Writing With Your Voice—and Your Wits

By Mike Feinsilber


The AP’s Wes Gallagher led a pack of reporters to the phones to report the verdicts in the Nazi war crimes trial.

It was a primary election night in the early 1960s. The Associated Press had summoned one of its top writers, Douglas B. Cornell, to leave his White House beat and come to the Washington bureau to write the election roundup, an assignment that demands speed. But as results from the states gushed in, Cornell sat frozen.

Let Walter Mears, who would go on to win a Pulitzer Prize for his deftness at covering politics for the AP but who then was a deskman in the bureau, tell the story:

“I saw Doug hunched over the typewriter* with no copy coming out. I went over and asked if there was anything I could do to help.

“He was a bit embarrassed when he said that there was: If he went across the bureau and telephoned me, he would dictate his copy to me.

“He did. I typed the copy, and it flowed beautifully, as his copy always did.

“Doug could dictate flawless copy from his notebook but did not hit it off with typewriters.”

In those pre-computer days at the White House, Cornell as well as other wire service reporters had no way other than using the phone to get their stories to their bureaus for editing and transmission to the world.

And so White House reporters, reporters covering the news from distant places, and those covering disasters or protest marches or warfare or sports events had to learn to write their stories in their heads and pour them out.

Not so easy since they had to remember what they’d already dictated in order to avoid repeating themselves. Especially not so easy because a wire service story gave essentially a summary in the first few paragraphs, then came back with details.

And especially not easy at all if you had to write three or more stories simultaneously, a skill that the late Doug Cornell and the late Merriman Smith and a handful of wire service reporters were particularly adept at.

Smith, a star for the now-diminished United Press International, AP’s chief competitor in those days, would rush from a news conference around Franklin D. Roosevelt’s desk. He’d grab the phone in UPI’s booth in the pressroom and announce: “I have three bulletins,” then start dictating. A bulletin is the first paragraph of a story that’s so important it had to start moving on the wire even before the rest of it was being dictated.

So Smith (and his AP counterpart, often Doug Cornell, off in the AP booth) would dictate a one-paragraph bulletin, perhaps about something FDR said about the war against the Nazis. Then, to a second dictation-taker, a second bulletin on a wildcat strike in the arms industry, then, to a third dictation-taker, a third bulletin on a piece of legislation stuck in Congress.

Without stopping, Smith would return to the war story, dictate a few more grafs, then a few more on the strike, then a few more on Congress. Then back to the first story. When he’d finished, three complete stories were moving on the wire.

“Thus,” recalls Ron Cohen, former reporter, editor, Washington bureau chief and managing editor at UPI, “within 15 or 20 minutes of the end of the news conference, UPI subscribers had three or four complete stories.”

“Remember, this was during the primacy of afternoon newspapers, when rolling deadlines across the country made speed critical in getting the UPI logo on front pages,” Cohen said in an email.

He added: “I never saw Doug Cornell [who later married UPI’s Helen Thomas after he retired and they were no longer competitors] in action, but he is widely viewed as either tied or a close second to Merriman Smith as a peerless dictator.”

Speed? Did someone say speed?

On January 30, 1981, Mike Putzel, then an AP White House correspondent, accompanied President Ronald Reagan to a routine speech before an AFL-CIO conference at Washington’s Hilton Hotel.

Putzel was standing on the sidewalk near the right tail light of the president’s limousine when Reagan was shot as he was leaving the hotel. Putzel ran back into the hotel, and less than a minute after the gunplay had started his bulletin was on the wire:




Nowadays, of course, reporters can, and do, write their stories on laptops, tablets, even their cellphones. But, in plenty of situations, the phone is still the only way to get the story out.

Reporters could write their stories in longhand and then read them to the dictation-taker in their bureaus, but wire service reporters rarely had the time to spare: Time spent writing was time not spent reporting.

Some skilled reporters never could get the hang of dictating. “It was an art you were either born with, or not,” says Cohen.

In the days when dictation was commonplace, the Washington bureaus of both AP and UPI employed dictation takers — people hired to take stories from reporters. (A young Ron Nessen, later President Gerald Ford’s press secretary, was one for UPI.)

