it for a month until a moderately large cockroach walks across my dinner roll. I pay my bill and look for other places to eat in the neighborhood.
After lunch, we are working on Ayem (morning paper) versions of the day’s story’s. PM versions say “today,” while Ayem versions say, “Monday.”
I complete my survey. Rep. Robert Drinan, a priest, is a nice guy, a Democrat and quite eloquent on the danger Nixon poses to the republic. Rep. Paul Cronin is a Republican. He claims his staff answered all my questions. They didn’t. As I start to write, my supervisor reminds me that the words congressperson, spokesperson and chairperson, are not AP acceptable.
Jim whispers to me, “Don’t stand on a principle when you’re a temp. If they want to be sexist, let them.”
As I left for the day, the desk editor said, “You should spend some time reading the stylebook. “The words company, corporation, Representative and Governor are all abbreviated on first reference: Co., Corp., Rep., and Gov. We cut everyone some slack at first, but eventually style book errors are a firing offense.”
August 8, 1974
At about 10 a.m., our editor tells all of us on the desk, “It seems pretty clear Nixon is going to resign tonight at 9. The New York Daily News says his speechwriters are working on a resignation speech.” The headline in the mid-morning edition of the Boston Evening Globe is "President Nixon To Resign Tomorrow."
“We’ve had enough congressional reaction to sink a ship,” he said to me. “Paul, round up the usual academic suspects. We’ll take a congressman if they have something interesting to say.” It was a tough get; most academics were on vacation until Labor Day, and made sure no one had the phone numbers for their summer homes on Cape Cod.
Harvard economist J.K. Galbraith’s office arranged for him to call me from his vacation home in Vermont. He was “hugely delighted” at the resignation “We’ve passed from the age of the common man to the age of the common crook.”
Dr. John P. Roche of Tufts was in his office, working on an article for TV Guide. He says it was “about time” that Nixon resigned."
That night, my girlfriend and I sat together on my double bed in the Bexley dorm, watching Nixon resign live on national television, with Dan Rather standing in front of the White House and Roger Mudd showing the only spine of any television commentator, pointing out that Nixon was characteristically mealy mouthed to the end.
August 15, 1974
The four-take story is slugged (named) bx-baptism (bx stand for Boston). The desk supervisor hands it back to me. "Too much background, and I'm tired of the story. Move the news up and cut the length down." The story only started on four days ago, but interest here is winding down.
I am having a little trouble getting started at AP, because I really didn’t understand what wire services do, or how. Ledes are hard for me because of a bad habit I have of trying to make the lead an index of the entire story, rather than a short statement of the most important news.
I gave her the story back. “This lede is six lines long,” she said. It isn’t a compliment. I think the only reason I wasn’t fired was that there were too many vacations to cover.
It was the last time I would see her. The following Monday, I was working 4pm-midnight, with Tuesdays and Wednesdays off. Not the most desirable shift, but it was mine until the end of December. It blew a large hole in my social life.
Judge W. Arthur Garrity, Jr. has ordered busing for desegregation in Boston, to make up for years of deliberate discrimination by the school board.
At about 4:30, the final afternoon edition of the Boston Globe arrives. I am ready for it. We rarely staff the federal courts, so our story for Ayems is based on Globe coverage of the day’s hearings.
This day, there’s a front-page story by the Globe’s regular busing reporter. Her stories in the morning paper are masterpieces of clarity and concision. It makes writing the PM version of the busing story a piece of cake.
Alas, that isn’t my shift. The AP likes to have the same person write a continuing story, so there is less repetition and no need to “read up.” I often wrote the AP roundup for morning newspapers.
The Globe story is incomprehensible gibberish. My heart goes out to the reporter. I am guessing a copy boy snatched each take of her story as she finished it, a very difficult way to write.
“What’s this mean,” I asked Rich. “I dunno. It’s your story. Figure it out,” he said.
Suddenly, I have an inspiration. I’ll ask the judge! It is a crazy dumb idea; federal judges don’t talk to reporters. But I didn’t know that at the time. So, I grabbed a Wellesley phone book from the shelf. I know he lives in Wellesley because the anti-busing protestors made a big deal out of a judge from the suburbs imposing desegregation on Boston.
