Big News: More On Flashes, Bulletins, and Urgents

By Mike Feinsilber

In my piece earlier this week about flashes, bulletins, and urgents—labels put on important news to catch the attention of editors at the other side of the wire—I wrote: “News that was noteworthy, but not all that big, was called an URGENT and rang no bells.”

Two wire service veterans with memories better than mine—Mike Sniffen of the Associated Press and Ron Cohen of United Press International—have corrected me: Urgents also took bells.

Wrote Cohen: “Reading your blog post on flashes, bulletins, and urgents, I made a mental note to tell you that at UPI urgents got three bells, bulletins five bells, flashes ten bells.”

Sniffen’s memory, from a stint at UPI, is somewhat different: “As I recall the urgent signal was two bells followed by a discernible pause, followed by three bells.”

“The only reason I remember this is that when I read it (in the UPI Stylebook) during one summer at UPI Newark during college it struck me as strange that it differed so little from the 5 bells for a bulletin.”

This episode recalls a worthy maxim of my 50 years with UPI and AP: Never trust your memory.
By Ron Cohen

At UPI we were somewhat liberal with bulletins—it was a subjective decision made by the person in the slot, and during regular hours (8 a.m. to midnight Eastern time), the slot person in New York and Washington had the authority, but so did whoever was the slot person in the division headquarter bureaus in Boston, Atlanta, Chicago, Dallas, Pittsburgh, and San Francisco. All the other bureaus had to go through them.

During irregular hours (midnight to 8 a.m.), Washington generally could file its own bulletins if an operator was available. If not, Washington bulletins and bulletins from everywhere else, including overseas bureaus, went through the slot person in New York. In fact, NO overseas bureaus EVER could file directly to client wires; all non-domestic copy went to the Cables desk in New York, which then prepared it for the New York general desk slot person. He or she was the final arbiter, and could downgrade a bulletin to an urgent or even less; or upgrade an urgent to a bulletin. But always quickly consulting with the Cables desk before doing so.

After national headquarters (and staffers) moved from New York to Washington (1984-1985), the person in the national desk slot filed the non-Washington copy; the person in the Washington slot filed the Washington copy. They sat right across from each other and were in constant communication.

In the days of presidential news conferences before TV, Merriman Smith would exit a news conference and dictate three or four bulletins on different subjects, then dictate urgent adds on each one individually. It was a sight to behold.

Flashes were a different matter. They were rare—but could be filed at the discretion of Washington or New York or any of the division headquarters. Dallas filed the flash on the Kennedy shooting; Atlanta filed a flash when the three astronauts died in the launch-pad fire.

In my recollection, nobody ever abused the flash. People in charge instinctively knew when a huge development warranted 10 bells, or if a bulletin would suffice.

Here are a few other flashes: Washington routinely flashed when UPI declared a presidential election winner; we generally flashed a new pope; we flashed Nixon’s resignation (I punched the send button when he said, “Therefore, I will resign the presidency …”—the flash was on the computer screen, and I still have that flash and the subsequent UPI wire copy from that night on a teletype machine in my basement). We flashed the deaths of presidents, but I don’t believe we flashed the attempted assassinations of Ford, or the assassination of Robert Kennedy.

What the cable networks and Twitter now label “breaking news” only occasionally reaches bulletin-worthy levels, in my opinion. Especially when it stays on the screen for hours and hours. And especially when the subject material is so trivial it might not even have made the UPI AAA wire in my day.


  1. Bill Mead says

    One addition, Ron. Detroit (DU) was a hybrid–part of the central division but we filed our own copy on the A & B wires, so we did bulletins, urgents, etc. and sent skeds directly to NX.

    The sports wire hardly counts but it gave me my only flash, right after the last out of the 1967 season’s final game at Tiger Stadium. Had the Tigers won they would have tied the Red Sox for the pennant, but they lost. I covered the game so our sportswriter–Rich Shook–could get to the clubhouse for quotes. With the Tigers behind I phoned Frank Lazzeri, ace teletype operator, and asked him to have this flash ready. Final out!


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