Wire Services

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Wire Services

At the end of the twentieth century, news was readily available from a variety of competing sources: newspapers and magazines, radio, television, and the Internet. Yet a given story, no matter where it ran, often would contain much of the same material, word for word, owing to the heavy dependence of all news media on wire services, which collected reporters' stories and pictures, edited them to a standard style, and distributed them to individual broadcast stations and print media.

Organizations such as the Associated Press and Reuters are called wire services because of their early connection with the telegraph. In fact, Reuters was originally a bird service: In 1849 Paul Julius Reuter, a former bookseller, saw an opportunity to exploit a gap in the telegraph lines between Aachen and Brussels and used carrier pigeons to transmit stock quotes until the telegraph finally connected the two cities in 1850. Reuter then moved the company to London, where it opened in 1851 and used the new Dover-Calais cable to communicate between the British and French stock markets. Reuters later expanded its content to include general news as well, and scooped other news bureaus with the first European reports of Abraham Lincoln's assassination in 1865.

New York had had a news agency, the Association of Morning Newspapers, since as early as 1820, its main purpose being to coordinate the reporting of incoming news from Europe; and there were other small local agencies as well. The Associated Press was formed in 1848, largely in response to the new technology of the telegraph, by a group of ten newspaper editors who had come to realize that pooling news-gathering made more sense than competing for transmittal over wires already crowded with messages (multiplexing would not be invented—by General George Owen Squier, founder of Muzak—for another six decades). Included in the original consortium were the Journal of Commerce and New York's biggest dailies, the Sun, Herald, and Tribune. The first major story to be covered and distributed through AP was the 1848 presidential election (Zachary Taylor won on the Whig ticket).

When Reuters and AP were first started, any exchange of news between Europe and America was dependent on dispatches carried by ships. One of the first joint ventures by the AP newspapers was a small, fast steamboat based in Halifax, Nova Scotia, whose crew would race out to meet passing vessels en route to the major East Coast seaports, then speed back to harbor and telegraph whatever news reports they carried, often beating by a day or more the reporters accustomed to waiting on the piers of Boston or New York for the transatlantic ships to arrive in port. On the other side of the ocean, as a boat from the United States came in sight of the British Isles, at Crookhaven on the Irish coast, a Reuters launch came out to retrieve a hermetically sealed container thrown from the larger ship as it sailed past; once back ashore, the wire service crew opened the box, retrieved the dispatches inside, and cabled their contents to London eight hours before the ship from America would dock.

This system remained in effect until the transatlantic cable came into permanent operation in 1865—for though the first cable had been laid in 1857, it soon snapped, probably as a result of undersea earthquakes. (It had, however, functioned long enough to bring the United States a report of the suppression of the Sepoy uprising in India. The telegram's succinct 42 words summarized five separate stories from the British press).

The expense and time of telegraphic transmission tended to force brevity on reporters, but the wire services in their earliest days did not necessarily sacrifice accuracy to terseness: AP correspondent Joseph L. Gilbert's on-the-spot transcription of Lincoln's Gettysburg address almost immediately was accepted as authoritative, and other reporters' variants soon forgotten. "My business is to communicate facts," wrote another veteran AP newsman, Lawrence A. Gobright; but readers had to plunge 200 words—about five column-inches—into his front-page story on the Lincoln assassination before reaching the statement that the president had been shot. It was not until the 1880s that AP mandated the so-called "inverted pyramid" structure for news stories familiar today, with the most important facts at the top and successive layers of elaboration down at the bottom.

The effect of standardized newspaper style on popular culture has been subtle but far-reaching. Apart from the business correspondence and departmental memos encountered on the job, newspapers are often the most-read news sources in the course of the average day, and it is not uncommon for people to consume an hour or more of leisure time reading the Sunday edition of their local daily. Moreover, many writers whose later works have attained the status of canonical literature (four from the turn of the twentieth century, for example, were Stephen Crane, Mark Twain, Jack London, and Ambrose Bierce) served their apprenticeship in journalism.

Wire-service style manuals continue to play an important role in shaping other types of writing. AP's libel guidelines—a prominent section of their stylebook as a whole—also serve as the standard reference by which American journalists stay on the right side of the law, or at least flout the rules at their peril. Ian Macdowall, a 33-year Reuters veteran, summed up the goal of news copywriting in the introduction to that company's manual as "simple, direct language which can be assimilated quickly, which goes straight to the heart of the matter, and in which, as a general rule, facts are marshalled in logical sequence according to their relative importance." This ideal fairly matched the aspirations of many twentieth-century writers in English—journalists, historians, novelists, essayists, even scientists—who wanted their words to be bought and their ideas assimilated by the ordinary reader. Such authors in turn helped to mold the public's taste towards expectation of clarity, brevity, and pertinence in the popular press.

