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A live-wire idea takes shape: tales from the early days of a student news service.

A live-wire idea takes shape

Richard Bedard, a graduate journalism major at New York University, walked furtively down a dank Manhattan street one morning last fall. He was on his way to a sperm bank . . . to make a donation. Although he hoped no one would recognize him or ask him where he was going, the details of his visit were made available later that fall to the 269,000-plus readers of the San Jose Mercury News.

Meanwhile, Andrea Simakis, also an NYU journalism student, was asking some of her middle- and upper-class friends, male and female, to take off their clothes and allow their hidden tattoos to be photographed. Their tattoos, and the stories behind them, were soon revealed in the story in the Sunday Philadelphia Inquirer, circulation 984,000.

Both Bedard and Simakis were working as reporters for Live Wire News Service, a graduate journalism course in NYU's Department of Journalism and Mass Communication.

Live Wire, which began its second academic year this fall, is the newest of the nation's four student news services. (The University of Missouri and Northwestern University operate similar news services in Washington, D.C., and Columbia University operates a service in New York City.)

Student reporters who work for Live Wire and the other three services, although unpaid, accumulate bylines on high-quality stories in major newspapers throughout the country, enhancing their chances of finding a good job when they graduate.

And there is an added benefit: Because faculty members edit and attempt to place the stories, the work of these services brings professional journalists and professors closer together, helping to bridge journalism's version of the old town/gown chasm.

In its first year, NYU's Live Wire sent out approximately 160 stories and photos to 37 clients, which ranged from prestigious dailies such as the Inquirer to feisty weeklies such as the Herald in Peekskill, New York. Twenty-five of the stories and 21 of the photos distributed that first year were published.

John Dewey used to say that a person learns best by doing a task. He was right. A year and a half ago, when I was trying to get Live Wire airborne at the suggestion of Department Chair Terri Brooks, I had only a rough notion of how things might go. A year of actually doing it produced a few surprises. Here are 10 of them:

Playing the game was a gas

I told the approximately 630 students and 38 faculty members in the department that whoever came up with a name for the news service would win a Journalism Department T-Shirt. Among the names suggested were "Exploited Slaves News Service," "Students for Sale News Service," "Free-To-You News Service," "New Order News Service, (Josef Goebbels, Director)," "Tales to Tell News Service," "Big Apple News Service," and many others.

Start-up money appeared

Two years ago, I submitted a proposal to NYU's Curricular Development Challenge Fund Committee that emphasized the training in news bureau operations the students would receive and the exposure to a range of publishing and editing styles they would gain by working for Live Wire. The committee granted me $12,000. I used a large part of this money to buy several Macintosh SE computers, a modem, and . . . a bottle of champagne.

Getting clients was easy

As a certified paranoid, I was convinced that my attempts to line up Live Wire clients would be greeted with hoots of derision, snores through the phone receiver, and reams of mimeographed rejection letters.

I sent numerous potential Live Wire clients a sales letter plus a package of outstanding clips written by graduate journalism students by previous year. Although these students would never work for Live Wire, since most of them had already graduated, their successors would - so I figured sending out their clips was kosher enough.

Pretty aggressive marketing, huh?

Inwardly, though, I expected the worst, and I was a wreck.

But to my amazement, most of the newspaper editors I contacted were at least willing to have Live Wire's stories sent to their computer queues.

Eventually I figured out what impressed these ready-to-look editors. During Live Wire's second semester, NYU Adjunct Professor Carl Glassman and I went to a New York Press Association convention in Albany to solicit new clients. Few editors paid us much attention until we mentioned the word free. At that point, slumping spines straightened, glazed-over eyes cleared, and the corners of frowning mouths turned upward.

One news executive even flattered me by insisting that Live Wire not serve any other papers in his paper's circulation area. Another, the general manager of the Peekskill Herald, paid us a personal visit to check out out our facilities. He chortled when he saw that we had scrawled the names of our clients on blackboard and that the Herald, circulation 5,000, was listed among the giants of the industry as a Live Wire subscriber.

To be sure, not all the editors I called treated me with open-armed friendliness. Some insisted that I call back two or three times, and then they made themselves unavailable. Some said they couldn't take Live Wire stories because they only had room for local stories. Some accepted the service, then referred me to their computer person to get directions for transmitting our stories to them, directions the computer person was never able to communicate clearly enough.

But much sooner than I though possible, we had garnered enough clients to justify starting the service's operations. And I was now confident enough to believe that once Live Wire's stories were in our clients' queues, where panicked editors could use them at a moment's notice, our new little wire service would have a fighting chance. Our first clients were mainly dailies (the Atlantic City Press, the Detroit Free Press, the Bergen Record, the Minneapolis Star Tribune, The Philadelphia Inquirer, the Santa Barbara News Press, the San Jose Mercury News, the Syracuse Herald-Journal, and the Tampa Tribune) plus the weekly Peekskill Herald.

I hadn't thought about weeklies when originally planning Live Wire, but after some experience, I decided to keep soliciting weeklies as we continued to gather customers.

While the dailies gave our students major targets to shoot for, the weeklies published every story and many of the pictures we sent them and often gave the students assignments in advance, which the dailies rarely did.

