[Begin Tape 1, Side A]
Biagi: Catherine Shen, tell me about what you do now, what the job is you have now.
Shen: My job now is probably as miscellaneous and as varied as any I've had, since there also is a publisher and I'm associate publisher. We tend to divvy up the work according to interest, time pressure, a lot of other things. I, luckily, tend to draw the stuff that tends to be less time pressured, the longer term projects, which suits me fine. It also depends on who happens to be on vacation or out that day, the editor or the circulation director, or whatever.
Right now we're entering the hardest part of the year for us, which is when we do our budget for next year, for 1993, and under the Gannett aegis, that is an extremely involved process. It doesn't ever really stop, but there's a more intense period, and that intense period would be most of July, August, September, and probably half of November. It's a long process because there's a lot of parts to the budget and there are a lot of reviews it has to undergo, and there's an enormous amount of care that goes into it, probably because Gannett bases its profit expectations and its shareholder expectations on what we hand them, or all its properties hand them.
So right now we just finished in June, for example, a two-day annual retreat with top managers, supervisors, and some line people, trying to come up with what we want to accomplish at the end of this year and in 1993, what we think it's going to take to reach those goals. Now we're trying to put it together in the actual form of a document where we say, "This is what we're going to do," and on that document we'll base the budget, the actual numbers. It's a very involved, very long process, and payroll is a separate issue. Each department has its own budget within the budget, and they all interlock.
So there you are. It has to be based on expected revenues, expected circulation. It's a complex document. It's taking a lot of time to do the planning. We also have to gauge the economic climate for the coming year pretty well to be at all successful.
Biagi: Describe the operation here. How many people work here?
Shen: There are about 330 people who work here; that's part time and full time. That varies a bit.
Biagi: How many departments would you have to be worried about in your job here?
Shen: Every one, all the major departments, which are circulation, production, advertising, news, of course, and to a lesser extent probably personnel, marketing, and accounting. Those are the major departments in the newspaper.
Biagi: What does an associate publisher do in relationship to those departments?
Shen: For example, I'll work with the accounting department for my budget responsibilities, which consists of the administrative department, which is personnel, the associate publisher, and any of the office people who work with us. I will also be working with the circulation department on its plans for next year, because many of its major plans cross an area with which I've been working with them anyway, which is retention, which is how to keep the subscribers we have. It does you no good to go out and sign up 1,000 new people if you retain two; it's not cost effective, it's not efficient, and it's too expensive.
So that's a major area we'll be working on for 1993, and since it intersects with work I've been doing with them anyway, I'm going to be very involved in their budgeting process for that part of their budget. Advertising, in this particular case, probably less so. News, probably not that much, except I always go down to the newsroom. I take a personal interest in news, to the horror of the news department. [Laughter.] I'm just always interested in the hires there and what they're doing and how they're moving things around and what their coverage plans are, things like that.
So one of my major parts of the budget responsibility right now will be the specific part of the budget I'm responsible for and then part of the circulation budget, which I'll be working on very closely with the circulation director.
Biagi: If you had to describe this job, would you say it's easy? Is it difficult? Is it tiring? Is it trying? What words would you use to describe the job you've got now?
Shen: Since finance is not what I'm most interested in, although I do it, and actually it does have interesting parts about it, I would say some of it is tedious and some of it is interesting. I don't find a lot of it keeps me on the edge as much as being in the news department or running the whole show would. Being a publisher at Gannett is an extremely pressure-ridden existence, and some people love it and some people don't. Some people make their peace with it. As a mother of a three-year-old, I would probably welcome being in a pressure cooker twenty-four hours a day much less readily than I would have a few years ago as a single person.
Biagi: When you were a single person and you were a publisher, what was it like?
Shen: It was fun. I had a ball. It was just really interesting, partly because I was getting to know a whole different part of the country, a whole different culture in many ways, and Honolulu is the most welcoming place in the world. I didn't realize it at the time and did not realize how lucky I was, but I was, and I made some good friends there. There was a lot to accomplish at the newspaper at the time, in terms of changing its direction, changing its look, shaking things up a bit, getting the staff in the right positions, because I think some of them were not in the right positions, getting new staff. It was a time when the recession certainly hadn't hit, so the resource possibilities were much larger than papers generally have now. You don't often get a chance to go into a welcoming society with very few family responsibilities, with virtually carte blanche, to sort of do what you want. It was an enviable position, certainly, and nothing probably in my life will ever be as much fun as that was.
Biagi: What were some of the changes you are most proud of?
Shen: The paper is physically a much more attractive and easy-to-use paper. There were some moribund parts of it that just hadn't been looked at in a long while, that are no longer there.
Biagi: Such as?
