Once There Were Two: The War of the Wires

By Mike Feinsilber

Back when most people got most of the day’s news from newspapers—printed downtown, delivered to the front porch, smelling of ink, fresh as a daisy—most of the news the papers carried that didn’t originate around town came with one of two sets of initials in parentheses: (UPI) or (AP).

Those were the wire services —United Press International and Associated Press—that delivered a ton of stories relentlessly on Teletype machines, spewing it out at 60 words a minute. They delivered the news from Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, or Ho Ho Kus, New Jersey, from Wall Street or Hollywood, from the state capital or Washington, from the ballparks, from the weatherman or the Weathermen, from anyplace that produced news outside of the local papers’ reach.

The newspapers had their own staffs, people who covered the schools, the police blotter, the parades, the zoning board deliberations, the locals who had died and the next week’s school lunch menus. But few newspapers, with the exception of a few giants, had the staff, money, or inclination to cover the election of a pope or a revolution in Mali, the NFL or the AFL-CIO, or UFO sightings, or even the goings on in the state capital: the news.

So all the news in the hometown paper that originated beyond the paper’s circulation area came from the wires, AP or UPI. Most newspapers took (paid for) either one or the other. Only the classy papers had the willingness and resources to subscribe to both services. So at those papers a guy on the desk could decide which wire service’s account was best and publish that one.

To the reader, there wasn’t a discernible difference between the news that came from the AP or the news from UPI. Both wires provided stories that were straightforward, objective, balanced, not fancily written, not too well backgrounded, sometimes a little dull.

No one paid any attention to those parentheses that followed the dateline. But to the people behind those parentheses—to the editors wearing green eyeshades and reporters wearing holes in their soles—to those people the differences between AP and UPI were enormous.

AP people believed that AP stories were invariably superior. They believed they were more thoroughly reported, more deeply backgrounded, more dependably accurate.

UPI people believed that their stories were invariably more compelling, more sharply and concisely written, more interesting. UPI’s nickname for AP was “Grandma.”

AP people believed UPI stories were jazzed up, exaggerated, clichéd, sometimes of borderline truthfulness.

UPI people believed AP stories were wrung out to make them starchy, languid, wearisome, you know: b-o-r-i-n-g.

I exaggerate. Maybe a bit. After all, I’m an old Unipresser (which is what UPI people called themselves. AP people didn’t have a word for themselves.)

Jack Limpert, the proprietor of this blog and for a time a Unipresser (hired, as it were, by a UPI president who took a shine to the bartender who was serving him stiff drinks at a hotel bar in Madison, Wisconsin) asked me to write about the differences between the two U.S wire services.

I’m qualified. After 25 years writing for UPI, I jumped ship and spent the next 25 years writing for AP. (For years, whenever one of my former UPI colleagues ran into me, she’d hiss: “Traitor!”)

When I joined the AP in 1979, I had a bellyful of trepidations. I’d been weaned on the legend that the AP was bureaucratic, stuffy, lumbering—the opposite of UPI. It turned out to be none of those things. AP was just as open to freshness in writing.

My big surprise was not how different UPI and AP were but how alike they were.

My tour at AP was only in Washington, so my contrasts with the competition might not always apply. I remember, vaguely, that UPI was strong in the South, California, and in Latin America and South America. AP was pretty strong everywhere. UPI was understaffed everywhere. Underpaid too.

I remember working alone one morning when I was UPI bureau manager in Newark. A New York executive called: “Hey, Mike, I have a layover at Newark airport for a few hours; want to come over and have a cup of coffee?”

“Be glad to, sir,” I said, “but I’d have to close the bureau.”

Never mind.

Both wires had talented people but AP had a deeper bench. Of course, either wire could on occasion take command of a story and never let go.

On any given day either could out-report or out-write the competition. But, at least in Washington, day in and out, AP routinely assigned two staffers to a major story when UPI scratched to come up with one.

AP swaggered; UPI had an intuitive inferiority complex. AP had more editors, so they could devote more attention to every story. AP had the luxury of anticipating tomorrow’s news, and how to deal with it.

UPI’s slogan in those days was “Around the World, Around the Clock, A UPI Man Is At The Scene.” Ah, if it were only true.

