What is this United Press that is fluttering the dovecotes of the Associated Press in such an agonizing way? It is a purely mercantile undertaking designed to make money, and it has been doing just that for the past twenty years.
By its aggressiveness and enterprise it has built up a clientele of 1,250 papers as large as that of the Associated Press with this difference that only 900 are in the United States while 350 are outside our boundaries.
The United Press was founded originally to supply news only to evening papers. Ten years ago it enlarged its service to include morning papers, though the bulk of its clients are still evening newspapers.
Within the past twelve months it has added no less than sixty-nine dailies to its list, some of them extremely important, such as the Philadelphia Record, the Houston Post-Dispatch, the Louisville Times, the Wheeling Neios, the Mobile Press, and the Springfield, (Mo.) Press.
With two such dailies as the New York Herald Tribune and the Chicago Daily News surrendering to the charms of its service, the United Press may well look forward to capturing many other Associated Press strongholds. Indeed, one may even ask whether the competition of the Associated Press and the United Press will not eventually be within the pages of all leading dailies, instead of, as at first, between two groups of dailies each taking one service only.
The United Press lacks every one of the cooperative features which distinguish its great rival, the A.P. It reports news for purposes of sale only.
Its members have no more control over it than the subscribers to a circulating library have over its management. In either case, the subscribers can give up the service if it is not up to the standard desired; they have no other direct way of modifying its policies.
Whether this is or is not an effective veto every journalist will judge for himself. The members of the United Press are never even called into its councils.
Whereas the Associated Press is what its directors and members wish it to be the United Press is today what Robert Paine Scripps, Karl Bickel, Roy Howard, and their immediate associates say it shall be.
Mr. Scripps is the controlling owner. In practice the management rests with Mr. Bickel, James H. Furay, Hugh Baillie, Robert J. Bender, James I. Miller, and the other United Press executives, all of them part owners. To them belongs the credit for its good features and to them the blame for its weaknesses.
They say for what and how the $6,000,000 disbursed each year for the gathering and distribution of news shall be expended.
They do not pretend that theirs is a public-spirited enterprise; on the contrary, they constantly declare that it is just another commercial, profit-seeking institution. They rarely speak of themselves as journalists, but usually as businessmen.
With equal frankness they declare that the United Press has no policies of any kind and no desires save “to present to its clients throughout the world a world-wide service of news, objective and impartial, without prejudice of any kind, national, sectional, economic, social, or religious.”
Theoretically, then, the organization of the Associated Press is, as I have already pointed out, far superior to that of the privately owned United Press.
Yet the latter happens to be the more liberal agency for gathering news, happens to have much more sympathy for the under-dog, and happens to be far less sensitive to the great capitalistic press influences which gather around the directors’ table of the Associated Press.
This is purely accidental, for it was. only by chance that the United Press was founded by the late E. W. Scripps, who was opposed to a monopoly in news and faced American problems from the good, old-fashioned liberal point of view.
Nor is there any guarantee in the form of its organization that twenty-five or fifty years from now, when the present managers and owners have passed from the scene, the United Press will not be an entirely different affair run with a totally different spirit.
For the steady progress of the United Press there are several explanations. In the first place, no one can question the unusual ability of Roy Howard and Karl Bickel.
They have been fortunate in having the complete confidence and the unlimited financial backing of the Scripps family with their liberal point of view, which is also the actuating spirit of the twenty-five Scripps- Howard newspapers.
They were untrammeled by conventions. The very fact that they were the dictators of the organization made it possible for them to go ahead rapidly without first having to consult the heads of a number of their member dailies.
They could snap their fingers at any dissenter. In order to establish their service they had to avail themselves of every new device and to think up new ways of getting their news cheaply and quickly.
Thus, they were first to utilize the facilities of the American Telephone and Telegraph Company for telegraphic news transmission. Mr. Bickel boasts that it was the United Press which first developed the use of the telephone for the transmission of a “pony” (i.e., small) news report; this made it possible to provide a larger service than by telegraph and for less money.