There he is! W. Arthur Garrity Jr. Astonishment No. 1.
I dial the number. The phone rings. Someone picks up. Astonishment No. 2. I hear breathing. It occurs to me instantly that he probably gets a lot of crank calls.
I quickly blurt out, “Judge Garrity, I am Paul Schindler with the Associated Press. I am trying to write up today’s events in court, and I don’t understand the Evening Globe story.
There is a long pause. Finally, he says, “I don’t usually talk to reporters.”
“I understand that, your honor, but it appears this may be an important development. We didn’t have a reporter there and I just don’t understand this story.”
Astonishment No. 3. “I’ll go out to the porch and get my Evening Globe. He comes back a few minutes later. “Let me read it,” he says. A few minutes of breathing and rustling as he turns to the jump. Buck points at his watch and mouths “deadline.” I mouth back, “working on it.”
“Well,” he said. “I won’t discuss the case and I won’t answer questions, but if you like, I’ll go over this story and tell you what I said in court.”
In ten minutes, he provides me an English-to-English translation of the garbled story. As it turns out it isn’t really very important. Without his help, I’d never have known.
“Thank you, Judge Garrity.”
“Don’t make a habit of it, Mr. Schindler.”
October 1974 / Sandler Hacks Me
Norm is working a fill-in trick (shift) over at UPI, even though he is still a student, completing his combined B.S. and M.S. in Political Science. He needs to earn some money while working on his thesis, Congressional Oversight of the CIA: 25 Years of Looking the Other Way.
We’re roommates in Winthrop, Mass., out on the MBTA Blue Line. Thing is, the subway shuts down at midnight. So, when possible, we share a cab home. I call him at work about 10 p.m.
“Hi, this is AP, Schindler,” I joked. “Are you getting out on time tonight?”
“I may be a little late, I have to clear up this six-car fatal in Taunton."
"Me too," I said, and hung up.
I got the other guys in the office to give me a hand. We called every police agency we knew, but came up empty handed. “We are going to get beat.” I said.
Sandler called. “I finished up. I’ll get a cab and meet you downstairs.”
“We’ll keep an ear on the police radio, and on WEEI. Eventually, they’ll read the UPI story and we can get some details,” the night editor said as I left.
When I opened the cab door, Sandler burst into hysterical laughter. “How was the six-car fatal?” he wheezed out. It had been a practical joke.
People are leaving AP Boston without being replaced. I am getting an inkling the AP isn’t going to keep me forever (having forgotten the “temporary employment” letter I signed).
Reid Ashe, former Managing Editor of The Tech, is now Executive Editor of the Jackson Sun in Jackson, Tennessee. We know each other only casually, as he graduated several years ahead of me.
“Hey Reid,” I say on the phone. “This is Paul Schindler.”
“Well hello Paul, what can I do for you,” he says, with just a trace of a southern accent.
“I’d like a job. I don’t think the AP is going to keep me.”
“Come on down.”
He sends me a plane ticket to nearby Memphis, and pays for a car and a hotel room.
My first assignment was to write up the opening of a Quaker Oats frozen pancake factory on the outskirts of town. I called directory assistance.
“Can I have the number for Quaker Oats in Jackson?” I ask.
“I beg your pardon,” she says. “Could you repeat that a little more slowly?” I did. She read the number to me. I shook my head. “Could you repeat that,” I asked. She repeats the number. “I beg your pardon, could you spell that last number for me?” I literally don’t understand her accent.
At lunch, as I am leaving the diner, the waitress says to me, “Y’all come back now, you hear?” This is the first time I have ever heard that phrase outside of the Beverly Hillbillies television show. It sounds weird. Every other shopkeeper in Jackson says the same thing to me.
Talking to Reid’s managing editor, Johnny Malone of Sweet Lips, Mississippi, is like being trapped in the Bob and Ray routine called “Slow Talkers of America.” I feel sure it is better if I don’t finish his sentences or seem anxious for him to finish them.
I write two more stories and fly back to Boston.
Reid meets with Malone. “What do you think,”
“He… talks… too… fast [you get the idea] and walks too fast. He won’t fit in around here.”