Shen: Some of these people are still there; they're just doing different things.
Biagi: What are the sections or areas of coverage?
Shen: I would say there is a lot more energy, I think, put into breaking news, more investigative journalism, a livelier lifestyle section. That was all a collaborative effort. It was a consensus that that was what needed to be done, and certainly nobody in the newsroom disagreed with it. The paper graphically is letterpress, which is not wonderful, anyway, but the paper graphically really hadn't been modernized, so it was actually physically difficult to read. The type was hard to read. It was difficult to find what you wanted. It was difficult to find sections. The main news section would jump from a national to a local to an international. There wasn't much rhyme or reason. It's just where the story would fit.
I think I succeeded in bringing a more modern approach to what a newspaper could be to that newspaper, gradually getting a staff together that I think worked together a little better, fresh eyes. I think it was a fun place to work and fun people to work with by the time I left, not that it hadn't been before, but more so when I left.
Under the name Honolulu Star-Bulletin, there was a tiny little label. A lot of papers have them. The [San Francisco] Chronicle has, I think, "Northern California's Newspaper," or something like that. You always have a little logo, so to speak. When I arrived it said, "A Gannett Newspaper." When I left, it said, "The Pulse of Paradise."
Biagi: What do you think that signifies to you? Why was that change important?
Shen: The change is important, because to people in Honolulu, "Gannett Newspaper" at best would not mean anything, at worst would mean, "What? Oh, my god! This is owned by some mainland company, run by mainlanders. Why do I want to have anything to do with it?" Particularly since our main editorial competition was owned by a long-established Honolulu family with a very high profile in Honolulu and lots of money. Whereas what I wanted, what we wanted the paper to be, was the paper to read in Honolulu.
Actually, "The Pulse of Paradise" at the time was a listing of things happening on the island, and I wanted to use it, but I didn't want to take something that had a huge history, either checkered or otherwise. So I asked everybody, long-time staffers of the paper, Bud Smyser and a lot of other people, "Is there a history I should be aware of?" They said, "No, this was just something we thought of as a name for that feature." So I thought, "Great! It's mine! I'll take it. We'll put it there. What better name than The Pulse of Paradise?"
Biagi: So that worked well. What about coverage? Did you change any of the coverage?
Shen: As publisher, I didn't go into the newsroom and say, "This is what we're going to cover." I hired a great managing editor and a great executive editor who had worked together before, John Flanagan and David Shapiro. In fact, they'd come from Marin. They'd come from many other
places, but most recently John Flanagan, who is still there and very happy, was the executive editor here at the Marin Independent Journal, and David Shapiro, the managing editor, was working for Gannett News Service, but based here in this office. They knew each other, liked each other, and admired each other. When they came, they basically threw a lot of new energy and a lot of new ideas at the newsroom. David Shapiro's wife was from Hawaii.
David had lived for years in Hawaii. He still loved it. So his roots were here [Hawaii]. He wasn't walking into a totally new situation. He'd worked here for years. He knew most of the players at the paper, in city government, in business in Honolulu. That was one of the reasons I hired them. I thought he was a perfect fit, both in terms of the kind of coverage he would bring and just the world view, the cultural background. He was a good foil for John Flanagan, for whom Hawaii was new. So as a match, they were very, very good. They put together a paper that really tries to cover Honolulu in a way that has not been covered perhaps before, that is not particularly institutional, but is very well suited to Hawaii.
Biagi: What were the barriers they faced in trying to do that?
Shen: Inertia. The fact that Hawaii's traditions, its assumptions, are very entrenched. I guess this is in some way a Japanese thing. You don't really rock the boat in Hawaii. There's a great effort put to maintaining that calm facade, no matter what you really think.
One of the series we did when I was there was an investigative series about the Bishop estate. As you probably know, the Bishop estate is one of the most powerful entities in the state of Hawaii. It is actually probably one of the most powerful entities in the world if you were to really look at it. It owns most of the land certainly on the island of Oahu. It is in the process of selling some of that land, selling the fees for that land, to the current people who hold the leases. In some cases this is a very acrimonious process. What has really piqued many people, though, is, number one, those Bishop trustees—there are either five or six, I can't remember—are appointments for life. They are, in effect, political appointees. Because they do receive a fee, and their fees are based on the land commissions, and since they're in the process of selling the land and land prices in Hawaii are phenomenal, their fees range from a low of $800,000 a year to $1 million apiece. These are trustees. That land is in trust for the children of native Hawaiians. The proceeds from the Bishop estate go to fund Kamehameha schools, which has an endowment larger than Yale's. All this was information from the series we ran. That series made us a lot of enemies.
Biagi: How many parts to the series?
