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- a historical perspective from 1978 -

November 9, 1978 - It's four AM, and on the fourth floor of 50 Rockefeller Center in mid-town Manhattan, Mike Collins, who runs the Associated Press New York Broadcast Metro wire, is putting together the news copy that many New York stations will use in this morning's newscasts. The "wire" as it is called in journalism parlance, is actually a service that delivers written stories to teletype machines sitting at dozens of subscribing news outlets around the city.  Radio and TV stations use the content that is delivered to these machines to help form the basis of their newscasts.

The first big push of the day is the "dawn summary," a complete wrap-up of all of the major stories from the previous day and previous night. Content is written specifically to be read on radio or TV, rather than in the much different traditional newspaper style of most wire copy. The dawn summary arrives at most stations just as (or before) the morning news teams arrive, and provides many of the stories that millions of listeners will hear that morning over the radio and TV airwaves.

"Hear It!"
Hear an interview with AP's Mike Collins and UPI's Scott Latham, plus a profile  of the metro wires of the two services.

New York has two major wire services: The Associated Press (AP) and United Press International (UPI). Content from these two services provides the backbone of news information  for the city.

New York is so big, has so much happening, and has so many news outlets that both major wire services maintain special "city" wires to carry metro news, and cater special city wires just for the broadcast market. These metro broadcast wires provide copy written specifically for broadcast and also move bulletins and many dozens of stories to New York area stations.

All the News and More

Beyond proving writing copy specifically for broadcast, the AP and UPI provide a host of different services with their city wire operations, including:

  • Sending reporters to various news conferences each day held around the city
  • Staffing the courts with reporters to cover judicial news
  • Continually monitoring the New York City police wire
  • Making police rounds in the suburban areas such as Long Island and Westchester
  • Covering traffic tie-ups
  • Monitoring train hotline information from Conrail and the Long Island Railroad
  • Moving bulletins and advisories on metro news, even before complete stories have been written
  • Following up through the day on stories in the city
  • Publishing a daily calendar "daybook" of upcoming news activities and press conferences around the city and metro area.
Both AP and UPI say radio news operations around the city couldn't work without subscribing to at least one of the metro wires.
Associated Press Newsroom
50 Rockerfeller Plaza, 4th floor. The New York Associated Press newsroom stretches on and on and on.

What if these New York city wires didn't exist?

"The stations would have to do it all themselves," says Scott Latham of UPI, "which means they'd have to hire the staff, the machines, the wires, establish themselves with various and sundry state organizations, and essentially put together their own mini wire service."

"Without a New York City wire," reflects AP's Collins, "stations in New York and the Island would have to get stories that were going on -- there would be no other way to get them -- which would be impossible to do. They'd just miss a lot of big stories."

Original Coverage

The New York wires pride themselves on local coverage and serving the metro area with a wealth of additional stories not only from Manhattan but from the other four New York boroughs and also the suburbs. After the dawn summary is out, for instance, AP turns its attention to generating new stories, rather than simply rehashing what they've already written, and a lot of the focus is on the outlying areas of the metro area.

"Any station on Long Island would rather have another Long Island story and any station in Westchester would rather have another Westchester story," says Collins, "than ... a rehash or spot summary or what the Mayor of New York City had to say the previous day. And the city stations want this. We've found they don't use rewrites from the wire; they rewrite stuff themselves anyway, and they're trying to reach the suburban market as well."

And the number of stories generated is mind-numbing: "I checked on a rather slow Monday, and found that we had moved about 80 area metropolitan stories -- 80 different stories! That does not include tops or updates, and maybe, with breaking stories, 4 or 5 tops with added information."

Sensitivity to Broadcast Deadlines

Both AP and UPI are also extremely sensitive to the special needs of radio stations, which, unlike newspapers, have deadlines every half hour or even more frequently.

Associated Press Newsroom
Wire machines (right) and rolls of wire paper (mid-ground) at radio station WMCA. To minimize noise from the clackety machines, WMCA keeps its vintage RCA model 20 wire teletypes behind glass.