Reid calls me the evening I get back to Boston. “I’m sorry, Paul,” he says, as he relays Johnny’s assessment. The South didn’t want me; and, frankly, I didn’t want the South.
Thursday afternoon, Dec. 19. The temperature never gets out of the 30s, and by 4 p.m., as night is falling, I approach the AP office on Summer Street while being pelted by a very cold rain.
An hour after I arrive, the Bureau Chief leaves for his two weeks of Christmas vacation. He walks past the desk and drops a bunch of notes in people’s mailboxes behind my back, and walks out without saying his usual goodnight.
I don’t get up to check my box. Why should I? If he had a note for me, he’d hand it to me, right?
Midnight. The overnight man finds a snide note with copies to the immediate world, including senior management in the AP building at 50 Rock, New York. The memo chides him for tardiness. He calls Bureau Chief Ragsdale at home, despite the hour.
“What the hell, Jim? You had to CC everyone from the AP President on down? And you never even talked to me.”
As the conversation continues in this vein, I think “Wonder if he left me a note.” Sure enough, there is a sealed envelope in my box, addressed to “Newsman Schindler,” an affectation that is uniquely Ragsdale’s in the Boston bureau.
I open it up, "Dear Newsman Schindler: I have some not unexpected bad news. As of December 28, your temporary position in the Boston bureau is terminated because of economic considerations." Ragsdale had walked right by me to leave a note in my box that I was laid off. What a shit.
Also in the envelope was an underwhelming recommendation letter, written on Monday:
“December 16, 1974
To Whom It May Concern:
This is to confirm that Paul E. Schindler, Jr. was employed by The Associated Press in the Boston bureau from August 5, 1974 to December 28, 1974. Paul worked mostly as a general rewrite newsman. He performed all assignments given him in a competent manner. Because his assignment was only temporary, he was released at the end of the temporary assignment period.”
I don’t know; could he have worked the word temporary into the letter more often?
After work, my colleagues take me down to Joe’s Bar and buy me two Manhattan cocktails. I have never had a Manhattan before. It is very powerful.
“Don’t worry Paul, you’ll find another job. You’re good,” one of them said. After two Manhattans, the rain didn’t feel so cold as I caught a taxi to Winthrop. I charged it to the AP.
(Ragsdale eventually left to edit the New Bedford Standard-Times. Within a year, the City Council narrowly decided (9-2) against naming the city dump after him.)
One Friday, I collected my unemployment and then lolled around the Winthrop, Mass. apartment I shared with Norman Sandler, who did fill-in tricks (shifts) at UPI. He was in Washington, working on his Political Science masters thesis, Congressional Oversight of the CIA: 25 years of Looking the Other Way.
The phone rang. I answered it. The voice on the other end sounded familiar.
“Is Norman Sandler there,” the voice asked.
“No, I am sorry. May I take a message?”
“This is Jim Weick at UPI. No, I wanted to see if he could do a fill-in trick today. We have a person out sick on radio.”
“Jim, this is Paul Schindler. I was in last week." He knew me from my unsuccessful job application of the week before.
“Oh, hi Paul.”
“You want to give me a chance at it?”
“You ever do radio over at AP?”
Lying quickly, “Oh sure, sometimes,” which really meant I had done two packages in six months there.
“Well, we’ll have to show you how to use the tubes. What time could you get down here?”
“What time is it now? About 10? How’s 10:30?”
“No, the shift doesn’t start until 2:00.”
“Ok, I’ll see you at 12:30,” I said.
Fortunately, Sandler had left a UPI broadcast stylebook in the closet. I read it twice on the MBTA Blue Line, then got off at Government Center for the short walk to the UPI bureau on the second floor of the Massachusetts Teachers Association building.
Broadcast chief Ron Reichmann gave me 30 minutes of training on the recently installed computer system.
I sat down at 2:00 to file the radio wire for Maine, New Hampshire and Vermont. When the crunch was over at 6:30 p.m., Reichmann said, “to hell with this. You’re already doing a better job than some of the people we’ve already got. We’re short staffed. You want to work next week?"
He added, “You figured out how to work our system fast. And for someone who apparently didn’t file a lot of radio over at AP, your writing is very OK.”
