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My Turbulent Path from Print to Digital

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My Turbulent Path from Print to Digital
By Stephen B. Shepard | Last updated on Monday, July 2nd, 2012 at 11:58 am

I never thought I’d write a book. I had spent my entire journalistic career on weekly magazines (Newsweek and BusinessWeek) and didn’t feel the urge to write at greater length. After I left the magazine world in 2005, I was consumed by the task of starting this brand new Graduate School of Journalism. But once the CUNY J-School was launched on a successful trajectory, I decided I ought to set down an account of what we had wrought at a critical time for the journalism profession. I didn’t imagine anything more than a report that would be filed in the library, available to the few people who might be interested.

I soon realized I couldn’t write about starting a school or my thoughts about the future of journalism without writing about myself: who I am, why I became a journalist, what I did in my career, what my values are. In short order, it became a memoir, the story of a life in journalism, old and new.

It takes in my time as a foreign correspondent and my Newsweek years. It chronicles my eventful 20- year tenure at BusinessWeek, helping to build it into one of the best and most lucrative magazines in the world – only to see it succumb to the disruption of the Internet age after I left. And it tells in detail how we created a journalism school for a new age.

Ultimately, it is a tale of transition. I initially thought of my role as founding dean as a personal capstone, the culmination of a lifetime in journalism and a chance to pass on my experience to the next generation. Instead, as the journalism world changed in content and delivery, I was the one who became a student. Often with great reluctance, I absorbed the imperatives of the new media, a world that sometimes seemed upside down to me, as if I were experiencing jet lag after a flight from Australia. My instinct was to be defensive – to protect the world I knew and treasured. Only gradually, and sometimes with great doubt, did I accept the inevitable, finally embracing the changes necessary to create a top-notch school.

My personal passage is, in many ways, a microcosm of the larger struggle within the journalism profession to come to terms with the digital reckoning. Will the new technologies enhance journalism or water it down for audiences with diminished attention spans nurtured by 140-character tweets? Is Google good for journalism or is it eroding its economic foundation? What role will Facebook play? How do we retain the eternal verities of traditional journalism? What new business models will emerge to sustain quality journalism?

I have come to believe that digital technology will enrich journalism, creating an interactive, multimedia form of storytelling that can invite community participation. It can be personalized and delivered on a vast array of mobile phones, tablet computers, and e-readers. Though many mainstream media companies have been hollowed out by all those layoffs, new digital outlets offer promising alternatives – from Politico and Pro Publica to the Texas Tribune and the Huffington Post, to say nothing of blogs, websites, and hyperlocal ventures. There is more journalism produced today by more people on more platforms than ever before. Much of it is reaching new audiences through social media, creating new communities of like-minded readers.

No, the real problem is not journalism per se. The defining issue is now financial: The traditional business model that sustained journalism, based on a lucrative stream of advertising and circulation revenue, is eroding. And it is not at all clear what will take its place.

I am not a futurist. I do not claim to know how the public will consume media 10 years from now or what the next Twitter will be. Instead, in the final chapters of this book, I focus on the critical quest for new business models, assessing the likely role of advertising and new revenues from consumers – as well as the game-changing possibilities wrought by smartphones, tablets, and apps.

The book, published in September by McGraw-Hill, is called Deadlines and Disruption: My Turbulent Path From Print To Digital. You can order a copy at your favorite bookstore or from Amazon.com. It’s available, as you’d expect, as a hardcover or an e-book. I hope you enjoy it – and I welcome your thoughts.

Stephen B. Shepard
Dean, CUNY Graduate School of Journalism
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