Enough students enrolled

I was strangled by anxiety as the first day of class approached: Would qualified students sign up for the class, which was last in the graduate course listings ("News Bureau," course number "G54.1390")?

Being given to spells of paranoia now and then, I answered my own question with a no. I'd have two freshmen chemistry majors and a dog (the latter enrolled as a fraternity prank) with which to supply some of the nation's largest and most prestigious newspapers with "a steady flow of feature stories aimed at young readers," as the solicitation letter I had sent out had promised.

Cancelling a class because of low enrollment is an everyday affair in academia. Cancelling a national news service that already has promised stories to its clients was another matter entirely.

To ease my anxiety, I told my faculty colleagues what a great opportunity Live Wire would be for their students, posted announcements, made a pitch at the beginning-of-the-year gathering of graduate students, and ordered Live Wire News Service coffee cups as well as Live Wire News Service decals with which to decorate faculty walls and desks.

The coffee cups came emblazoned with logos only a cockroach could read and had to be reordered, but the other hustles worked and a decent group of students enrolled.

The class worked as a class

The students commented on each other's ideas and exchanged information on sources until everyone had a story assigned. Indeed, the first meeting of the class showed me how out of it I - a white, middle-aged resident of faculty housing - was.

Perhaps more encouragingly, the class also reminded me of how out of it the white, middle-aged males at AP, UPI, and the other news services probably were. Student Stephanie Acierno suggested a Live Wire profile of Manhattan's then-trendiest new club, M.K., which was decorated with real, but stuffed, dogs. I had never heard of the club, and as a stuffed-shirt dog owner, I was shocked. But the other students assured me that M.K was indeed trendy, and we agreed on the story.

Dorene Lomanto suggested an interview with the then-hot new group, They Might Be Giants, inventors of Dial-A-Song. I'd never heard of them or of Dial-A-Song either, but if trendy Live Wire News Service, based in trendy Greenwich Village, didn't do trendy stories, who would?

We could transmit stories

Early on I realized that since I didn't have the training, experience, or time to do the electronic transmitting of stories myself, all I could do was hope a computer junkie would enroll in the class.

But I couldn't admit just any off-the-street hacker. He or she had to be a graduate student and a journalism major who had taken the proper prerequisites. The computer person had to have room in his or her schedule to take the class. The computer whiz had to hear about the class - which hadn't yet been given - and had to want to be in it during its first semester of operation. Finally, our computer expert had to have the tuition money to go to school that semester.

Where was I going to find such an exemplary person? Who would I have to pretend to be - and what promises would I have to make - to lure such a student into my class?

Luckily for Live Wire and my sanity, no inducements were necessary. With no prompting, an appropriately qualified J-major, Matt Rosenberg, enrolled in the class and took on the transmitting chore.

Photos were a hassle

We could hardly send out feature stories, our main product, without art, and we spent lots of money reimbursing student photographers for their film and developing costs.

Even more money was spent to ship the photos to clients via air express. (Photo transmission machines were expensive and not easily available.)

And, since my photo skills were right up there with the average tourist's, I had to ask the department to hire a professional photographer, Adjunct Professor Glassman, to coordinate Live Wire's photo work.

I would have spent a lot more money if I had sent photos for every story transmitted, but I decided instead that each story would carry a note just under the slug indicating the photos available for it. If the client wanted a photo, he or she could call and it would be shipped overnight.

That way, I could save money - and keep track of which client was about to print a Live Wire story.

Because we weren't sure whether this ploy would actually enable us to keep one hundred percent informed about which stories our clients were using, we bought or were given subscriptions to all of our client papers. Each student was assigned a paper to read for Live Wire stories.

When we had only 10 clients, that system worked well. Later in the academic year, when we had 37 clients, mostly dailies, it became difficult to see the students behind the mounds of newspapers they had to read.

This year, we may have to go back to relying on requests for photos to tip us off ... or begin a recycling mill in the dean's office.

At one point, flush with grant money, I tried using photos as the sales peg for one of the service's stories, rather than the other way around. Live Wire reporter Bonnie Shenkin wrote a story about the only stunt academy in the Eastern United States, located in Oneco, Connecticut. She also took a photo of a stunt man in a cowboy outfit jumping off a tower. Thinking the picture might sell the story, I shipped it to all of our clients with a note reminding them that the accompanying story was on their queue. No one printed the story or picture.

From time to time, a client liked a piece but not our photo. The San Jose Mercury News asked me to send them the photo Richard Bedard had taken to accompany his sperm bank story. It was a graphic shot of the inside of a sperm donor booth, including a chair, a cup, and a magazine folder. The magazines in the folder were not Sunday school material.

Bedard's photo was truthful, but a bit stark. So the Mercury News editors opted for an illustration drawn by their own artist depicting judges, as if at an athletic event, holding up signs with different sperm counts emblazoned on them.

Actually, it was a good illustration. Sperm counts were a major part of Bedard's story. Because of a relatively low count, Bedard was rejected as a sperm bank donor. I was surprised that after hearing that verdict he was willing to tell the world about it.