During my first full week of work as a sub, I had to ask Weick if I could take an hour off Thursday afternoon to collect my unemployment check from the AP job.
“You what? Want to go down and get your unemployment check?” he said loudly, to the amusement of the entire staff. I came back sheepishly and took a little ribbing about taking time off from my job to collect unemployment. But it wasn’t really my job yet.
A week later, Bureau Manager Don Davis said, “We may have a job, here or in Montpelier. Let me get back to you in a day or two.”
The following Wednesday I was working the 2 p.m. to 10 p.m. trick, editing newspaper stories for all the New England wires. Don, sitting behind me, turned to make a phone call. I couldn’t hear what he said. As soon as he hung up he said, “Paul?”
I turned around. “Let me be the first person to shake the hand of the newest Unipresser.”
“Hey, you know Linda Ellerbee? WCBS-TV reporter in New York?” asked one of the other reporters one evening during the 4-12 shift.
“Yeah, I’ve seen her. What about her?”
“She used to work for the AP out in Dallas. One day, she wrote a torrid love letter to a regional manager, a married guy, which she thought she sent on the inter-bureau message wire. Turns out it went onto the regional newswire, and before she could stop it, it went out to every newspaper in the southwest.”
“Why are you telling me this?” I asked. “Do you have a copy of the note?”
“No, I’m telling you because you write some stupid shit in your messages to other people in the bureau and in other bureaus. Sarcastic stuff. Insulting stuff about management. Never write anything in a message you wouldn’t want to see on the A wire,” the circuit that connected all newspaper clients across the country.
‘We can’t even file the A wire,” I said. “Only New York and Washington can.”
“I’m telling you, it’s a good rule,” she concluded.
A few days later, I understood her warning.
Fun With Spelling
Saturday, Oct. 5, 1975. At 5 a.m., I left my apartment in Governor’s Park, Winthrop, before grabbing a 25-cent trip on a Blue-line MBTA train down to Government Center. It was a short walk to the Massachusetts Teachers Association Building on Ashburton Place. I took the elevator up the second floor, where it opened onto UPI’s open plan newsroom filled with computer terminals and noisy teletype machines (most of the old clacking ones had been replaced with the still-loud “zip-zip” of Extel dot matrix printers).
I was working a double shift: 6am-2pm and 2pm-10pm. At 7 p.m., I took a call from a stringer in Waltham. The town had, for decades, been a center of the clock-making industry in America. By 1975, it had declined mightily, but many former greats of the industry still lived there. The reporter dictated a brief:
“Internationally known clockmaker Elmer Stennis was shot to death at his home in Waltham this evening during a robbery, according to Waltham police. Stennis was shot five times; his wife Phyllis was shot seven times. When the police arrived, she was covered in blood and screaming that Elmer had been killed by two intruders.”
That was it. I was a little loopy near the end of a double shift, but I checked the spellings of all the names with the stringer. He confirmed them. I moved the story on the New England wire as BH-Bullet; BH for the Boston Bureau and Bullet as the name of the story.
Now most newspapers at this time took the national wire and the regional wire for the area in which they were located; a paper in Southern Oregon might take both the Northwest wire and the California wire. To my knowledge, only one US newspaper took all seven regional wires and, apparently, read every story on every one of them: the New York Times. It was like they didn’t trust us to know the difference between regional news and national news.
The phone rang. It was Jack Griffin on the general desk in New York, the group that decided what news to put on the national wire.
“Hey Paul,” he said. The weekend general desk made it a point to know the dozen or so reporters staffing the major UPI bureaus. “Did you write BH-Bullet?”
“Yeah. It was a stringer story.”
“Did you check the spellings?”
“With the reporter, yes,” I said.
“The New York Times just called and queried the spelling, based on our calling him an ‘internationally known clockmaker.’”
“What the hell?”
“Could you run it down please?”
I called the Waltham police. The desk sergeant checked the log. “Yup, Stennis, S-t-e-n-n-i-s.”
That was good enough for me. I sent Griffin a message.
Five minutes later, he called again.
He wrote to me on the inter-office message wire, "The Times guy sounded pretty authoritative. He was reading from a world directory of clock makers. Why don’t you check the phone book and the hospital?”
