Preserving News History with Razor Blades and Computers
Dec 18, 2017 02:17PM
By Lisa Lukecart
Free beer Friday. Employees at Universal Information Services can indulge in a cold brew at the stroke of 4 p.m. at the office (although some have acknowledged to sipping on suds a half hour earlier).
“Cookies in the break room,” one employee whispers as she slips past with her treat.
Vice president Todd Murphy believes beer and food are universally accepted. It’s one way Todd invests the time to get to know each employee. Just this week, someone was awarded the “9 a.m. employee of the hour.” His father, president Jim Murphy, took a photo with her in front of the flag. It seems like a small gesture, but Todd believes these are what make people work harder.
“We have bosses who care,” P.R. measurement director Austin Gaule says.
Whether it is helping someone after their mother dies, buying a favorite record, or ensuring good coffee is available, this personal touch is invaluable to the Murphys’ corporate plan.
“It’s the little simple things that add up over the course of 109 years,” Todd believes.
Todd’s father Jim, a former brigadier general in the National Guard, learned how to empower people to their highest degree while in the military.
“Not only did it help them improve, but it made me look good,” he jokes.
Yet, when all the work is set aside, one feeling resonates in this tight-knit office space—family.
It was an idea that started in 1908 when Katherine Allen created the company. With a slide of a razor blade, Allen would send state legislators clippings from newspaper articles about themselves or their competitors. Jim worked side by side with her for nearly a decade in a time when women were typically wives and mothers. Allen was a “progressive, smart individual,” but Jim took the company to innovative levels as the world changed.
Jim originally worked part-time in Washington, D.C., as a press aide, meeting such presidents as Lyndon B. Johnson and Richard Nixon. It did not appeal to him—he was not fond of the politicians, lobbyists, and traffic. He put his finger on middle America, and it landed on Omaha. He didn’t know a soul. He entered the National Guard and met “5,000 instant friends.” Jim purchased the Universal Press Clipping Bureau in 1959.
Jim took the motto of Winston Churchill to heart, “We must take change by the hand or, rest assuredly, change will take us by the throat.”
He developed construction reports for prospective clients. It is an ideal way for architects or engineers to learn about projects long before there is an official request from a proposal. And when Jim received a call from a senator’s office to cover television news channels, it was time to take technology to new heights.
“I like to be up for a challenge,” Jim says.
He called Todd, then 13 years old, and asked him what he should buy at Nebraska Furniture Mart. Jim bought VCRs and had Todd set them up in his own bedroom with cords running haphazardly through the house so they could index and record broadcasts.
The company name has since changed, along with technology, and it is a data information landmine. Todd, who once wanted to become a cinematographer in Hollywood, realized the need to hire knowledge workers who could absorb data.
The data collectors have consequently become a dominant part of the office space. A room full of black servers track information clients want into databases across 16 states, from Nebraska to Alaska. The company pings 165 radio stations across the United States and Canada. Televisions are tuned into the latest scandals. Monica Lewinsky used the company to discover what was printed about her after news broke of her relationship with then-President Bill Clinton. Dr. Phil uses the service differently, mainly wanting to know if his program has good service.
And yet, a nod to the nostalgic age of print still resonates. The “Reading Room” is filled with newspapers, many of which make their way to another room to be clipped and scanned by hand.
In the digital preservation room, the old VHS and media equipment offer a tribute to history. Whether it is footage of Casey the gorilla being flown into the Omaha Zoo or huge bindings of newspapers, Jim hopes to clean, restore, and digitize the moments by using some of the aging monitors and sound systems.
Dr. Lee Simmons, chairman of the Omaha Zoo Foundation, echoes this on Universal’s website.
“Unless our history is preserved, we may find ourselves victims to the coming digital dark age,” he says. “We must be able to access our past so we can continue to improve the future.”
Visit universal-info.com for more information.This article published in the Fall 2017 edition of B2B.