It was the United Press which first extensively used the printer-telegraph machine, operating extensive circuits without any operator attendant on a one-way basis—something that had been said to be impossible.
It was quick to welcome the radio, in which it saw not a competitor, but a valuable ally, and it lays the unction to its soul that its use of a national hook-up on the occasion of the general election in 1924 brought about the final acceptance by its rivals of the radio as a necessary adjunct of any news service.
Mr. Bickel himself attributes the remarkable expansion of its world service to the fact that it has not belonged to the so-called “official-agency” group, and that it has always been free from nationalistic bias.
This may have been accidental; that is, if the Associated Press had not already was linked up with Reuter, Havas, and the other official or semi-official foreign agencies, the United Press might have been happy to make use of their services.
But undoubtedly it was a blessing both for the United Press and for the general public that it had to be independent. There are only a couple of exceptions to this rule. It has a connection with the Nippon Dempo Tsushin Shad, the largest agency in Japan, and a slight one with the Australian Press Association.
It covers Japan, however, with its own separate correspondents as well. There is a widely held belief that in South and Central America the United Press has done much to improve our relations with our southern neighbors and has gone out of its way to do so.
At home the United Press collects its news not from member newspapers, as does the Associated Press, but by means of correspondents appointed in various localities. Its officers, of course, believe that this is a better system; that it does not place them at the mercy of the news standards and facilities of their members.
On the other hand, it places upon the United Press a very heavy responsibility in picking its representatives. Most of them are paid only for what they send in. In the South, for example, their representatives are just as much subject to local prejudices as are the representatives of the Associated Press.
The United Press, however, can change its correspondents as rapidly as it pleases, and its officers are bound to realize that the quality and reliability of their service depend upon the care taken in the selection of their local representatives.
In Haiti, by the way, the United Press also chose an American officer as its correspondent but mitigated the offense by using a Haitian too.
It would be ridiculous, of course, to assert that the United Press service has been all that it ought to be. It has suffered from growing pains, from the errors made in the building up of a new organization, and there have been big gaps in the territory it has tried to cover.
One who was for years a trusted United Press representative abroad is of the opinion that its sense of values has not always been of the best, for the reason that it is an attacking organization, whereas the Associated Press has been entrenched in its position. He adds this in explanation:
The A. P. can take aim before firing, but the U. P. must be quick on the trigger and must sometimes fire from the hip. I think this explains why the U. P. occasionally fires a whole broadside at a fleeting target and lays down a barrage on subjects not worth a pot shot.
It is apt to be more interested in providing entertainment than instruction, in surprising rather than in being profound. I suspect that sometimes it chooses not to verify a good story too exactly, lest it (the story] should blow up and disappear.
It is interesting to note his belief that since it is the more commercially minded the U. P. feels more responsibility toward its client newspapers than toward the ultimate public.
He adds that if he were a publisher he would prefer the U. P. service, but if he were a careful and thoughtful reader of newspapers he would prefer the Associated Press because its news, though sometimes slower, would probably be more thoughtfully prepared.
There, he declares, are not unfriendly observations: “I got a great kick out of working for the U. P. 1 am enthusiastic about it, its people, and its purposes, and I think it is a most necessary and precious stimulant to the A, P.” It seems as if the case could hardly be stated better.
I find, however, other criticisms from worth-while sources. One is that the United Press does not pay its correspondents enough. This charge is emphatically denied by the United Press.
The belief is probably due to the policy of the whole Scripps group of organizations of paying low salaries to those at the bottom and rewarding the executives and key men with stock as well as large salaries, which makes them interested in keeping expenses down and profits up.
Otherwise they might be more interested in building for the future, for the day when they will be established beyond injury by competition and can set themselves primarily to making their news service as authoritative as that of their chief rival. It is an interesting fact that while the A. P. has been letting down its standards the U.P. is being compelled by the logic of events to move in the opposite direction.