I pulled the Waltham phone directory off the shelf. No John Stennis was listed, just a John Stennes. I called the hospital. “Mrs. Stennes spells her name S-t-e-n-n-e-s.”
I sent Jack this message:
Well Jack, the word from South Shore Hospital, where the somewhat ventilated Mrs. S is taking an unexpected vacation, is that her last name is spelled S-t-e-n-n-e-s. I guess the guy from The Times got us.
He called me, and we chuckled. “I’ll just delete the message,” he said. I heard a click. Then I heard some clacking from the A-Wire printer.
After 6pm Eastern time on a Saturday night, very few stories moved on the UPI A wire, which was one of the few remaining old-fashioned low-speed teletype printers on the office.
I looked over. At the rate of 60 words per minute, it was typing out A289 (the 289th story to move that day on the A-Wire). Next, it typed “Griffin-NX.”
“Halt the A-wire! Halt the A-wire,” I shouted at Griffin. The printer got through S-t-e-n-n… and then stopped. It wasn’t a pornographic love letter, like Linda Ellerbee’s gaffe, but it was still pretty embarrassing. At least my snarky remark about the Times did not make it onto the wire. Instead of deleting the message, Griffin had accidentally sent it to the A-wire.
I had been told to treat every wire, even the message wire, like a client wire. I forgot. I didn’t forget again. I wrote a memo to my bureau manager explaining what happened. Neither Griffin nor I ever heard another word.
When I worked the overnight shift in the summer of 1975, the radio wire was “split” for the regions at 1:15 a.m., 3:15 a.m., and 5:15 a.m. For the hour before each split, I would stop working on newspaper stories. For the split at 1, I wrote New England Briefs, complete radio versions of the big stories from the previous day. At 3, it was the New England Sports Roundup. There was a template: lead with the Red Sox in the summer, the Bruins in the winter and the Celtics in the spring. First the score, then the standings, then some color. At 5, it was the New England Roundup, brief versions of the stories from the split at 1. By the 6 a.m. split, there was fresh news from the police and the morning papers, so the splits were no longer formatted.
One of the problems of being my own editor on the radio wire is that there was no one to catch my typos or awkward phrases. I was supposed to read each story aloud before I filed it, in an effort to catch them. But of course, I knew what I meant to write.
In 1975, WEEI-AM in Boston, owned and operated by the CBS radio network was, like all seven stations CBS owned, a 24-hour all-news station. We had it on constantly in the newsroom because they subscribed to both AP and UPI. If AP had something we didn’t, we’d hear about it first on WEEI.
Within a few weeks of starting on the overnight, I realized that the announcer read AP stories at 1 a.m. and UPI Stories at 2 a.m. He just read straight through my 1 a.m. feed. “This is great,” I said to myself. I stopped what I was doing at 2 each morning and listened to the announcer. If he stumbled on an item, I made notes. My 3 a.m. split each morning became the “correction” split. I would resend stories from the 1 a.m. split, cleaned up for easier reading, before I sent the sports roundup.
One morning at 3:30 a.m., the phone rang. I didn’t get a lot of phone calls on the overnight, except from other UPI bureaus.
“This is Dan Johnson at WEEI.”
“Hi, Dan. I’m a big fan!” I said.
“Obviously. Did you think I wouldn’t notice that every day at 3, you clean up the stories that I have trouble reading at 2?”
“I’d kind of hoped you wouldn’t notice.”
“Well, thanks for listening, and see if you can get them right the first time from now on.”
The Associated Press was formed in 1846, and the United Press in 1912. Although the telephone was invented between those two dates, long distance calls were very expensive. The year UPI started, a three-minute call from New York to San Francisco took hours to set up and cost $10 ($100 in 2017). So, dedicated telegraphic circuits were the preferred means of communication. The organization of the wire services mirrored that of Western Union, which meant the entire country was served out of eight “Hubs.” They were the same for both AP and UPI: Atlanta, Boston, Chicago, Dallas, Denver, St. Louis, San Francisco and Washington. At the AP, the “call signs” for the bureaus were all X codes: AX, BX, NX, and so on, except for St. Louis which was just X, because it was the crossover point for Western Union’s East Coast and West Coast services. UPI used more imagination. Boston was BH (for Boston Herald), Los Angeles was HC (Hollywood, California), Portland was JO (for the JOurnal, the UPI paper in Portland, the one I worked at).By the time I arrived at UPI in 1975, the rationale for codes and “wirespeak” was rapidly fading, since all the bureaus were interconnected through a mainframe computer in New York. “Wirespeak” was a crazy patchwork of abbreviations which dated back to the days when Western Union charged by the word. Some abbreviations were allowed, such as “unhave” for “I don’t have.” Anyway, as I noted, by the time I arrived, there was no longer any need for the kind of cryptic stuff I put on the national message wire most nights:
“Unhave Bosox peem. How please?”
