Demise of UPI's Chester Wire

Here's a piece by Unipresser Marty McReynolds for American Journalism Review on closing of UPI's Chester or Latin American wire in 1999:


United Press International ended 83 years of colorful journalistic history when it pulled the plug on operations in Latin America July 2. The Spanish-language wire -- curiously known within the company as the "Chester service" -- was once the dominant source of international news south of the Rio Grande.

United Press, as UPI was then known, ventured into South America in 1916, when dispatches were transmitted by telegraphers tapping out Morse code; travel to the southern continent was by ocean steamer; and a trip from Buenos Aires to Santiago, Chile, meant days on a train crossing the Argentine Pampas, with a connection by mule pack over the Andes to link up with the Chilean railroad on the other side.

But the struggling 9-year-old wire service was eager to stake out new territory in its battle with its prosperous U.S. rival, the Associated Press.

The UP got a foothold because La Nacion newspaper of Buenos Aires wanted official communiques from both sides in World War I. At the time, the world's major news organizations each controlled a slice of the world. South America was the territory of Havas (later to become Agence France-Presse) and the French agency patriotically refused to carry German communiques during the war.

With La Nacion as an anchor, UP set up a Latin American service that almost died in infancy. As told by Joe Alex Morris in the agency's 1957 history, "Deadline Every Minute," La Nacion dumped UP in 1918 in an attempt to take over the growing regional business. After months of desperate effort, UP managed to sign up Buenos Aires' other great newspaper, La Prensa, beginning a long and profitable relationship.

La Prensa demanded and paid for an exceptional amount of news, and United Press was soon providing a comprehensive report to newspapers throughout the continent -- later expanding to the Caribbean, Mexico and Central America.

UP (UPI after it took over Hearst's International News Service in 1958) became a familiar logo throughout the hemisphere. Working for "OO-pee" was a goal of many Latin American journalists and a source of pride for the gringos who joined them in covering revolutions, coups, earthquakes, volcano eruptions, civil wars and border battles.

There were bureaus in every major Latin American capital and internal services in Argentina, Brazil and Chile distributing a mix of international and domestic news. A staff of translators in Sao Paulo converted the news from Spanish to Portuguese.

Political tales and war stories abound. Two Bolivian presidents -- Hernan Siles Zuazo and Victor Paz Estenssoro -- worked as translators in the Lima bureau during periods of exile in Peru. Elderly messengers in the Mexico City bureau claimed that a young Fidel Castro dropped in from time to time during his exile in Mexico in the 1950s, ostensibly to read the baseball scores.

Castro later closed the UPI and AP bureaus in Havana although state-run Cuban media continued to pirate the radioteletype and radiophoto services for years, using the equipment left behind. Castro had a special reason for resenting UPI. In December 1956, a few days after Castro began the guerrilla campaign that brought him to power, the agency's Havana bureau filed an exclusive dispatch reporting -- on the basis of an internal military communication -- that he had been killed in battle.

Staffers in Santiago, Chile, survived a battle of their own in September 1973 when Gen. Augusto Pinochet led a bloody military uprising against President Salvador Allende. Loyalist snipers on the roof of the building that housed the UPI bureau opened fire on the Defense Ministry across the street. Soldiers raked the UPI office with return fire that shattered the windows and ripped into the wall above the heads of journalists huddled on the floor dictating dispatches by phone amid the shards of glass. Bravery and luck permitted UPI to keep reporting to the outside world through a phone connection to Mendoza, Argentina, overlooked by the military when it cut off all other communications.

How the Latin American editing and translation operation became known as Chester is a mystery. One theory is that the transmission of news to South America once passed through a relay point in Chester, Pennsylvania, or possibly Chester, South Carolina. Another is that a telegraph operator handling traffic from New York to South America in the early days was named Chester and his name became forever linked to the material he transmitted.

The Chester Desk of editor-translators has its own colorful -- and mobile -- history. It functioned in Buenos Aires for a number of years but the temporary shutdown of operations under Argentine strongman Juan Peron in the 1950s convinced the company that it needed a more secure location. New York became Chester's home until UPI moved its headquarters to Washington in 1984.

As the agency staggered through two bankruptcies, the Chester Desk moved again -- first to Mexico City, then Caracas, Miami, Washington and back to Mexico City.

Many talented Latin American journalists worked on the desk, blending the accents of Argentina, Chile, Peru, Cuba and other countries in a mixture that was not always congenial. Raul Muniz Moreno, a cultured Argentine who ran the desk for several years, was said to have been challenged to a duel by one of his enraged staffers smoldering over some grievance.

The Spanish language itself is a minefield of varying usage.

When an American correspondent was chased by a mob in the Dominican Republic yelling "Grab that guy with the camera!" he filed a story that included the verbatim quote for the benefit of the Spanish wire: "Ese, con la camara, cojanlo!." A Chester desker discreetly changed the verb, widely used in the Caribbean, to a more neutral term, keeping some South American readers from wondering why the mob wanted to rape a journalist.

Before satellites and computers, the Chester wire was transmitted throughout the region by radioteletype on a signal received in newspaper offices and radio-TV stations. This was a main channel for sending messages to UPI bureaus and stringers, who often worked at newspapers.

Carelessly worded messages could cause problems with clients -- and sometimes governments -- monitoring the wire. In the 1950s, Chester Desk in New York was run by a mild-mannered non-Hispanic, Gesford Fine, assisted by a Chilean named Jorge Bravo.

The story is told that a rival service carried a false report of a coup in Ecuador, prompting Ges Fine to message the Quito stringer: UNDERSTAND YOUR GOVERNMENT OVERTHROWN. FINE.

There was no response from the Quito stringer so a short time later Jorge Bravo sent a similar message in Spanish, signed BRAVO. The Ecuadorean stringer, meanwhile, was trying to talk his way out of a jam as the government -- still firmly in power -- wanted to know why the American wire service was sending congratulations for its ouster.

The Spanish service, a longtime source of profit in a money-losing company, suffered a series of blows that began when the parent E.W. Scripps Co. unloaded UPI in 1982. The hard-pressed new owners sold the vital overseas newspictures service to Reuters in 1984. The following year, several major newspapers in Latin America canceled UPI news service when the agency was taken over by Mexican publisher Mario Vasquez Rana, who was suspected of ties to Mexico's ruling clique.

The consortium of Middle East investors who bought UPI in 1992 cut costs by closing offices in Bogota, Buenos Aires, Caracas, Lima, Montevideo, Rio de Janeiro and Sao Paulo. When the end came this year, only Mexico City and Santiago, Chile, were still operating, with stringers covering other areas.

The formal announcement of a "suspension" of Spanish news was an anticlimax, although UPI staffers in Chile are negotiating with the company to take over the service in that country, where the internal news wire remains strong.

"The constant reduction of the service meant that in the end, the loss of UPI had little impact on Latin American news coverage," said Alberto J. Schazin, a consultant at La Nacion of Buenos Aires who was formerly UPI vice president for Latin America and the Caribbean. "The disappearance of UPI (from the region) is more significant historically, as the death of a U.S. company that was a leader in this field."