Often, when the story was urgent, deskmen would pull the paper from the typewriter to edit it and send it on its way while the rest was still coming in.

Another yarn from Ron Cohen:

“I was alone in the Washington bureau with an open phone line to Shanghai for about six hours, awaiting word from UPI’s Helen Thomas and [diplomatic reporter] Stew Hensley, who were on the scene [awaiting word of the signing of the 1972 Shanghai Communique in which China and the U.S. agreed to normalize relations].

“ I had a flash and a bulletin written on the computer screen, and when Helen, out of breath, finally broke the phone silence with the shout, ‘It’s signed!’ I pushed the button on the 10-bell flash, then the bulletin.

“By then Hensley, who suffered badly from emphysema, had reached the UPI phone. Completely out of breath, he began trying to dictate the details. Between huffs, puffs, wheezing and coughing, it took a full half-hour for him to dictate three paragraphs of followup quotes and highlights.

“But we scored a significant beat on the flash and bulletin, and it was not all that crucial to follow up quickly—at about 4 on a Sunday morning, there were precious few Sunday newspapers still awake. Our radio clients loved us, however.”

Dictation had its hazards. Once Ed Rogers, a jumpy, somewhat nervous Southern regional reporter for UPI and a heavy smoker, was dictating a story from a phone booth in the Senate press gallery when he interrupted the flow of the news. “Wait a minute, wait a minute,” he shouted. “I’m on fire.” In the intensity of dictating he had tucked a lit cigarette into his jacket pocket. He slapped the fire out and resumed dictating.

Often simply finding a phone could be a problem. During the civil rights revolution in the American South in the 1960s, the story played out in remote places.

Don McKee, an AP reporter from the Atlanta bureau, encountered “the telephone problem” in reporting on a 225-mile voting rights march in Mississippi in July 1966.

“We improvised with a shuttle system,” he later recalled. “One staffer drove a car and made telephone runs, the others marched. But we learned to watch for the telltale wires dipping to houses along the way.”

Reporting is a competitive business, especially in the wire services. In rural courthouses, equipped with a single pay phone, reporters have been known to unscrew the mouthpiece from the phone so competitors would have to search elsewhere for a phone. (A dirty trick, but I repeat: reporting is a competitive business.)

*A typewriter, youngsters, is a manually or electrified machine

 that prints letters one at a time on paper when the user (“typist”) strikes keys on a keyboard.

An expanded caption for the picture: Associated Press war correspondent Wes Gallagher races for the phone to report the news of the verdict at the Nazi war crimes trials in Nuremberg, Germany, Oct0ber 1, 1946. Gallagher would become AP’s ninth general manager in 1962 and retire in 1975. (AP Photo/B.I. Sanders)

Mike Feinsilber spent about a quarter century with UPI in Pittsburgh, Columbus, Harrisburg, Newark, New York, Saigon and Washington and about a quarter century with AP in Washington, with a spell as assistant bureau chief and a stint as writing coach.



  1. Back in the day. A wire reporter’s essentials when covering a story: Notebook. Pen and pencil. Ample change for pay telephone.

  2. In 1968 I was a Congressional Fellow, working with the press on the Humphrey for President campaign, and the question most often asked: “Where are the phones?”

  3. George Krimsky says

    Until I read Mike Feinsilber’s excellent piece on the good old days of dictation, I never made the link in my head between “dictator” and “dictation.” Another reason why the English language can be so confounding!

    I am from the wire-service dictation generation (meaning I’m old, born during WWII) and remember (fondly) taking stories over the phone from the likes of Linda Deutsch and Bob Thomas after I joined AP in LA. My gawd, they were good, especially the way they could “top” a set piece and give you the pick-up line.

    Let me now jump ahead 15 years or so when I was running a journalism training center near Washington, D.C. (I left the AP in 1985). One day, I had been attending an otherwise routine meeting about training “impacts” at some foundation when the speaker dropped a bombshell that could mean a lot of funding for what we were doing. I wanted my partners to know about it right away. (In that world, anything to do with free money was important.)