(Chicago, I don’t have the Boston Red Sox story for afternoon newspapers. When will I see it? Paul Schindler, Boston Bureau). Five words instead of 16.
Or the messages we got when the staff of one-person bureaus had to leave the office. Every day, Concord, N.H. sent:
BH Otposting lunchly HM
(Boston, Leaving the office for lunch. Concord Bureau) HM stood for its first Bureau Manager, Henry Minot.
Except on Sunday mornings, when the New Hampshire reporter would send this message:
October 1976: Baseball
I worked the overnight trick (shift) most of the summer of 1975 (midnight-8 a.m.), which made me responsible for writing the radio version of the Red Sox game story that dozens of stations throughout New England would be looking for when they arrived at 5 a.m. to start their day. Woe be unto the overnight person who didn’t have it waiting for them. There was a formula, of course. The score, the big play, the team’s standing (at or near the top all summer), and a quick rewrite of the newspaper story about every home game written by our sports editor, or by some out of town reporter for away games.
I was something of a baseball fan, but that summer was amazing. As a condition of my employment, I really needed to know everything there was to know about the team. I had a little bit of a baseball fan as a kid (listening to the AAA Cleveland farm club, the Portland Beavers of the Pacific Coast League on KEX), but I had never been so intimately involved with a team. I had actually memorized the starting lineup, as well as one distinguishing characteristic of each player, and whether they were right-handed or left-handed. This was nothing special in Boston, which, like New York, is absolutely besotted/crazy with sports fanatics. What I could do for the 1975 Red Sox, many Boston fans could do for the 1945 Red Sox. Without looking it up.
Management said we should avoid clichés, but, really, that was just lip service. There were standard phrases I used in almost every story, and I remember deciding, in the middle of the summer, that I would use “Cigar-chomping right-hander Luis Tiant” somewhere in every story about a game in which he pitched. No one noticed.
By the time of the World Series (the team’s first in almost 30 years), I was actually excited. UPI got free tickets, but senior staff got the good ones. I got Game 6, because in a best of seven series, there might well not be a sixth game. I was trying to impress a girl at the time, so I took her to the game. It was the first baseball game she had ever seen. Talk about an introduction to the game! She wasn’t as excited as I was.
The game was won by a dramatic Carlton Fisk home run in the bottom of the 12th inning, hit deep into left field. The game, which should have been over by 10 or 11, lasted until 12:05 a.m.—five minutes after the subway was supposed to close. I was completely distracted from the game figuring out how I was going to get home to Winthrop (not knowing, because no one announced it, that the subway would stay open an extra two hours that night to accommodate the fans). I was so distracted, that I missed Fisk hitting the ball. Upon hearing the crack of the bat, I stood, along with every other fan at Fenway. My heart sank; I thought it was foul when it hit the foul pole. When the park erupted in cheers, I realized my knowledge of the rules of baseball was a little less comprehensive than I thought. My date turned to me and asked, “Does that mean we win?” I don’t think she could hear my answer over the roar of the crowd. I walked her back to her dorm at MIT and spent the night on the couch at The Tech.
UPI Hartford February 1976
It was 9 p.m. during my first night on the 4 p.m.-Midnight shift in HF, the Hartford UPI bureau. The other reporter on duty told me to go pick up a copy of the local newspaper, the Hartford Courant.
“It’s a couple of miles away, and I don’t have a car” I said.
