Steve Shepard Q&A

Stephen B. Shepard is the founding dean of the Graduate School of Journalism at The City University of New York. The school will offer an innovative three-semester master’s degree in journalism, starting in 2006.

From 1984 to 2005, Shepard was editor-in-chief of BusinessWeek, the largest business magazine in the world. During his tenure, BusinessWeek won many major journalism awards, including four National Magazine Awards (two for General Excellence), 11 Overseas Press Club Awards and four Gerald Loeb Awards. Business Week was a National Magazine Award finalist 23 times on Mr. Shepard’s watch— nine of those for General Excellence.  Additionally, the magazine’s worldwide circulation grew 40 percent, to 1.2 million during Shepard’s editorial stewardship.

Shepard began his journalistic career in 1963 as an editorial trainee at The McGraw-Hill Companies, Business Week’s parent. He joined the magazine in 1966, serving in various domestic and international posts for ten years. He was also an adjunct professor at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism from 1971 to 1976, and co-founder and first director of the school's prestigious Knight-Bagehot Fellowship in Economic and Business Journalism.

Shepard left Business Week in 1976 for Newsweek, where he was senior editor for national affairs. In 1981, he became editor of SaturdayReview. He returned to Business Week as executive editor in 1982 and became editor-in-chief in 1984. 

In 1999, Shepard was inducted into the American Society of Magazine Editors Hall of Fame and received the Gerald M. Loeb Foundation Lifetime Achievement Award for business journalism. In 2000, he received the Henry Johnson Fisher Award, the magazine publishing industry’s highest honor. And in 2003, he won the President’s Award from the Overseas Press Club. Mr. Shepard was president of the American Society of Magazine Editors from 1992 to 1994. He served on the Board of Visitors at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism from 1998 to 2004. He is a member of the Council on Foreign Relations, the Overseas Press Club, and the Century Association.

A native New Yorker, Shepard graduated from the Bronx High School of Science, received a bachelor's degree in engineering from the City College of New York and a master’s degree in engineering from Columbia University. He and his wife, Lynn Povich, have two children, Sarah and Ned.

Shepard spoke with University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill journalism professor Chris Roush on Wednesday, Oct. 5, 2005. Roush worked at Business Week during Shepard’s tenure as editor.

Q: How did you first get interested in journalism?

A: The first inklings of it came in the fifth grade when for whatever reason that I decided being a sportswriter would be a great thing to do. But looking back on it, I liked the idea of being an observer, and I liked the idea of being a writer. I fancied myself in those days as someone who liked writing. And it sort of lay dormant all through high school and didn’t come up again until I was in college. I became the editor of the engineering magazine at City College of New York, and when I graduated I decided I didn’t want to do science, I wanted to write about science, or the big picture. So I started out as a science writer.

Q: When did you first think about writing about business and the economy?

A: Not really until I got to Business Week. I went there as a science writer and a technology writer in 1966, and so a lot of the things I wrote about were not hardcore business. The first cover story I did about Business Week was about auto safety. It utilized my engineering background more than anything else. I wrote about the environment and energy and technology. I didn’t know a lot about Wall Street. I learned them there at Business Week and gradually got into it a little bit more. I learned a lot about covering companies and covering the economy.

Business journalism is a big, broad multifaceted thing. There are science writers and financial writers and social issues writers. There are corporate writers, so there’s a whole range if you work for a business publication. Newspaper’s business writers tend to write about business.

Q: What was the perception of business reporting back then?

A: Very much a backwater. It was considered second-rate. It didn’t really change until the mid-1970s when we had the Arab oil embargo, the near bankruptcy of New York City and the appearance of inflation and recession at the same time, which was a phenomenon so new. All of a sudden, business journalism became front-page news, and ordinary newspapers didn’t know how to deal with it. That was the turning point. Ever since then, business journalism has taken its place in the mainstream in journalism as an important story. I think Jane Quinn and Carol Loomis would tell you the same thing.

Q: How easy was it for you to pick up on business jargon and find interesting stories?

A: It didn’t take too long, really. I always thought if I could master engineering, I could learn what I had to about economics and business. The hardest part, of course, was financial stuff, accounting. There was no way to do that other than to study it. I didn’t do that until later, but in order to understand corporations, you have to understand numbers. But it didn’t scare me. I had a master’s degree in engineering.

Q: Who were important mentors to you at the beginning of your career?

A: I can think of people in junior high school, a teacher who drilled it into us how to write, topic sentence and paragraphs. It goes that far back. I had teachers in high school who made good writing mandatory. Professor Irvin Rosenthal at City College of New York was a one-man journalism school. And then once I got out into the profession, it was Leonard Silk of Business Week. He pretty much invented the coverage of economics in journalism. So I learned a lot from Leonard. I learned a lot from Jack Patterson at Business Week. You never stop learning.