Shen: It ran over at least a week. The repercussions were heard far and wide. The reporters who worked on it, who lived on Bishop estate land, were threatened. Native Hawaiians who worked in our back shop threatened the newsroom about not working on the stories. We got lots of cards and letters, phone calls, so to speak. That is one of the most entrenched institutions in Hawaii. It does a lot of good, but it's also never really been looked at, and it can bear scrutiny.
Biagi: What role does a publisher play in a decision to cover a series like that?
Shen: If there are resources that have to go into it, and there is expected to be fallout from it of any kind, the editor would say, "This is what we're going to do. We can expect this and we can expect this, and it's going to cost us such and such." In the end, the publisher would at least have to okay the resources, if nothing else. Flanagan and Shapiro and I worked together pretty well.
Biagi: How long had you been here when this happened?
Shen: I had been there six months before I hired Flanagan. Flanagan and Shapiro started within a month. They're really not a vaudeville act. I came in September, they started in March and April or early May of the following year. We probably ran the series within six months. It was certainly less than a year after they started from that, and it was done by a long-time reporter. A young reporter, but one who had already been at the [Honolulu] Star-Bulletin and had done a lot of other good work for us, was the main reporter on that story.
Biagi: Did it make you gun shy about another story?
Shen: No, it didn't make me gun shy at all. It made me realize how much those Hawaii institutions are not scrutinized and how much they need to be scrutinized for the benefit of the people who live in Hawaii, because nobody is untouched by Bishop estate in some way or another.
Biagi: Were there stories that followed?
Shen: Not about Bishop estate. There were other smaller stories. One of the great breaking news stories we covered and did a good investigative job on was the Aloha Airlines crash which happened on our watch, where the commuter plane ripped open in mid-air. I can't remember if it was en route to Maui or en route from Maui to Honolulu. I can't remember the route of the plane, but it peeled back kind of like an onion and had to land exposed. It was a huge story. Well, there were a huge number of questions raised by that story about Aloha Airlines, whose plane it was, about Boeing, whose plane it was, about aviation in general and metal fatigue and stress in a place such as Hawaii, which basically has a very high salt content to the air because of the ocean, high humidity, whatever. There are just a lot of questions, questions we didn't even know about at the time.
We did a lot of reporting on that story, and we sent people to Seattle to the hearings that were eventually held. Aloha Airlines canceled its subscriptions, it canceled its advertising in the newspaper because of what they perceived as unfair coverage.
Biagi: Did it last?
Shen: I don't know. It lasted certainly while I was there. It was about $100,000, I believe, in a year.
Biagi: Did they come to you and talk to you about it?
Shen: Yes, they did.
Biagi: What did you say?
Shen: The head, whose name was Maury Myers—I don't know if he's still there or not—is an extremely competent, extremely nice, and an extremely polished man. He's one of the businessmen I actually admire in Hawaii. Certainly the people on the board of Aloha Airlines were extremely powerful. Sheri Ing, who had made his money in land, as many people have in Hawaii, I hear he's very ill. He may have died. He gave $1 million to Punahou School to endow, I believe, a music building. He's also a very nice man. A long-established Chinese businessman, whose name escapes me right now [Hung Wo Ching], was also on the board of Aloha Airlines.
People with a lot of connections in the community, connections I don't even know about, were on the board of Aloha Airlines.
We got out the stories, we looked at them very, very carefully. We basically said why we thought the stories were fair. There was one headline which we agreed was a mistake. It appeared in a first edition. It was simply a bad headline, it was a sensational headline. It was a profile of one of the stewardesses on the airline. The story was fine. It was a very, very bad headline, and we apologized for that and we did catch it after first edition. It was not in there for second edition, which was our larger edition. Other than that, we really felt the coverage was fair. Aloha Airlines was not going to like coverage. This was not a pleasant situation for them to be in under the best of circumstances. We made our case and he made his case, and we did not agree, but a fair hearing was had by all. That's really all you can do and continue to cover the story as fairly as you can.
Biagi: Moving on to your job here, how does what you did there differ from what you do here?
Shen: I'm not involved in day-to-day news decisions unless we think we're going to be sued, God forbid, about them. Not at all. I'm involved in strategic planning with the publisher and with the executive editor about what directions the newsroom is going overall, where we should be putting our resources, where we want to be three years from now. Sometimes I attend news meetings, but those are for fun. That's just to see what's going on in the world. That's just to hear what people are saying and talking about.
I'll send down story ideas. I'm an inveterate note-writer. When I see things or when I clip out something, I'll send it down to one of the editors and say, "It might be a good idea for us," or, "There's a local person in here!" or I'll send down tear sheets of stuff that I think is good, or that I think somebody needs to take a second look at. So I do that, but that's out of interest more than—if I sat here and did not do that, they would do fine. [Laughter.] But I'm interested in that.