Another way in which the wire services have made a lasting contribution to mass consciousness is in photographs. Starting with AP's first photos in 1927 (wirephotos would be introduced in 1935, at the then astronomical research-and-development cost of $5 million), on-the-scene photographers have captured news events with images that have become cultural icons in their own right, integral elements of the American collective visual consciousness: the raising of Old Glory atop Mount Suribachi on Iwo Jima, caught on film by Joe Rosenthal in 1945, when American troops stormed the Pacific island in the final days of World War II and won it from its Japanese occupiers; a little girl, Phan Thi Kim Phuc, running naked, scorched, and screaming in terror towards photographer Huynh Cong ("Nick") Ut with the smoke of her burning village behind her, during the height of the Vietnam War in 1972; Murray Becker's stark and terrible photo of the dirigible airship Hindenberg burning after it exploded while landing in New Jersey in 1937; Harry Truman snapped by Byron Rollins on election night in 1948 as the newly reelected president gleefully held aloft a newspaper with the premature and erroneous headline "Dewey Defeats Truman."

Rarely has so great a mistake as the Truman headline had so lasting a place in the public mind, but the need to make deadlines, however fragmentary the information available by press time, has sometimes led to educated guesses by editors who were proven horribly wrong by subsequent information. Initial reports of the sinking of the Titanic in 1909 reported that most if not all passengers had been rescued; only later was it learned that many passengers had in fact been lost, and it was several days before the full extent of the catastrophe was known and printed. But though accuracy and speed of publication often work at cross purposes, the wire services have attempted to reconcile the conflict throughout their history by enthusiastically embracing new technology, from Marconi's "wireless telegraphy" introduced in 1899 (its inventor held for a time a monopoly on radio news service to Europe), the teletype (1915), and the tape-fed teletypewriter machine (late 1940s) to communications satellites and computerized typesetting (1960s), computer-driven presses (late 1970s), fiber-optic cable networks (1980s), and reporters with laptop computers filing stories by modem (1990s).

In wartime, at least, a second problem with accuracy in reporting has been military censorship, compounded by the need for the wire services to maintain a credible arm's-length relationship with government while remaining on friendly enough terms with officialdom to get the news at all. At the beginning of World War II the head of Reuters, Sir Roderick Jones, received an ominously enigmatic letter directing that the company and its officers "will at all times bear in mind any suggestion made to them on behalf of His Majesty's government as to the development or orientation of their news service or as to the topics or events which from time to time may require particular attention," a directive sufficiently vague that the wire service spent the duration of the war interpreting it as creatively as it dared.

During the Vietnam War, on the other hand, the American military simply lied, with the Johnson cabinet's connivance, pulling the wool over the eyes of Congress and press alike (the Gulf of Tonkin resolution; the falsified count of enemy troops in the field which allowed U.S. forces to be blindsided by the Tet offensive of 1968). Though the wire services for a time dutifully printed what they were given, the gap grew between official reports and the observations of reporters in the field, who began compiling reports that were increasingly skeptical. An additional spur may have been the small upstart Liberation News Service, run by young leftists in America and feeding to a burgeoning alternative press—the LNS story on the 1967 protest march and police action at the Pentagon was carried by 100 such newspapers—with information often more accurate than anything in a government press release. The American government fought back by attempting to discredit the press; AP's Peter Arnett, reporting from South Vietnam's capital, Saigon, was subjected to a smear campaign by the Federal Bureau of Investigation. But in the end the public sided with the wire services, whose photographs, film clips, and live reports flowing from the southeast Asia war zone home to newspaper readers and television viewers in the United States played a crucial role in turning American popular sentiment against the war.

Although wire services have sometimes been criticized as exploiters of human suffering, especially when it comes to war coverage, such news is vital to investors and fascinating to most ordinary readers, as when the Reuters report of Napoleon III's speech in February of 1859 ran in the London Times, giving Britons clear warning of France's impending entry into the Austro-Prussian war. On such occasions an effective monopoly on news seems a blessing to subscribers, if a bane to the competition. In fact, three years earlier, in 1856, Reuters had signed a contract to share stock price news with Germany's Continental Telegraphien Compagnie (also known as the Wolff agency, it had been founded in 1849, the same year Reuter's pigeons took wing) and the news company of Charles-Louis Havas in France (founded in 1835, later called Agence France-Presse, and still a key player in world news at the end of the twentieth century). In 1870, the three companies followed up with an agreement to carve up the world into exclusive news territories for each, in much the same manner as the spheres-of-influence diplomacy then fashionable among the major imperial powers; as a result Reuters, Havas, and Wolff dominated international news-gathering up until the first World War.

