Chapter 7 - AG – Genius before his time
Alfred Geiringer was a man before his time. Alive today I have no doubt he would have ruled the Internet or at least been publicly singled out as the man who first used the technology to change the way news was collected and distributed.
‘AG’ succeeded where others failed because he breached conventional wisdom – and then was never satisfied until he did it again. He had foresight and an abundance of confidence that was inspiring. He was a born leader whose barking voice frightened many until they recognized that his shouting was without malice. It was often directed at himself and his own errors of judgment, although he never suffered fools gladly and never hesitated to let them know.
He was born in Austria but emigrated after its occupation by Nazi Germany in 1938. He returned in 1946 as Reuters European Editor and played an instrumental role in founding APA (Austria Press Agentur) as an independent, newspapers-owned co-operative.
Once back in London, AG continued to explore new business opportunities for Reuters and according to the grapevine he proposed that the company should set up a wire service for the emerging public relations community. The very idea that Reuters should be associated with a paid-for press release was unthinkable to his bosses and in a pique he quit to start his own. I cannot vouch for the veracity of this story and was never tempted to ask AG about it.
But knowing the man as I did and his sheer determination to put his ideas into practice, it has a strong ring of truth about it.
Within a couple of weeks Universal News Services was born. In true AG style he took a vast office floor in Lintas House, New Fetter Lane – not more than a few minutes’ walk from Reuters in 85 Fleet Street.
It was around this time that AG came into my life. The word had got out that I was looking around to move from the sub’s desk at the Press Association (at that time the PA and Reuters were sister agencies and shared the same office building) and out of the blue AG contacted me.
I will never forget our first meeting. The office in Lintas House was larger than a football pitch, furnished with rows of empty desks; AG was the only person in sight and in shirt sleeves and braces he bounded towards me, booming out my name to greet me like a long lost son.
He showed me around what he called ‘the wire room’ and in words that frankly I did not understand explained how UNS would distribute news.
As we strolled around the uninhabited office he pointed to a desk and said “This is for you. I have chosen you to be the first chief sub editor of Universal News Services…I know you want to leave the PA, so when can you start….”
I was hooked and for a few pounds more than I was getting at the PA I joined UNS.
It was only then that he told me that my first job as chief sub editor was NEVER to change clients’ press releases that had to go out in full; the only exception was if I spotted a serious error of fact and then I had to go back to the client and get permission to correct it.
My second job was to visit the newspaper offices in and around Fleet Street to make sure that the UNS machines were switched on and to put in fresh rolls of paper.
Looking back now, these were pioneering times and UNS flourished under AG’s command. The turning point was the decision by the BBC to accept UNS distributed press releases and from then own it was recognized as a legitimate source of news.
When AG recognized that he had taken UNS as far as he could and without any family successors, the business was sold to the Press Association. By this time I had long gone but I remember thinking that would destroy the agency’s culture. Sadly, I was proved right.
The name, stupidly, was changed to Two Ten Communications, the technology was upgraded but it had lost its spark and never really sat comfortably in the PA organization. It was no surprise therefore when it was sold on again, this time to PR Newswire, the US leader in its field.
I lost contact with AG who had retired into the country and later died. At his memorial service the church was packed with a Who’s Who of Journalism and I remember the words of one of the speakers, who knew AG from his Reuters’ days: “Alfred’s mind was like Pandora’s Box…..every time he opened it a new and exciting idea was born….”
For me AG was the first and only real genius I have ever met. He instilled in me, among many, a passion for news and for that I shall be in his eternal debt.