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So What Do You Do, Stephen Shepard?

Steve Shepard, former editor of BusinessWeek, discusses his new position as dean at CUNY's J-School and his storied career

- February 20, 2007
Stephen Stephen Shepard has done almost everything there is to do in the journalism world. At age twelve, he started delivering the Bronx Home News and, after stops at publications including Newsweek and the Saturday Review, he led BusinessWeek into the 21st century as its editor from 1984-2005.

No one would fault a man with such an impressive resumé for taking a step back. But after contemplating retiring to a life of reading and cooking classes, Shepard instead chose to take on his "biggest challenge yet." He became the first dean of the fledgling CUNY Journalism School, the only public institution of its kind in the northeast. Shepard spoke with mediabistro.com about his new day, the difficulties of beginning a start-up, and how his wife is a great aggregator.

Name: Stephen Shepard
Position: Dean of the Graduate School of Journalism, City University of New York
Education, school: B.S. from City University of New York, M.S. from Columbia University
Hometown: New York City
First job: Delivered the Bronx Home News when I was 12. My first job after college was as an editorial trainee at McGraw Hill.
Last 3 jobs: senior editor at Newsweek, editor of Saturday Review, BusinessWeek (executive editor in 1982, then editor-in-chief from 1984-2005).
Birthdate: July 20, 1939
Marital status: Married to Lynn Povich ("Her father was Shirley Povich, who was a famous sportswriter for the Washington Post.")
What's your favorite TV show: I don't watch a lot of TV, but I like Tim Russert on Meet the press, Wolf Blitzer on CNN.
Last book read: State of Denial by Bob Woodward, Tom Stoppard's Coast of Utopia plays. (I always think you have to read a Tom Stoppard play before you go see it.)
Most interesting media story right now: The plight of newspapers -- the Chicago Tribune, the L.A. Times, Dean Baquet returning to the New York Times. It's a very important story.
Guilty pleasure: Chocolate chip cookies.

What's the typical day like in the life of Steve Shepard? What media do you consume? What blogs do you read?
Well, I get up at 6:45 a.m., and start reading four newspapers a day that are delivered to my apartment -- The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, and USA Today. Lately, I've been reading the New York tabloids, also, because the students are placing a lot of articles in the Daily News. I don't finish all of them, but then I come to work and I'm in the office by 9:30. It depends a little bit on what day of the week it is: We have a faculty meeting once a week. We have a staff meeting once a week. I get a ton of emails and there are lots of issues to deal with because it's a start-up school. We're dealing with questions about technology, new courses, and student issues. It's never the same. There isn't the routine that there was at BusinessWeek.

I look at a lot of websites, but I don’t spend a lot of time on blogs. Two that I do look at are Buzz Machine, which is Jeff Jarvis' -- he heads the interactive program here -- and Healing Iraq, which is run by a student in the graduate school.

So you don't read any journalism or media blogs?
Well, I read Romensko everyday, and he aggregates it all. I read whatever interests me there. I don't go specifically to a lot of blogs during the day. There's a lot of media stuff out there, and that's the one thing I do try to keep up with. I have Slate sent to me. I read a lot. And my wife sends me things: She's the real syndicator.

How is your day different than when you were at Business Week?
Well BusinessWeek was very structured. It was a weekly magazine, so it had to be. Every day had a certain rhythm. The magazine closed Wednesday night, so we were reading copy Tuesday, Tuesday night and Wednesday. Thursday was relatively light, as was Friday, and then it picked up again. There were the same meetings every week.

This is much more open-ended. You need to create your own milestones for progress because you don't have a weekly magazine to hold up and say, "Look what I did. I put out this magazine." It isn't like that here; the BusinessWeek thing was really like a machine. This thing is a start-up, a work-in-progress, and you get to do a lot of different things.

We're trying to build new business models for journalism. It's quite clear that the profession is changing dramatically, and Jeff Jarvis wants the school to be an incubator for new ideas.

How much of the "machine" over at BusinessWeek did you create, or did you inherit that system?
Well, I created most of the modern BusinessWeek machine when I was editor. The technology dramatically changed in that timeframe, obviously, so the procedures changed. We launched all the online stuff in 1994, which was relatively early for a big, mainstream magazine. It did well, and it's doing very well now.

Do you like the difference between the rigid structure and your job now?
Well, they are different. I said that this was the toughest job I've ever had, and by that I meant this was a start-up, and you have to do everything. Start-ups by definition are never fully-staffed, so we had to design the curriculum, hire the faculty, raise money, get involved with design and building of the school, and a lot of those things are still going on. It's much more haphazard than working at a magazine.

Are the skills you learned in the magazine world helping you in your new position?
Yeah, the skills that I learned at BusinessWeek were managing people, public speaking, and how to read an enormous amount of stuff in a very short time. There's a certain similarity between being an editor and being an educator. They both involve translating and transmitting information to people -- in one case, readers, and in the other, students. Both teaching and editing involve a sacrifice of ego. It's not about you. Here, it's about dealing with the students, and at BusinessWeek it was about dealing with the writers. Your job in both cases is to bring out the best in other people. A lot of journalists think of themselves as educators in some sense because they are reaching a public.

