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Lunch at The Four Seasons with: Stephen Shepard

Published by The New York Sun on 2006-01-25

Some would say he's re-tracing his remarkable career, others that he's been reincarnated. But for Stephen Shepard, his new job not only involves both elements - it's also an excursion into the unknown.

"It's the most difficult job I've ever held - it's really daunting," the former editor in chief of Business Week said yesterday. "But it's exciting. How many opportunities does a person get in a lifetime to build something from scratch?"

This particular opportunity flowed from an unusual convergence. Mr. Shepard had decided to retire in early 2005 after an accolade-packed tenure at the magazine, which he had molded into arguably the most influential business publication in the world.

At about the same time, the City University of New York was weighing the idea of a graduate school of journalism. Various colleges in the CUNY system had expressed a desire to start journalism schools. But Chancellor Matthew Goldstein decided that the best way to integrate journalism into the CUNY family would be to create a self-standing school.

"The proposed school had everything to stir my soul," Mr. Shepard said yesterday. "It would be about journalism - my life-long profession. It would be based in New York - I am a rabid New Yorker. And it would be a new enterprise in public education - in fact, the only publicly funded graduate journalism school in the Northeast."

The school will have a first-rate faculty, Mr. Shepard said. It will offer state-of-the-art facilities in the historic New York Herald-Tribune building in midtown Manhattan. Its three-semester curriculum leading to a master's degree will extensively cover print, broadcast and Web journalism. Its courses will emphasize ethics and good judgment. It will launch a community news service to cater to the needs of neighborhood publications and small newspapers. It will require students to take up internships with news organizations.

And its fees will be affordable - state residents would pay $7,500 a year, and out-of-state students would shell out double that amount.

To the degree that any institution is shaped by its founder's sensibility, the new school is certain to bear Mr. Shepard's imprint.

That imprint began to be formed in his childhood in the West Bronx as the only son of William Shepard, an accountant, and Ruth Tanner. His parents pretty much left Mr. Shepard to himself as he raced through the Bronx School of Science - but the older Shepard insisted that everybody in the family sign on to his passion, the Yankees.

Stephen Shepard and his older sister Barbara would attend raucous games with his father, and with his cousin, Richard Shepard, who became an acclaimed reporter for the New York Times. Journalism wasn't particularly on his mind in those years. But writing was.

He still remembers with fondness various teachers - names like Ms. Rosen tumble out as he speaks - who taught him how to constructive a good declarative sentence, and the importance of good grammar.

"By the time I got to City College, I was a pretty decent writer," Mr. Shepard said. "I loved writing."

He was also enthralled with science, largely the result of his proximity to his maternal uncle Lou Tanner. The uncle, a chemical engineer, would often talk about Einstein, and who encouraged his nephew to take interest in some of the great scientific developments of the time - such as the launching by the Russians of the first artificial satellite, Sputnik, in October 1957.

Mr. Shepard got to meld his love of writing and fascination with science at City College, where he was a mechanical engineering major. That happened when he became editor of "Vector," the college's science magazine - which received a national award during his stewardship.

As he pursued a master's degree in engineering at Columbia University, however, Mr. Shepard became increasingly disenchanted with the subject.

"I was smart enough to understand the subject - but I wasn't smart enough to do anything creative in engineering," he said.

His creative juices began to flow when Mr. Shepard got his first job. It was at a trade magazine called "Product Engineering," a design publication brought out by the McGraw-Hill Companies.

"It felt wonderful to be there - I had found something that I loved doing, something that turned me on," Mr. Shepard said. "I wrote about the space program, I wrote about technology."

His fluency with technology led to a job at Business Week, another McGraw-Hill publication. Within two months Mr. Shepard produced his first cover story, on automobile safety. More cover stories followed. He had become a star.

That won him a foreign correspondent's assignment. So off it was to London where, in addition to being welcomed as a journalist, Mr. Shepard found himself having to explain America to his British friends. When Sen. Robert F. Kennedy was killed, Britons offered condolences to Mr. Shepard. When Apollo 11 landed, they congratulated him on the first manned mission to the moon.

Back in New York after two years in London, Mr. Shepard began teaching part-time at Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism. His specialty was business, of course, and that led to an invitation to create the Bagehot Program in Economics and Business Journalism (later re-named the Knight-Bagehot Program).

He wasn't much older than some of his students, but Mr. Shepard possessed something that they didn't - experience in real-world journalism.

That experience opened the door to a five-year stint at Newsweek, and a year as editor of Saturday review, before becoming editor of Business Week.

During his 20-year tenure, Mr. Shepard expanded the magazine's international coverage - which was timely in view of the onset of globalization. Recognizing that technology was engendering transformational change, he deepened reportage about the field. He stepped up coverage of corporate scandals, all the while emphasizing the need for fairness in reporting.

And he made a strong case that productivity increases were allowing higher economic growth without inflation. He found a kindred spirit in Alan Greenspan, chairman of the Federal Reserve, with whom Mr. Shepard would have lengthy, informal discussions.

Mr. Shepard had fans of his own, among them Chancellor Goldstein.

"I felt that it simply wasn't right that there was no publicly supported journalism school in New York," Mr. Shepard said. "Columbia and New York Universities are very good private schools, but priced out of the affordability range of most New Yorkers. I felt that a publicly funded school of journalism needed to be there. So from the very beginning, I had a sense of mission."

That sense received strong support from his wife Lynn Povich - daughter of the legendary sports writer Shirley Povich - and their children Sarah, who's in the movie industry, and Ned, an electronic music composer. They had wondered what Mr. Shepard would do after his retirement from Business Week. Now he had a new career.

"I was actually returning to something that I loved - teaching," Mr. Shepard said. "I'd never forgotten those years at Columbia."

He hadn't forgotten his emollient, engaging management style either - which proved handy as Mr. Shepard navigated the shoals of the academic world.

"I have no trouble being collegial," he said.

That collegiality is likely to be tested as Mr. Shepard mobilizes funds to create chairs and professorships at the graduate school. The first class will begin in September, and it will have 50 students who would have gone through a two-stage scrutiny, the second one involving rigorous tests.

Those students will attend classes on two floors of the Herald-Tribune building; the paper was shuttered in 1966. The school will have 40,000 square feet of space.

"I think there's good DNA in those walls," Mr. Shepard said, alluding to the erstwhile paper's storied life.

The reporter asked him if he was surprised that he was tapped to build a school within those walls.

"If you look at what I've done - the teaching at Columbia, the years at Business Week - then it all adds up," Mr. Shepard said. "So it wasn't illogical that I was asked to create the school. My wife and children weren't surprised. I'm very fortunate."

Pranay Gupte,
Senior Writer and Global-Affairs Columnist

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