"If we know there's been a plane crash, and we don't have enough details to give them a full story," relates Scott Latham, ""we'll put an advisory on the wire saying we understand there's been a plane crash, we're looking into it, and we'll give them the bare minimum details that we have, and we go ahead on the phones and send the reporters in to get the facts as soon as possible."

At AP, Mike Collins, night editor Dan Murphy, and a day assistant all have broadcast backgrounds. We've tried to be aware of the needs or radio vs the needs of newspapers alone, which is a problem with some bureaus," says Collins. "We know the difference between getting a story out at five minutes before eight and five minutes after eight in the morning. We know what morning drive is, and afternoon drive is. We know that the stations immediately want to know about a breaking story somewhere, even if there's only minimal information, and we won't sit on it for three or four hours until we have every piece of the puzzle. When we know something, we try to let the members know about it. And then even if we're not super interested in it, they might be, because they might be in that area [where the story happened] and they can pursue it."

Traffic & Weather

Traffic is a major component of the daily New York information diet, and both wire services provide essential commuter information to stations throughout the New York area.

"We cover traffic tie-ups, when there's something major going on," says Collins at the AP. "We run all train information on the Long Island Railroad and Conrail. We receive a hotline that they operate -- and they ring that telephone every time there's a late train -- and we file that information on the wire. And this frees the stations themselves from having to call the Long Island Railroad ... every fifteen minutes or every half-hour during morning drive."

'We [also] carry the temp in Central Park, and all the forecasts for the various zones in our area... We place a very heavy emphasis on weather, figuring that if there's any kind of storm in the area, people tuning into the radio want to hear that more than they do the routine thing. If there's a big snow storm going on, they don't really want to hear what the Mayor had to say at his news conference everyday, or what the state legislature debated -- they want to find out if the roads are passable, or when power might be restored, or whether the trains are still running."

Police Information

A mainstay of wire information is police news, which starts with the New York City Police Department wire, supplemented by calls to the suburban departments.

Associated Press Newsroom
Wire machines at WQXR are propped higgelty-piggelty on a makeshift cabinet and shelf.  The station has a mix of newer dot matrix printers and old RCA teletypes.

"We have the New York City police wire, and we have reception desk on Nassau and Suffolk counties," says Mike Collins. "And we also have a desk we call up in Westchester.... We make regular rounds. Also, we have radio stations which tip us. These local radio stations have contacts in those areas and hear about things, and a lot of times will find out about long before we would.  We've also found that sometimes local police agencies will be more willing to talk to the local people that they deal with everyday than to, say, the Associated Press in New York."

"As far as accuracy, most of the time they're pretty accurate, but sometimes you get individual policemen or fire chiefs [that aren't]," relates Collins. "We had one fire chief up in Bridgeport who told me a couple of weeks ago that there was a double fatal fire and he told me that two people ahd been arrested for arson murder. And as it turned out, it wasn't correct. And so we called back and confronted him with it and he said 'Oh, really? Well, that's what I heard some guys talking about in the building here.'  That's pretty scary. This wasn't just a fireman; this was the Assistant City Fire Chief for the City of Bridgeport."

Do police departments ever sit on something? "Very often they will sit on something," says Collins, "and maybe sometimes it's intentional; other times I think it's just laziness... sometimes they'll have a report written up and they just don't feel like reading it. Other times, it'll just be incomplete. Like they'll leave out home towns or specific charges. And then it's up to us to track this information down.  We find that sometimes we have a release about a simple holdup that can go on a couple of pages... and yet still leave out essential points that we need."

Straightforward Style

Despite the breezy, sometimes punchy, delivery styles of many New York stations, AP and UPI generally play things straight.

"We try to be very straightforward and not be cute or not play games in any way in the way we write," says Mike Collins of AP, explaining that the AP serves all different kinds of  stations including classical stations like WNCN and WQXR, rock stations and all news stations. "We pretty much just try to be straightforward and emphasize clarity -- make the story clear and understandable -- and then if the stations want to be cute with it or rewrite it or whatever, they still have that option."

Rip and Read

Perhaps one of the neatest things about working for a broadcast wire is hearing the copy that you've written being read back to you on the radio at work or even on your commute home.