    So, I phoned my center in Reston, Virginia, and got a new intern on the other end who was highly educated but had never been in journalism. I hired him because he was very conversant in non-profit work.

    “I have some dictation for you,” I said.

    “I beg your pardon?” he replied.

    “I want to send an urgent message to Tom in Boston (in other words to my chairman, Tom Winship, the retired editor of The Boston Globe).

    “I’m sorry but I don’t take dictation,” he said somewhat haughtily.

    I suddenly realized two things: (1) This fellow had degrees from Harvard AND Yale but no practical skills, such as typing. (2) “Dictation” was something secretaries did but not “professionals.” This guy was especially clueless. I didn’t blame him.

    The problem was that I had very little time to enlighten him.

    “Look, pal, I’m not talking about the Hollywood version of some black-and-white big shot with a cigar ordering his leggy blond secretary to take down his precious words in a notebook. I’m talking about the best pros in the news business who help each other out over the phone when they’re on deadline.”

    That got his attention. Dutifully—and slowly—he took down the words I wanted to convey.

    So, I made a new convert to an old art form. Unfortunately, it disappeared forever soon after.

  4. These days court rulings are immediately posted on the internet. But during the Virginia school desegregation clashes of the late 1950s, judges on the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, based in Richmond, Virginia,would write their opinions and mail them to colleagues, who would in turn mail theirs, until a ruling was agreed upon.

    The judges lived in Virginia, West Virginia, Maryland and the Carolinas, so often a ruling would bounce around for weeks before it was settled. It then would be mailed to the Court’s office in Richmond. So a reporter’s regular morning circuit sometimes included a stop at the court’s office to see if anything important had arrived.

    On May 1, 1959, I stopped at the court. “Anything interesting?” I asked the two friendly women who took care of the office. Often rulings were of little or no news interest, but the women knew what reporters were interested in. “Well,” she said. “Here’s Prince Edward County.”

    Prince Edward County was one of the defendants in the original Brown case on which the Supreme Court outlawed racial segregation in the public schools. Prince Edward, in line with Virginia’s “Massive Resistance” to school integration, had resisted, even after the “Massive Resistance” laws had been killed by both the U..S and Virginia supreme courts.

    Prince Edward argued that this rural Southside county needed several years to gradually prepare for integration; meantime the county’s public schools would remain closed. The NAACP argued otherwise, and the controversy had reached a three-judge panel of the 4th Circuit Court. (The panel included Clement Haynesworth, later nominated to the U.S. Supreme Court by President Nixon. His nomination was rejected by the U.S. Senate, partly on grounds that he was hostile to school integration. Well, not this day.)

    I was the first reporter to see the ruling. Blind luck. Big national news. I called Steve at the UPI bureau. The hourly 7551–broadcast wire–split had just a minute remaining. Steve (H.L. Stevenson, the UPI bureau manager) was at the keyboard.


    Then Steve moved to the 7562 news wire, right next to the broadcast wire, and I kept dictating.



    I dictated bulletins on school desegregation rulings from federal courts in Norfolk, Harrisonburg, and Richmond. If you worked under H.L. Stevenson, you learned to dictate clear copy.

    Prince Edward filed another appeal and kept its public schools closed for five years. But that day, it was big news.

  5. Dictation is an art, and working with those who mastered it was always a learning experience and a pleasure. The late Paul LeBar, a longtime AP St. Louis sportswriter, was great at dictation—despite his overuse of the word “notwithstanding” to transition in his stories. I learned how to do it, but never as smoothly as the generation before me.

    Back in 1986, a killer from Indiana named Michael Wayne Jackson shot his parole officer and stole a car that got ditched outside St. Louis. He was on the run for almost a week until we got word that police had cornered him in a barn. I got called at home to rush out to rural Washington, Missouri, and found myself in a gaggle of reporters in front of a makeshift FBI lectern for the announcement of what happened.

    There was one phone booth, about a block away, and I debated whether to secure it or stay with the group to get the news first and be able to ask questions. I chose to stay (and ended up asking a question), but when I broke away to file, I found that UPI had two reporters there—one holding the phone booth while the other covered the announcement.