And the relationship the two services had with newspapers differed. Newspapers were customers to UPI, AP is a not-for-profit cooperative and the papers who take its service are “members.”

As a cooperative, the AP had the contractual right to call on its members to share their stories when big news broke where no bureau existed. The papers could decline, of course, but they rarely did. They were members, after all.

In its march toward the spike, something still called UPI still exists, but whatever it is, it isn’t much. (In 1992, the Washington Post summed up what UPI was in few words: “hanging by a thread” and ”bankrupted and shriveled.”) Whatever it is, it surely isn’t a full-bore wire service. There’s still Bloomberg and Politico and Yahoo and Huff and all that, but they don’t do what AP still does everywhere and every day and what UPI once did too.

The world is worse off for that, and so is the AP.
A second opinion from former UPI managing editor Ron Cohen, another 25-year veteran of UPI.
By Ron Cohen

I can’t greatly disagree with Mike’s assessment, much as I’d like to. But I can quibble. UPI had better writers, and top editors willing to take chances and give the writers looser rein. So I think UPI’s feeling that AP was stodgier was not far off the mark.

AP had the reputation of being more accurate, less shoot-from-the-hip. I believe this was largely a canard fostered and nurtured by AP, although that may be my bias showing. Both wires had their share of goofs—inevitable given the competitive need for speed.

But AP seemed the Teflon wire service to us Unipressers, despite whoppers like James Meredith dead, Dag Hammarskjold alive, Reagan picking Jerry Ford to be his veep in 1980. (That one hurt personally. AP’s next day anatomy of a screw up said UPI had made the same incorrect call. We hadn’t). And the Apollo 13 astronauts being doomed.

Mike is right on the button about the shallowness of UPI’s bench. We always were outgunned. We often would win the logs the first couple of cycles on, say, a big plane crash or natural disaster, despite being outnumbered four or five to one. (“Logs” were in-house comparisons of the number of big papers that used each wire’s version of a story. “Won the logs” meant your service got a larger number.) But the staffing numbers would wear us down and papers would switch to the AP. Then we would scramble to catch back up with a weekend blockbuster recap.

AP had more reporters, more writers, more bureaus in more places. They had more time to plan. UPI managers, as Mike pointed out, invariably had to cover desk shifts, or at least help out.

Even as UPI’s managing editor, I frequently worked the desk. In 1984 I wrote all the mainbars (jargon for the wrapup story) at the Democratic convention and many of the stories at the summer Olympics. The big difference was that AP, as a cooperative, didn’t have to show a profit. We did,  although the last profitable year was 1961, the year I was hired. I probably had a lot to do with the red ink in the early-to-mid-‘80s, when I was in charge of staffing and coverage decisions. I never regretted a one‚ if UPI was going to fail, we were going out in a blaze of glory.

The company outlasted me (I was fired by a new owner in 1986). My $50,000 a year managing editor salary was replaced by three co-MEs from the Washington Post, who got guaranteed three-year contracts that totaled three quarters of a million bucks. None stayed into the third year. I was a bargain!

Much of this is detailed in my 1989 book, Down to the Wire: UPI’s Fight for Survival, co-authored with Greg Gordon.

UPI today exists in name only. The once scrappy, renowned, world-wide and hugely respected news service consists of a couple of people working from home, running a web site filled with thumbsuckers and information purloined from other sources, with datelines from places 10,000 miles away.


  1. Unmentioned in these two looks at the AP and UPI is the most dramatic wire service battle of the 20th century: Coverage of the John F. Kennedy assassination in November 1963. See this recounting of what happened that day as Merriman Smith of UPI and Jack Bell of the AP reacted to the first shots fired:


  2. Richard Mattersdorff says

    What does it mean to say a story is “not too well backgrounded”? Can a story be “more thoroughly reported” but NOT “more deeply backgrounded”?

  3. Myram Borders says

    During my long tenure as bureau manager for UPI in Las Vegas starting in 1965, I saw more than 30 AP managers come and go. A few fell to the temptations of Las Vegas, a very few went on to bigger and better jobs, but to the vast majority it was just “Vaya Con Dios” as the door closed behind them. It was great fun, especially for one of the few UPI women bureau managers in the country, to watch the fall of “The Mighty”. Beating AP was a rush of adrenaline for every Unipresser.

Speak Your Mind