Are you nuts? Why in the world would someone as accomplished as you, who could be doing so many other things, who had retired, choose to take on this monster of a project?
Well I guess I'm a little nuts. I care about it; otherwise I wouldn't have done it. It's very hard. When I was leaving BusinessWeek, I realized this represented three of the things I care about a lot: journalism, public education and New York City. I grew up in New York, went to public schools, went to city college, and I think it's very important to build a very good, publicly-supported, graduate school of journalism. There isn't one in the entire northeastern part of the United States. So that means if you don't have the money to go to one of the good private schools, like Columbia, you're out of luck. This doesn't seem right to me. I have a certain passion and I decided to do it…I feel a sense of mission about it.

Is there any way to answer the question, What would you be doing if you weren't doing this?
You know, I don’t know. When I first thought about stopping after 20 years at BusinessWeek, I thought I wouldn't do anything. I thought I would just relax and do all the things I didn't have time to do, which is more reading, more theater...cooking classes were one idea I had. But the closer I got to the day of reckoning, the more I realized that what my wife said was true: You'll never be able to just sit around at home and read all day. I'm still relatively young and I'm still -- thank God -- relatively healthy, and I felt that I had enough energy to take on one more project. I wouldn't have done another publication, even if they would have had me. I needed to do something that was connected to journalism but somehow different. Teaching was in my background. I spent six years teaching at Columbia in the journalism school -- five years as an adjunct and one year full-time when I started the Knight-Bagehot fellowship program in business and economics journalism…The other thing that retired editors do is write a book, and I had no interest in doing that. I didn't want to do it, I didn't have the patience to do it, and I didn't think I had a book in me.

Really, I'm kind of shocked. I thought of all people, you, with your writing and journalistic background and experience, would have a book, or at least an idea for a book, in you.
Well, there are two kinds of books you can write in my position. One is a memoir-type book. There was a book publisher who approached me about doing such a book, and I had lunch with him and actually outlined eight or nine chapters. Then I decided…well what really happened was I couldn't do that book and start the School of Journalism at the same time. It would have been totally impossible.

What was the book?
It was about being the editor of BusinessWeek. It would have been episodic, with little chapters dealing with certain situations, for example Bill Gates and the rise of Microsoft, and journalistically how that was played. Stuff like that…I could have done it, but I chose not to because I'd rather do this.

The other type of book is to do a serious subject, like the future of journalism, but that isn't about you and your career. A reported book in other words. I wasn't burning to do that. Teaching was much more interesting.

You're talking about business journalism. Having done business journalism in some guise for almost 30 years, do you agree that there are people who are writing about business who don't necessarily know anything about business, and secondly, are you going to be teaching business?
Well I have a real long perspective on the first part of that question because I can remember when business journalism was a real backwater, and business journalists were not the sharpest people on the paper at most major newspapers. That's why we started the Knight-Bagehot program, and that's why I was teaching at Columbia, but that world has changed. I would say now business journalism has a lot of smart, really talented people. It's not a backwater anymore at all; it's front and center as it should be. I think most business journalists are better trained. There are more business journalists with MBAs and more who have taken accounting courses or studied it in school somewhere, for example at the Knight-Bagehot program.

When we were setting up this school, one of the reasons we chose to make it a three-semester program, compared to the one-year at Columbia, was to make room for the subject concentrations. We have four of them and one is business economics.

The reason people are going back to school in journalism these days is because there's something new to learn for the first time in a long time, which is all these new technological tools.

What are the other three?
Urban reporting, arts and culture, and health medicine. You can't do that in a year because you have to teach so much of the craft of journalism: the reporting, the writing, the ethics, the critical thinking and so on. You need three semesters to have specialties. Someone can come through here, take the business concentration, and they get three courses in business reporting. It's very substantial, headed by Sarah Bartlett, who was the assistant managing editor at BusinessWeek with me and a reporter for The New York Times and at Fortune, and she really knows her stuff. It's a very, very good program.

The other part of the business question that I wanted to ask was, are you going to teach your students not only business reporting skills, but also business management skills because the world is such today that journalists are very often entrepreneurs, especially in new media, and handle business issues.
Only indirectly. We aren't going to have a course called "Business Management," and we aren't going to teach advertising, public relations, and marketing. But indirectly, there are the two courses that deal with this: One is in covering companies, and the other is in covering financial markets, Wall Street, etc. Students are going to learn a lot about how business operates in the capitalist markets, and also how it's managed. They are going to be studying companies and analyzing their performance. So indirectly, I think they are going to learn a lot about business management, but we don't currently have a course that is management of a journalistic enterprise.

So someone could go through your school and come out knowing nothing about a CPM [a measurement for ad pricing in media] or how it's calculated?
I don't think that will happen with anyone who is in the business specialty or doing interactive journalism, which is 40 percent of the school. We're trying to build new business models for journalism. It's quite clear that the profession is changing dramatically, and Jeff Jarvis wants the school to be an incubator for new ideas. If circulation and advertising is fleeing big city dailies and, to some degree magazines and broadcast television, then we have to teach what is happening and why. Everybody will know that the advertising rates online on a CPM basis are lower than traditional media, and that this makes it much more difficult to make money online. The audience is fleeing and you aren't getting as much revenue for their eyeballs as when they were reading a magazine. The students will know that.