    For a long moment, I contemplated grabbing the jerk in the phone booth and throwing him out, but I decided that a potential struggle would only keep me from filing. So I ran another two blocks to the local bar, a country and western place, where the jeans-clad hostess looked at me funny when I told her why I needed to use the phone right away.

    She smiled and led me to it, and I dictated the urgent and story top to the late Mark Peterson back in the St. Louis bureau. Despite my having to run two more blocks to file, we dominated the play on that major story (which I think helped me get promoted to the International Desk in New York shortly after).

  6. Another dictation story: Here’s what happened on November 22, 1963, when Merriman Smith of UPI and Jack Bell of the AP were covering President John F. Kennedy visit to Dallas. The Clark in the story is Bob Clark of ABC News, who was riding in the press car with Smith and Bell. It’s excerpted from Patrick Sloyan’s 1998 story in AJR on how the press covered what happened that day.
    But when the wire car pulled into Dealey Plaza, Smith was the first to recognize the sounds. “We heard the first shot and somebody said, ‘My god, that must be a police backfire,’ ” Clark recalls. Then two more bangs came. It was Smith who concluded they were gunshots. “I was certain it was gunfire,” Smith said that night. He had a collection of rifles and a .357 magnum revolver. To show a newsman could shoot, too, he would sometimes visit the pistol range used by Secret Service agents.

    “Smitty was a gun fancier,” Clark says. “We knew he was an expert. He said, ‘Those were shots!’ ” Time lapsed into slow motion. Clark instantly understood the dilemma facing Smith and Bell. “It was a very difficult moment: All we knew was that those were shots. But what the hell do you file?” They were too far back. Clark estimated the presidential limousine was 80 yards away.

    Two minutes went by before Smith picked up the radio-telephone. The motorcade picked up speed then raced away. Smith told the operator to connect him with the Dallas bureau of UPI. “He was dictating to his office in Dallas,” says Clark. “He was having trouble. Those radio-telephones were often staticky. Smitty was repeating. He was trying to get one sentence off. I can still remember what he said.” Around the world, editors heard five bells and a bulletin on the UPI machine: ” UPI A7N DA PRECEDE KENNEDY DALLAS, NOV. 22 (UPI) – Three shots were fired at President Kennedy’s motorcade in downtown Dallas. JT1234PCS.” Chicago’s UPI bureau had been filing a murder trial report when Dallas grabbed the A-wire and sent Smith’s bulletin. Chicago tried to resume sending, but UPI New York interceded with a terse order in wire-ese: “BUOS -UPHOLD-DA IT YRS.” Translation: All bureaus stay off the A-wire. Dallas, it is yours. In every newsroom, editors looked at the AP A-wire teletype that always sat next to the UPI machine. There was no hint of what was unfolding in Dallas.

    The wire car began to pick up speed as Kennedy’s motorcade headed onto the freeway for the nearest hospital, Parkland. No one in the car knew where they were going, but Smith was still on the radio-telephone. “Bell is beginning to realize that Smith is driving an ax through his skull by getting anything off from the wire car,” Clark says. “Jack got pretty upset.” Bell demanded the phone as the motorcade hit 60 miles an hour. Smith bent over in the front seat with the phone. “I told Bell they couldn’t hear me clearly,” Smith said that night, beaming at his own duplicity. “They can’t hear me,” Smith told Bell, according to Clark. “I’m asking them to read it back.”

    “Give me the goddamn phone,” Bell yelled. Bell leaned over the seat and took a swipe at the phone, according to Clark, who doesn’t recall a rougher exchange between the two wire service reporters. Smith recounted how Bell began pounding his head and back. Smith, doubling his body over the handset, kept the phone from Bell until the car pulled up at the hospital emergency entrance. When the sedan stopped, Smith said he flung the phone at Bell and jumped out. As Smith headed for the emergency entrance, he said he heard Bell on the radio-telephone, saying, “No one knows if there was any gunfire.” In the AP Dallas bureau, staffers remember only a cryptic call – “This is Jack Bell..” – before the line went dead

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