Q: Your college degrees were in engineering. How did that help you in your journalism career?

A: It was an enormous help. First of all, it made me not afraid of complexity in general and not afraid of technology and science in particular. It was very useful when the PC revolution happened in the 1980s and the Internet revolution happened in the 1990s. I wasn’t intimidated by it. And I think it also gave me an advantage. There were a lot of people who had liberal arts degrees trying to make their way in journalism, and I was a little bit different.

Q: What was Business Week magazine like when you worked for it in the 1960s and 1970s compared to the magazine that people see today?

A: Complete revolution. First of all, it looks completely different. It was a black and white magazine with virtually no color photography and dull graphics. All of that has completely changed. I think that it’s also much more newsy and timely,. You an do stories closely to the deadline because of the technological advances. You can do a cover story on Wednesday and have it done by the time it went to bed on Wednesday night. You couldn’t do that before, so the readers are better served. I think the core is the same in this sense. Business Week was then and is now a magazine of analysis and interpretation and commentary rather than what the news magazines were back then, which was a rehash of the week’s news. Business Week was never that. The core is the same, but it looks completely different, and it’s more lively and topical.

Q: In the 1970s, you also taught business journalism at Columbia. Why did the University see a need for training in this field 30 years ago?

A: They had a seminar in business and economics for a few years going back into the 1960s. In 1971, I started teaching it. And it was relatively small. The first year I did it, there was eight or nine students. But then there was this constellation of events that turned the whole field upside down. The seminar increased in size to 15 states in 1973 to 20 students, which was our lid, because of the demand. And then in 1974, the dean, Elie Abel, had the bright idea to set up a Neiman-type fellowship in business journalism. Here we are, 30 years later, with the Knight-Bagehot program as a mid-career thing. And Columbia was at the forefront of that. They’re very strong in business and economics, and I’m hoping that City University will also be strong. It’s now a core competency, but it wasn’t back then.

Q: When do you think that business journalism began to be taken more seriously at newspapers and magazines that didn’t specialize in the area?

A: For some of the serious newspapers, it started in the 1970s for the reasons I mentioned. For others, it took off in the 1980s when the stock market took off. The stock market bottomed in August 1982, and it had been flat for 15 years. When investors got interested, a lot of other papers who had used wire copy for oil prices and other stuff got more interested in covering the stock market. Personal finance and investing started to bring a lot of other papers into the fold, and some specialized magazines were started. The papers all added personal investing columns. So that was the other dimension, and that came about 10 years later than the stuff in the mid-1970s. Nothing creates passion than the prospect of making money or losing it.

Q: You were editor of Business Week for more than 20 years. What were some of the important stories during that time that the magazine broke?

A: The international coverage. We were early in covering the rising of Japan and the changes in China. And we were absolutely first in writing about India and the change in productivity called the New Economy. We understood things that this was real, enduring and very significant, that if you could raise productivity, you could raise standards of living. We put Greenspan on the cover. It was his coming out as a New Economist, someone who saw the technological change was leading to higher productivity. Those were the two revolutions of our time. Business Week’s coverage of technology was always very strong. My predecessor, Louis Young, really pushed technology coverage, and we built on that. We did a very, very good job of laying out the roadmap for the scandals that occurred, but not necessarily picking the companies. But understanding the games being played with accounting. We nailed a few, like Bausch & Lomb and Xerox. We didn’t get Enron. Nobody did. When you can do a story that ousts a CEO, it doesn’t get any better than that.

Q: What do you see happening in the future of business journalism?

A: I think what’s going to happen is that there will be many channels of distribution for journalism, including business journalism. People will get news through video, audio, Internet, print. It will be a multimedia interactive world. Web sites will become much more visual because of Broadband, and graphics will become animated and photographs can be converted into video. But I think that in an era of fragmentation of media outlets, it’s going to be more important than ever for business journalists to pull it all together, to provide the insight and understanding and on our best days, the wisdom, that will be necessary. The world doesn’t need more information. It needs more understanding, more insight, more analysis.

Q: What role will business journalism education play at the new graduate school of journalism at CUNY?

A: Business and economics will be one of the four major subjects of concentration that you can major in. There will be a three-course sequence, and we will teach all of the media tracks, whether broadcast or print or interactive multimedia. There will be a lot of blogging and online journalism and things like that taught. But a good business journalist will have to become like a zoom lens on a camera to zoom in and understand what’s happening about a company and an economy, and them zoom out to get the big picture and the trend. And it’s very hard to see both. The goal is to train journalists to do both.