Frankly, I think it's easier to train journalists if they end up on the business side of a magazine or Web operation then the other way around. What you don't want to happen is to have the people who are managing journalistic enterprises to lack journalistic values. So coming through a journalism school and learning those values is, to me, the most important thing. We can teach people to read balance sheets.

Has that ever caused a conflict with you where you had a sales and marketing person or a publishing side person who didn't understand journalism.
I never had that problem with BusinessWeek because it was set-up so the editor-in-chief had enormous power, and there was a real strict separation of church and state. I also had the benefit of being the editor in some very nice, lucrative years, so there wasn't much pressure. There wouldn't have been anyway, but it obviously made it a little bit easier with the wind at our back, as opposed to now, where a lot of publications are operating under a state of duress.

You said that 40 percent of the school is on the interactive track. What are the other students doing?
Well, we have media tracks, meaning students can choose print, media or broadcast. The way it broke down is print is the most popular -- about 45 percent -- followed by interactive -- about 40 percent -- and broadcast makes up the rest. But everyone is required to take interactive courses and workshops. In the first semester, there's a required course called "Fundamentals of Interactive Journalism" with Jeff Jarvis, taught along with Sandeep Junnarkar. Then, if you are in the interactive track, you take three or four more classes that deal with interactive journalism, including an entrepreneurial course, in which we deal with business model questions and how to reimagine journalism in this new age. But even if you are in the print track, you are required to do some of your stories in an interactive format, in other words, a Web package. Furthermore, all students are taking workshops to learn to use the technology. We created something called the January Academy in the intersession between the two semesters, and we ran workshops in video, audio, flash, digital photography, all kinds of stuff. We brought in trainers to teach, and the faculty is getting trained as well, so we are trying to have a converged curriculum, while still maintaining the media tracks. I can imagine ultimately it won't be media tracks, it will just be one converged track.

Do you think you're losing anything by not charging the tuition that Columbia does?
Well no because the school is publicly-supported school, so our revenue comes only partially from tuition and the rest comes from New York State. We don't have to derive our revenue just from tuition.

What's the cost?
Our tuition is $7,500 a year, including fees, so for three semesters it's $11,250. Columbia is somewhere north of $35,000 per year. That's one of the advantages we have. The reason this school exists is to open opportunities to people who can't afford Columbia. We did very well in our first year getting students. Many of them were accepted at Columbia or other leading journalism schools, so we are very much in the game. Having a low tuition is very much an advantage. Nobody wants to pay more to go to school.

Some people feel that you work on your own at first, when you don't have a spouse and kids and mortgage, but then later on you go for a "real job." Do you feel the same way, that people coming out of your J-School ultimately want jobs, they don't want to be self-supporting?
I certainly agree up to a point. I think that more students are going to have to make their own way as freelancers, and the technology makes it easier to do the research and the writing and so on. Some students want to have the kind of a life; they don’t want to be pinned down. It's tough to make a living, it's easier to do when you're young, so I agree about that. It's also harder to get a job as a mainstream news organization. But, yeah, I think ultimately people want the security of having a job and not a freelance life -- not everybody, but most I would imagine.

The reason people are going back to school in journalism these days is because there's something new to learn for the first time in a long time, which is all these new technological tools. They have to know these skills, and everyone in the profession is scrambling to learn them. We're a start-up school; we started from scratch and built this into the curriculum and into the facility -- the whole school is wireless, all the students are required to have Mac computers, and they are online wherever they are in the building -- so we have the advantage.

Another reason people come back to school is precisely because they know the job market is so difficult that they need another credential, they need the mentoring of a faculty member, or they need a recommendation from a faculty member. They aren't going to get the training in the workplace the way you and I did when we were young people. Staffs are too thin. There's much less training going on in the profession, so there's more need for graduate schools in journalism than there was.

It is strange for you working in a not-for-profit environment after working in the for profit world?
It's totally different. It is more bureaucratic, public universities in particular because they have rules regarding the public money. It's a little less flexible than I was used to. But you know, that's just the nature of the beast. Universities are going to be different than private, profit making ventures.

How will you measure your success in the next three years, five years, ten years?
Good question. We want to continue to attract great students, build a faculty, and add courses as we grow.

You don't have any specific metrics?
Well, no. We started with 50-plus students and the goal is something over 100 in three or four years. At most, we'll get to a 150 students, but maybe not. So that's one metric. The size of the faculty will be commensurate with that growth. But New York is a wonderful place to have a journalism school because there are so many people who want to teach.

Should journalists aspire to be educators?
Only if they want to be because it's hard and it's different. But yeah, I think it's a great thing. I think some of the skills are the same of being a journalist and being an educator. Journalists are educators. They really are. The people we see who come here and want to teach -- just one course let's say -- have it in them to do it, and it's great for us. Those of us in New York City have the advantage of drawing on professionals.

[EDITOR'S NOTE: This interview contains excerpts, and has been edited for clarity.]

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