We were measured in seconds

My days as a wire service reporter with a cereal-box-sized mobile phone


I left Hong Kong for good in June 1990, kissing my rotund, cheerful Chinese boyfriend goodbye at the airport.

When I arrived back in New York, after spending a few weeks in India and a newly post-apartheid South Africa, I landed squarely in the recession of 1990.

Nobody was hiring, particularly not in the media industry, and certainly not a not poorly-connected, shabbily-dressed girl with an odd foreign resume. Foreign work experience was not yet fashionable.


Goodbye to boyfriend.



So I took temporary jobs. I typed well, having been a newspaper reporter, but you only got 12 dollars an hour for typing.

But the want ads were full of requests for temporary "Word Processors" who earned 20. Word Processors knew how to use primitive text programs like WordStar and WordPerfect, which in 1990 were just starting to replace the fat electric typewriters found in most offices.

My genius was to scan the ads to see which programs were most in demand, then buy a training manual for that program (or flip through it in a bookstore), and learn it well enough to pass the competency test at the temporary employment agency. Then - presto - a job offer. It worked pretty well.



The temping period lasted nearly as long as the recession, and since there was often little to do at my temp jobs - I was often assigned to executives who had been "decommissioned" and had little to do themselves - I was able to complete a large number of unpublished short stories to go with my two unpublished novels.

By the end of 1991, however, economic conditions had improved, and I was back in the journalism business. Dow Jones, the owner of the Wall Street Journal, ran what was then called a proprietary wire service.

Our clients were financial traders, each of whom had a special teletype machine installed in their offices, tapping out our stories onto long rolls of paper.

There were different wires for different interests - a corporate wire, a foreign exchange wire, an oil wire. We had teletypes of all of them going in our headquarters, and the noise was enough to burst your eardrums.

In the Dow Jones offices, with the teletypes. This fellow also kissed me, but he married one of the other reporters.



Dow Jones International News had bureaus all over the world, staffed by reporters who sent their stories back to us for fact-checking and editing. This was viewed as a way to train us in financial matters before we were sent to an overseas bureau for a posting.

I was hired with the idea I would be sent to our bureau in Frankfurt, using German I had picked up during my time in Berlin. I had no real plans ever to go to Frankfurt, but I needed a job.

It turned out to be an enjoyable one. The wire ran 24 hours a day, so working hours of 1:30am until 9am were not uncommon, but we were all young people with experience traveling the world. Working through the night together, after the bosses had gone home, was enormous fun. More than one marriage resulted.



When we arrived for work at Dow Jones, the first thing we would do was examine two clipboards. One pinned down a pile of paper that represented the wire's production in the 16 hours since we had left. We called it "reading in," learning which stories were in progress and which had already run.

The other clipboard held a sheet of paper that compared, minute by minute, when we had run a story to when our competitor Reuters had run the same story.

Beating the competition, even by a minute, was big stuff. Our audience of traders could make a lot of money in a minute if they had knowledge someone else didn't have. If we failed to produce a significant number of "beats", then traders might decide they could do without our expensive service.


A mobile phone similar to the one I was issued in 1995.


These "beats" were often utterances by officials of the Federal Reserve or Treasury Department, often just off-the-cuff nonsense about where they thought currency levels or interest rates should be. But we rushed to report them because traders put money on them, and were eager to be just a small second ahead of all the other traders putting money on them.

Getting these quotes was an exercise in pack journalism. When I joined the team covering the G7 Finance Ministers meeting in Washington, D.C., part of my job was to run after Treasury Undersecretary Larry Summers, who was prone to spontaneous exclamations about the currency markets.

To make sure that these gems of wisdom were conveyed to the world as quickly as possible, I was issued my very first mobile phone, a giant object so heavy it had to be carried around in a special bag with a strap.



I camped outside a meeting Summers was attending for a long time, worrying as the huge battery on the phone rapidly lost its charge.

Finally, Summers emerged. After him!

He got in an elevator. We raced down the stairs to meet him as he exited, all of us reporters, me gamely in the lead despite the monstrous weight of my mobile phone.

Unfortunately, Summers took the elevator up, and I never saw him again.


Next: Further adventures in journalism.

Return to Half-life homepage
Send e-mail to Xander Mellish: xmel _improved @xmel.com
U.S. Copyright Office Registration 1-141735861