“OK, I’ll get it tonight, but from now on that’s your job. When I’m through training you, you’ll be here alone on this shift.” After that, I brought my bike to the office, and pedaled over to the loading dock at the Courant, where kindly pressmen would grab a paper out of the press, still warm, for me to take back to the office.
“The state capitol is like an extremely small town,” the head of the UPI state government reporters told me. “Don’t ever crap on anyone, because you’ll need them eventually.
“We’ll start you off covering the Connecticut House. The rest of us will cover committees and the governor.”
“OK,” I said. I made my way to the desk in front of the speaker’s podium, where I sat down next to the Associated Press reporter, and the empty chair which was used by radio reporters if something exciting happened (which it rarely did).
Behind us was James J. Kennelly, the Democratic Speaker of the house. He had a direct phone line to the Democratic leader, and the Republican minority leader. When I say minority, I mean minority: the Republicans held less than 25% of the seats, which gave the Democrats a super-majority. They did not need a single Republican vote for anything.
Kennelly was very solicitous of the reporters sitting three feet in front of him, facing the representatives at their tiered desks. He would shut off his mic, lean forward, and say “Here’s what’s about to happen and why,” and then he would explain whatever arcane maneuver he was cooking up. It definitely made our job easier, because sometimes it was very difficult to tell what was going on.
He was very solicitous of the wire service reporters, because 90% of the time we were the only outside witnesses to activity on the floor of the Connecticut House.
At the time, I took a bus to Willimantic every Friday at 3:30 to see my girlfriend who lived there (I did not have a car). The session was grinding on. At 2:30 it showed no signs of ending, as the GOP leader was droning on about “quits and fires.” The Republicans wanted unemployment payments withheld from people who quit, while continuing to provide it to those who were laid off or fired. The Democrats were politely listening before burying the measure, which they disliked.
The speaker turned off his mic and leaned down. “You’re squirming Paul. What’s the matter?”
“I’m sorry Mr. Speaker; the last bus to Willimantic leaves at 3:30, and if I don’t finish my story by then, I won’t get to see my girlfriend this weekend.”
“Let me see what I can do,” he said. He stood up and picked up his direct line to the majority leader, who looked at me and nodded, then down the telephone and rose to his feet. “Point of order,” Mr. Speaker. A point of order was the only legitimate reason to interrupt another representative while they were speaking.
“I yield,” said the minority leader, confused.
“There is a motion to adjourn before the house,” said the majority leader. Apparently, there was always a standing motion to adjourn.
“What,” shouted the confused GOP representative. His mic had been turned off.
“All in favor say Aye, the ayes have it,” said Speaker Kennelly, striking the gavel even before the Democrats could shout their approval. The Republican leader looked like he’d been pole-axed. As the chamber emptied, he grabbed his line to the speaker. I could not hear what either of them was saying, but he stared daggers at me as he hung up.
Kennelly leaned down. “I hope you enjoy your evening with your girlfriend,” the speaker said before he left.
I whipped out the fastest HF-LEGISLATURE story of my career, and dashed to the bus station in the nick of time. I did, in fact, enjoy that evening.
The incident might seem petty and superficial. At the time, making that bus so I could spend time with my girlfriend seemed like the most important thing in the world. I have no idea what business the Connecticut legislature would otherwise have considered that afternoon. Maybe the legislators would have created single-payer health care! They certainly weren’t going to deny unemployment benefits to people who quit—an issue to which they returned on Monday, resoundingly burying the Republican proposal.
The speaker of the house, who barely knew me, did me a favor over the objections of the opposition. It showed me what a close knit community the Statehouse was: I also got an inkling of the power held by reporters, and learned that I could both do my job and have a personal life.
Having wire service work on my résumé was not the boon that MIT was. Literally, every job I had until I started teaching in 2003 I got because employers saw that I had graduated from MIT and assume I was technically adept.
But my time at the wires had a more subtle and lasting effect. The sheer volume of work they required meant that every job after that was a breeze. “Five stories a week? I used to do five a day,” I said to myself at the Oregon Journal newspaper. Five stories a month at various CMP publications seemed like a permanent vacation, yet marked me as the most productive employee on every staff on which I served. I was treated well, respected and compensated handsomely for skills of speed an accuracy I learned at AP and UPI. For that I was grateful for the rest of my journalism career.