But Bedard was more visionary than I. Not only did the Mercury News print his story, he landed a job interview on a bigtime daily after the metro editor pulled the sperm bank clip from the pile of clips and resumes on her desk. Her young son had been fathered by the sperm bank Bedard had written about.

Transmitting stories was a pain

It took much longer to send our stories electronically than I though it would. First, our resident computer expert Rosenberg had to format our stories differently for each paper's computer system. Then he had to call the computer people at the client paper and inform them he was ready to transmit. Then he'd transmit the stories. Then he'd call back the computer person to see if the stories had arrived. By that time the computer person had gone to lunch. Then, since Rosenberg was taking several other classes besides Live Wire, he'd have to rush off to class and start the whole procedure again the next day.

When Rosenberg finally did reach the proper computer person, often he would be told that the transmission had failed, in which case he had to repeat the entire process. If he was told the transmission had arrived, he then relayed the good news to me. I would then attempt to reach the editor involved, who would often be unavailable. Then I'd try again.

Occasionally, by the time I reached the appropriate editor, an underling at the paper would have deleted our stories in order to clear a queue. Eventually I'd reach the editor and try to sell him on particular stories he might be interested in. Later, when he decided he wanted to use the story, he'd call back and ask for the photo. I'd call an express service and arrange to have it sent to him.

Due to the hassle this process involved - imagine repeating this procedure four or five times per story per semester - it was soon obvious we'd rarely be able to send individual stories to individual papers.

So the stories had to be grouped in packages and sent package by package. Unfortunately, if some stories meant for the package were late, all had to be held up. This caused us to send out several stories too late for timely use. The papers involved weren't expecting them, so it wasn't as if Live Wire was reneging on promises it had made, but it did put us at a disadvantage.

One paper got around transmission complications by suggesting we send them daybooks for each package rather than complete stories. Then they could select the stories they wanted to see. Another paper had a computer system but no modem, so I mailed them hard copies of our stories. Yet another paper insisted I send them hard copy because they were afraid sinister computer viruses might enter their system through our electronic transmissions.

Not all the stories were printed

Our trendiest of the trendy stories, the one about M.K. (the night spot that featured stuffed dogs) and the piece about the group They Might Be Giants were not printed.

Even our specially targeted stories were often ignored. With one of our client papers (the Minneapolis Star Tribune) in mind, Bedard wrote a story on the decline and fall of what used to be called the Minnesota Strip, a stretch of Eighth Avenue in New York City where young blonde prostitutes, supposedly from Minnesota, formerly plied their trade. No sale.

Reporter Maura Webber did stories on the Minne-Apple Club, a group of former Minnesota residents now living in New York. No takers for that, either.

The stories that did seem to "sell" were national trend stories we could do early because we were in an avant-garde area. (Or they were simply pieces that were written exceptionally well.)

Consider, for instance, Simakis' tattoo story. Simakis said she knew a lot of middle-or upper-class young people who were getting permanent tattoos and that tattoos appeared to be moving up from the biker/sailor set to college kids.

That seemed to us to be the sort of story we could do best: a story we knew about before too many others did because Village people were on the cutting edge of change. Because I thought it important for morale purposes to get at least one story from our first package published, I was ecstatic when The Philadelphia Inquirer used it. I was even happier when the Inquirer voluntarily paid us $175 for the story, which we passed on to Simakis.

The pieces were nicely written

Most of the students who enrolled as Live Wire reporters were of such high caliber that I never had to rewrite their stories. (I also accepted stories from students elsewhere in the journalism program who had the proper clips and experience.)

When rewrites were necessary, I told the student how the story could be improved, and then directed him or her to rewrite it rather than doing it myself. After all, Live Wire should be a learning experience as well as a news service.

The student reporters who work for Live Wire's long-established competitors are also top caliber. So valued is Northwestern University's Medill News Service in Washington, D.C., that it is able to charge its newspaper clients $225 per month. (It also transmits to radio and TV clients.)

The service run by Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism operates only during the spring semester. It asks each of its clients for a $150 donation for that semester's run of stories.

The Missouri service, which is celebrating its 25th year, serves newspapers and magazines at no charge.

Missouri's and Medill's operations, like Live Wire's, send their stories via modems and telephone lines directly to their client newspapers' computer systems. Columbia mails hard copy to some clients, sends computer disks carrying the stories to others, and transmits via modem and phone line to still others, depending on each client's wishes.

We think competition is good for all of us. After a few start-up surprises, mostly good, Live Wire has a growing list of clients. And in a few semesters, we might even send out TV and radio feeds and open a Washington bureau.

Missouri, Columbia, and Northwestern, here we come.

PHOTO : "Live Wire" coffee mugs in hand, the original 1988-89 Live Wire News Service crew surround author Peter Benjaminson. Live Wire, based at New York University, is the newest student news service sponsored by a journalism school. Others are sponsored by Northwestern, Missouri, and Columbia universities.
COPYRIGHT 1989 Society of Professional Journalists
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Copyright 1989 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Title Annotation:New York University's Live Wire News Service
Author:Benjaminson, Peter
Publication:The Quill
Date:Nov 1, 1989
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