"We will hear our stuff both on suburban stations and on New York City stations -- both all news stations," says Collins of AP. "Especially the first time a story breaks, they will want to get that story right on the air. Occasionally, we've even heard our stories filed from here on the CBS radio network, word for word. That's rare, but if it moves at, say, three or four minutes before the hour, the station involved has a choice of either not running it at all or going with what the wire has."

"Some of the stations that are not primarily news stations will use our stuff. And some of the stations in the suburbs will use our stuff pretty much word for word every time. They are spending their time developing other stories or getting audio around the story, instead of just spending time rewriting."

UPI's Scott Latham concurs: "On a breaking story no one's got the time to rewrite. You must go with your latest information. If you have a disaster such as we had at Kennedy Airport several years ago where a plane went down, the radio station's job is to get the information out as fast as possible, just as ours is. No one's got the time to rewrite in that kind of situation."

"A station like WINS or WCBS -- which are all-news stations and have a bigger staff --  will rewrite more often.," concedes Latham. "But again, often they don't. Quite often there's no need do; why rewrite something that says it perfectly to begin with?"

The AP News Funnel

Because of its special relationship with newspapers and broadcast outlets, which are considered "members" rather than subscribers,  the Associated Press can pick up and share stories from any news outlet using the AP service. This means important stories from newspapers and even radio stations get widely dispersed via the AP service.

News Building Historical Marker
The Associated Press news floor. Mike Collins, at right, scans yesterday's Evening Standard.
"We act as a giant funnel," explains Collins, in that we... pick up stories from all the newspapers in the area and the radio stations and funnel this information to the other members. This was the concept on which AP was founded a hundred years ago: Five or six newspapers in the city got together and decided that it was too expensive for each of them to have correspondents in Europe over in the various capitals in Europe, so they formed a pool of reporters and they share the information. And that's essentially what AP was then, and what it is today. "

Though many stories are picked up from newspapers, AP does get news from radio as well.

"We had, during the [1977] blackout, various people giving out information [on the air, that we used]," relates Collins. "The mayor was on the air live, and talking slowly, and giving out phone numbers  fordifferent services... and we took that information directly off the air and put it on the wire."

UPI also monitors the airwaves: "We have two all-news radio stations in New York," says UPI's Scott Latham. "They're both clients, they also are both clients of the Associated Press. So we monitor CBS generally because it's got network news, for two reasons: (a) to find out what AP might be running on the wire -- if they have a story that we don't we're concerned, and (b) also to monitor worldwide news. If we hear about something out of Africa, we'll run over to the foreign desk, and ask them if they're aware of that, and nine times out of ten, it's their story that went to CBS in the first place, but it provides a dual function.

Who Gets What

On the receiving end, radio stations are awash in hundreds of feet of wirecopy rolling from their machines every day.

Wire machine banks
Dealing with all that wirecopy. At most stations, wire machines, copy, and spare paper are a tangled, inky mess. WOR (above) solves the problem with custom-built furniture that ensures paper falls the right way and that there are plenty of extra rolls of paper to spare.

WQXR's simple and compact system for managing printed wire copy (below) uses a long elastic band to hold copy in place. Some smaller market stations might use nails or other copy-damaging materials for the same purposes. The slots on the bottom employ unused space for stock market report forms , etc. While a large news operation would find this method cumbersome, it works well for a small news department. (Click images to enlarge)

WQXR Wirecopy sorter

All of the larger news operations in the city get both the AP and UPI city broadcast wires. Further, most get newspaper wires in addition to the broadcast wires. City news directors say there are advantages to having both: Though broadcast wire copy is written to be read on-air, breaking stories sometimes move faster on the newspaper wires and there is usually more information on them. Newspaper wires require additional expenditures, however, because a station needs people on staff to rewrite print style into additional broadcast parlance. 

Several stations get out-of-state wires. And there are police wires, and there is a PR line as well.

Only three operations subscribe to Reuters: WCBS and WBAI get a general NOR ("North America") wire; WBLS subscribes to the Reuters Cana-carribbean wire which follows events in the West Indies.  

WQXR is the only station to get the New York Times service wire.

