the kicker

Exit Interview: CUNY J-School loses its Shepard

Founding dean returns to the classroom
February 25, 2013

Steve Shepard has long been one of the wisest, most reasonable men in the Fourth Estate. So it is bittersweet news, announced today, that he is stepping down at year-end from the deanship of the journalism program he launched at City University of New York. He will stay on as a university professor there.

Shepard, who spent 21 award-laden years editing BusinessWeek (1984-2005), has been a prominent figure at Columbia as well — teaching, cofounding the Knight-Bagehot Fellow in Economic and Business Journalism, and also serving on Columbia J-School’s curriculum reform committee. Last year, he published a memoir about his career, Deadlines and Disruption: The Turbulent Path from Print to Digital, which was excerpted in the September/October issue of CJR.

Why leave now?
It’s been eight years since I left BusinessWeek to start a new graduate school of journalism from scratch. We’re all proud of what we’ve created: an innovative school that trains people for a journalism world radically different from the one I grew up in — and a school with a diverse group of motivated students. It just feels like the right time to hand over the reins.

What won’t you miss about the job?
Fundraising. We’ve been very successful for a publicly funded school, but I hate asking people for money. I do it because it’s important to provide scholarships for deserving and needy students and to create projects the state doesn’t fund, like the Tow-Knight Center for Entrepreneurial Journalism or the Center For Community and Ethnic Media.

He’s an old friend of mine, but inquiring minds on my staff want to know: What has it been like to be Jeff Jarvis’s boss?
Jeff can be high-maintenance at times, and we disagree about some things. But he is a stimulating and creative colleague who has done as much as anyone to put this new school on the map — speaking out, doing research, attracting students, thinking deeply about the changes in journalism. I’m proud to call him a friend.

How did your book do? Didn’t I hear that there was a Chinese edition? Any plans to write another?
The book has gotten some nice notices, including a rave in The Washington Post. Sales are modest, as they are for many journalism books, but there will be a Chinese edition and one published in India as well. I can’t imagine why anyone in China or India wants to read about a kid from the Bronx who found his way in journalism. But I’m tickled. Another book? Maybe, but at the moment I don’t have an idea I’d like to pursue.

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What did you learn — about the industry, about what you wrote, about yourself — while promoting the book?
I loved writing the book, but didn’t like promoting it. Like most authors, I had hoped that the book would speak for itself, but that is rarely the case in this day and age. Because the book is many things — a memoir, a look at traditional journalism in its heyday, and some thoughts about the future — it is a bit of a Rorschach test for readers. People who know me, including my wife and children, liked that I spoke so personally about my life. Journalists focused on my years in the magazine business and the changes now underway. And some people wanted to read the story of starting a new school at a critical time, including all the infighting.

You’ve spoken of the new world order of journalism. Please describe what that means to you. What are you most intrigued by?
There’s been radical change. Journalism used to be a product — a newspaper, a magazine, a broadcast. Now it’s a process — a conversation between the content providers and the people formerly known as the audience, to use Jay Rosen’s memorable phrase. Anyone can be a journalist now — or at least commit an act of journalism. Journalism is now decentralized and democratized, a far cry from when we were the gatekeepers, the filters. Heck, you can sit on a park bench and read The Guardian as easily as The New York Times — and do it on your mobile phone or iPad, complete with high-definition video and personalized information. You can blog, podcast, tweet, Skype, crowd-source, mine data, and follow sources in Moscow or Cairo. My head is spinning.

How do you envision the future of journalism education?
We have to continue preaching the eternal verities of traditional journalism — reporting, writing, critical thinking, and ethical values — while teaching all the new techniques of multimedia: interactive journalism on various platforms using social media for reporting and distribution. We’ll probably use more online modules for teaching the new tools. And we have to get students thinking of new business models to sustain quality journalism in the digital age. Our profession is in crisis — not a crisis of journalism per se, but a crisis of financial support for what we do.

If you were still editing it, what would you put on the cover of BusinessWeek this week?
I think Josh Tyrangiel, the editor since Bloomberg acquired it, is doing a darn good job. I’m happy to leave the choices to him.

Cyndi Stivers is a former editor in chief of CJR