Evidence of the way the United Press has been drifting in the direction of the Associated Press is the fact that its executives have been for two years working on the question of broadening its contractual relations with its clientele to give “due recognition of the values that a client confers on the United Press locally as a result of long-time relationship.”
This means that although founded for the express purpose of preventing a monopoly in news, and as a protest against the Associated Press policy of permitting a member newspaper to prevent others in its immediate territory, under given conditions, from obtaining the Associated Press service, the United Press is now trying to find some way of protecting a client without at the same time violating its policy of “non- exclusivity”—to use its own awkward word.
In Washington the United Press at times seems weak. Sometimes inexperienced men are found in foreign positions of great importance—good men who have to learn their jobs at the cost of the service.
Sometimes, as it would be easy to prove, these men “force” their stories because of their desire to get in the human-interest note. In its Washington service, also, there is too much hitting of the high spots, just as there is too much banality throughout its news reporting, though that is more excusable in a new service than in the Associated Press, which under Melville E. Stone denounced that sort of thing and at all times has boasted of its high standards, its superior virtues, and its shining rectitude.
Like the Associated Press the United Press has stooped to conquer. It was the pioneer in adding to its service such features as sports, women’s-page matter, cartoons, comic strips, and “human-interest” stories.
It gave, in fact, the poor example which the Associated Press followed in this field. It, too, has found it necessary to cater to that recent development in accordance with which the daily newspaper is getting away more and more from the original conception that it was solely a purveyor of news and opinion and is entering the amusement field in competition with the movie and the radio.
Cross-word puzzles, children’s comers, bedtime stories, advice to the lovelorn, news pictures, and sport pictures—these are all part of the effort to meet the new and threatening competition from outside the business and the never-halting demand for larger and larger circulation.
It was the ill fate of the United Press to perpetrate the greatest hoax in modern press reporting—the fake armistice announcement of November 7, 1918.
The world literally went mad with joy when the premature news was flashed that hostilities had ended. In a sense the false report served a useful purpose in that it made officials everywhere realize how deeply the people desired a cessation of bloodshed.
Naturally the Associated Press made full use of this bad break of its rival. A careful examination of the evidence in the case plainly proves that the United Press, in the person of Roy Howard himself, was the victim of an error of the naval attache of our Embassy in Paris who telegraphed to Admiral Henry B. Wilson at Brest as follows: “Armistice signed this morning at eleven. All hostilities ceased at 2 p.m. today.”
When Roy Howard called upon the Admiral on November 7 the latter casually showed him the telegram. Not unnaturally Howard made immediate use of it. It seemed as if the biggest news scoop in history had fallen into his hands by accident, for he was then at Brest not to obtain news but to take ship to the United States. Had the Paris dispatch been a truthful one, Howard’s fame as a journalist would be supreme.
As it was, there came down upon his head and upon the United Press an avalanche of abuse and denunciation enough almost to wreck them both. It took a long while for the United Press to work out from under the shadow of this victimization.
Since then Mr. Howard has gone on the active headship of the Scripps-Howard newspaper group, with Karl Bickel taking his place as head of the United Press.
Both are still comparatively young men, respectively forty-seven and forty-eight years old. They have already made their mark upon the journalism of this country and of the world and they may continue to do so for years to come.
As long as they are at the head of their respective organizations the United Press service will be the one to which reformers and all interested in liberal causes and better human relations will turn first in the belief that they will be received with sympathy and understanding.
There are those who think that this liberal attitude is in part inspired by recognition of the fact that it is good business for the United Press to be liberal in contradistinction to the Associated Press. I prefer to believe that the main motive lies in their own convictions and their attitude toward the problems of mankind.
Whatever their motives, the fact that the United Press under their leadership is what it is of enormous importance to all who believe that the America of the future should be something different from the self-satisfied and socially and politically reactionary country in which we live today.