Ironically, it was World War I that brought the first serious competition in the Western Hemisphere to bear on the Associated Press, at that time available only to its members and subscribers, who typically blocked rival dailies in their circulation areas from joining. In fact, AP had managed to coerce even its subscriber newspapers not to do business with rival news bureaus, until a court decision put a stop to the practice in 1915. In response to such tactics, several powerful newspaper companies formed their own agencies, such as William Randolph Hearst's International News Service and the Scripps Howard chain's United Press Association (whose name was later changed to United Press International when INS merged with it in 1958.) When World War I broke out, newspapers in Argentina, frustrated in their attempts to reach an agreement with either AP or Havas, turned to UPI, which soon came to dominate the South American news market as a result, an edge it held for most of the century.

Unfortunately for UPI, an anti-trust suit was successfully brought in the 1940s to force AP to let anyone subscribe who paid the fee. This did not have much effect on UPI's domestic market share at the time, since many newspapers in the postwar boom years subscribed to more than one wire service. But a generation later, several factors combined to weaken UPI's position: the phenomenal growth of television news, whose evening programs provided stiff competition for afternoon dailies, forcing them to close or to be transformed into morning editions, plus the creation of news services by some of the larger chains such as Knight-Ridder, Hearst, and, ironically, UPI's former owners, Scripps Howard, which had prudently divested itself of the wire service in 1982. These new bureaus offered well-written supplemental news stories to fill in the gaps around AP's coverage, and did so at much cheaper rates than UPI could offer. A series of bad managers also helped to cripple UPI and it ceased to be a significant player by 1990, leaving AP much as it had been at the beginning of the century: the dominant source for print news in America, and one of a handful of major players across the globe.

Even as UPI was failing, Reuters was enjoying unprecedented prosperity: In 1989, when UPI's staff had dwindled to 650 reporters and 30 photographers, for the first time more major dailies in America were now carrying Reuters than UPI. Reuters had never lost sight of its roots in the stock market, and although it had also prudently diversified into television in 1985 by acquiring an international TV agency, Visnews (renamed Reuters Television), and had successfully broken into the Internet by supplying news to nearly 200 web sites by the end of the 1990s, it remained a robust source of financial news, obtaining quotes from over 250 stock and commodities exchanges, disseminating financial data via a large cable network and its own synchronous-orbit communications satellites, and employing a staff of over 16,000.

Still, for most Americans, AP remained the quintessential wire service. In Flash! The Associated Press Covers the World, an anthology of its photographers' work published in 1998, Peter Arnett proudly wrote that AP copy that year comprised as much as 65 percent of the news content of some American newspapers, that 99 percent of American dailies and 6,000 broadcasters carried AP stories, that the wire service employed over 3,500 people in 236 bureaus, turning out millions of words of copy every day and hundreds of pictures, that its employees had won 43 Pulitzer prizes—and on a more somber note, that nearly two dozen AP correspondents and photographers had died in the line of duty in the century and a half since the organization was founded, ranging from reporter Mark Kellogg, who perished while covering Custer's Last Stand at the Little Bighorn River in June of 1876, to photographer Huynh Thanh My, killed by the Viet Cong in October of 1965. Wire service reporters, Arnett argued, are ubiquitous; that's their job. Thus when Mahatma Gandhi was discharged by the British viceregal government in India after serving one of numerous jail terms for civil disobedience in the 1930s, he was driven to a remote village and let go—and came face to face with AP reporter Jim Mills, who had gotten wind of where the illustrious prisoner was to be released and wanted to be on the spot to interview him. With wry amusement Gandhi declared, "I suppose when I go to the Hereafter and stand at the Golden Gate, the first person I shall meet will be a representative of the Associated Press!"

—Nick Humez

Further Reading:

Adams, Sam. War of Numbers: An Intelligence Memoir. South Royalton, Steerforth Press, 1994.

Alabaiso, Vincent, Kelly Smith Tunney, and Chuck Zoeller, editors. Flash! The Associated Press Covers the World. New York, Associated Press and Harry N. Abrams, 1998.

Associated Press. Charter and By-Laws of the Associated Press, Incorporated in New York, December 1, 1901. New York, Associated Press, 1901.

——. Member Editorials on the Monopoly Complaint Filed by the Government Against the Associated Press on August 28, 1942. New York, Associated Press, 1942.

Collins, Henry M. From Pigeon Post to Wireless. London, Hodder and Stoughton, 1925.

Diehl, Charles Sanford. The Staff Correspondent. San Antonio, Clegg Company, 1931.

Goldstein, Norman, editor. The Associated Press Stylebook and Libel Manual. Reading, Addison-Wesley, 1996.

Gordon, Gregory, and Ronald E. Cohen. Down to the Wire: UPI's Fight for Survival. New York, McGraw Hill, 1990.

MacDowall, Ian, compiler. Reuters Handbook for Journalists. Boston, Butterworth-Heinemann, 1992.

Mungo, Raymond. Famous Long Ago: My Life and Hard Times with the Liberation News Service. Boston, Beacon Press, 1970.

Read, Donald. The Power of News: The History of Reuters. New York, Oxford University Press, 1992.

United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). News Agencies, Their Structure and Operation. New York, UNESCO, 1969.