Some stations get so much inbound news that the number of wires has actually become an information management problem: WOR has combined three UPI feeds onto a high-speed printer so that it doesn't have to manage three slower wire machines.

(You can see detail of the wires that each station subscribes to in 1978 by visiting the "datasheet" overview for each station in this documentary.)

Daybooks and Nightbooks

The "daybook" is a daily calendar of upcoming news events such as press conferences, mayoral staff meetings, and high-profile court cases.  New York City Daybooks are offered by both AP and UPI, and both services also provide a smaller "nightbook" chronicling upcoming evening activities. News directors use both daybooks and nightbooks, in combination with newspapers' stories and calendars, to figure out where to send their reporters.

The AP's daybook runs first thing in the morning, and the nightbook moves around 1 PM. You can see a complete example of a daybook from the Fall, 1978 on this web site.

"[The daybook] includes events news conferences, and anything we feel radio stations and the television stations might want to cover," explains AP's Mike Collins. "Whenever possible we include telephone contact numbers so they can call and maybe get some information on the phone or get audio on it if they can't afford to send a staffer over. Many organizations call us. Government agencies have come to know that the wire services are one place where they can immediate reach every station in town.  Also, we get news releases from various government agencies, and from private companies and also from going through the newspapers.

While most stations have at least the rudiments of a futures file, news directors use the daybooks extensively. WXLO's Charlie Steiner calls them "wonderful!"  WABC's Paul Erhlich says they're a station's "eyes and ears."

There are dissenting opinions, however: WPIX's John Parsons sees the city's reporters following daybooks as a covey of partridges would follow a trail of seed: "It tells you some of what's going on," Parsons concedes. "but its clients are usually politicians and people involved in the news machine, who know there is a daybook in existence and so alert the wire to so-called 'events.'  If you use that as your Bible, then you're not inventive, and you are not enterprising, and you are not talking to people."

Parsons believes the daybook can only be used effectively as a 'tip sheet' -- a clue to some of the things 'going on in town.'

Still, Parsons is in the minority; most station news directors rely on the daybook heavily to plan their coverage for the day.

What Makes the City Wires So Special

New York's News Directors revere the city wires for the wealth of information they provide minute by minute during the day's crucial drive times, and for the tools they provide in helping news departments cover the city. Many, who have worked in other cities outside of New York, are in awe of the special services provided in New York City, which is one of the few cities in the world where city wires are available.

"[The metro wire in New York] is unusual because the subscribers to UPI's wire come from a highly localized area, and they are therefore interested in highly localized news," explains Scott Latham of UPI, "whereas a state wire will have its clients spread out over an entire state, and therefore is interested in a wide variety of news. New York City, for instance, doesn't really care too much about what  the grape growers of Western New York are doing. Conversely, the New York grape growers don't care too much whether a bank got robbed on 42nd street, and that therefore should not appear on the state wire, unless it were a major holdup which everyone would be interested in."

Mike Collins of the Associated Press agrees: "We're in a special situation here. We have New York City radio stations which aren't really looking for rewrites, and suburban stations which are not looking for rewrites. In other situations -- for example in Connecticut -- where you have 45 radio stations we found the stations up there did use the rewrites. Many of them are very short-staffed and had disc jockeys who were just ripping the wire. So this [New York] wire is pretty unique. But so is the market."

And Collins tries to keep in touch with the special requirements of his customers by talking to them a lot.

"The basic philosophy under which we have operate is to try to be as much use as we can to any newsroom both in the city and in the suburban areas. And we've tried to be very sensitive to... the ideas that these radio stations have, and try to remain in close touch with them and see what they have to say, because really, that's why we're here."

- 30 -

See Also:

An Associated Press 'Daybook' - Visit a complete daybook from a fall day in 1978.

Visit New York stations - Back to the home page to visit more stations' news departments.

Elsewhere on the Internet:

The Associated Press  - The official site of the Associated Press.

United Press International  - The official site of United Press International.

About this report
This research documentary is Copyright 1979, 2003  Martin Hardee - All Rights Reserved. (read more...) Material may be quoted or excerpted for non-profit research purposes without additional special permission. For additional information email martin @ hardee.net.