This newspaper's major newspaper competition is the San Francisco Chronicle, which has a circulation of 560,000.
Biagi: As opposed to your circulation, which is—
Shen: About 42,000. The number of resources available to each respective newspaper is quite different, but they are our major competition. When you're on the street or in people's homes, people do not say, "Oh, they're 42,000, that's okay." That's not what they say. They either like it or they don't. It's a one-on-one comparison for them. So a lot of what we do, we pick our shots, we try to be competitive with the major metro. The Chronicle is the eleventh or twelfth largest newspaper in the United States, and although it's the paper people love to hate, and many people tend to complain about its quality, there's something about it that people really become attached to and really, really love. It is very tough competition.
What I've tried to do to some extent, or encourage, let's say, in the newsroom, our strength is local news, but I think we have to have compelling writing and we have to approach local news with a pretty sophisticated air. This is not a chicken lunch menu idea. I mean, we have to cover things that matter to people in Marin, and those things are not just what's happening in their towns, but even more so it's what's happening in education in the county of Marin, it's what's happening in environment. They're fairly hefty issues to wrap yourself around, and we need a pretty sophisticated approach to even what are normally defined as local issues.
Biagi: Do you see that because of the Chronicle's competition primarily or because of your constituency?
Shen: Both. Because, after all, if we were the only paper in town, they wouldn't have a choice, like it or not, although we would rise to the occasion. Quite frankly, there are a lot of other choices. Not only is there the Chronicle, but there's a choice for other people's time.
Biagi: There's a choice not to buy the second paper. Say they're a Chronicle subscriber. Why buy another paper?
Shen: There's increasing choice not to buy a newspaper at all, which is worldwide as well as nationwide.
Biagi: What do you see as your biggest challenge being a suburban newspaper competing with a major metro daily in the 1990s? How are you going to survive?
Shen: Finding a niche, a strong niche, that will give us a readership that our advertisers want, and finding new sources of revenue, which is not just unique to us. All newspapers need to find new sources of revenue because the old ones, the large retailers, just will no longer be players the way they were before.
Biagi: The Emporium.
Shen: The Macys, the Carter Hawley Hales, the Bloomingdales. They're just not going to be around, and in order to be able to throw resources into the newsroom, you've got to bring in that revenue. That revenue is no longer there and is no longer as easy to get. There are lots of other competitors for advertising. For advertising you've got weeklies, you've got shoppers, you've got the Yellow Pages, you have radio, you have TV, you have direct mail. You've got on-line computer advertising services. You name it!
Shen: You've got cable.
Biagi: So how are you going to survive? Are you going to be here in twenty years, this paper, do you think?
Shen: I think if we adopt the strategy I think we will adopt, we'll be, but it's a high-risk strategy.
Biagi: Which is what?
Shen: Who's going to be reading this? It really is a confidential business strategy, so I'm real reluctant to articulate it.
Biagi: In general, just general kind of principles that you would base that strategy on.
Shen: The principles would be that we are not content to be just a 40,000 [circulation] newspaper. I hope what we'll say, and, as I said, the imprimatur on this has to be given in Washington, D.C. by the Gannett Co., Inc., is that we will not be content to just carve out a little share of the market and be necessarily a second buy and be a 40,000 newspaper, that we are going to have to
basically position ourselves and compete as a larger newspaper, because there just won't be a big enough piece of the pie left in ten years for a 40,000 circulation newspaper.
Biagi: How do you do that?
Shen: You do it by a lot of investment at a certain point, and basically you bite off more than you can chew with the resources, with the expectation that you will succeed. There are a lot of steps between here and there.
Biagi: Do you do more investigations? How do you do that? How do you do it here in Marin with a 42,000 circulation newspaper? Most people from the news business would say it's an impossibility.
Shen: Right now, actually, we have a larger circulation than the Chronicle in Marin County, which is a fact that we sell to our advertisers. Certainly for many advertisers who want Marin County, this is the advertising buy for them. The problem is faced by larger regional and national advertisers who are interested in reaching Marin and many other places, and they feel that once they buy the Chronicle or, since it's a JOA [Joint Operating Agreement], the Chronicle/Examiner, they basically made the one buy they're going to buy in the Bay Area, and they don't have the dollars or the inclination to spend money elsewhere.
The challenge is to show them if they want an extremely affluent, educated, part of the market that has a lot of disposable income, the Chronicle is not going to be enough for them. So you have to show them that kind of readership.
Biagi: How do you do that?
Shen: By getting that kind of readership. [Laughter.] And that involves product, it involves image, it involves a lot of things that any business faces that are not unique. How does Chivas-Regal get people to buy them as opposed to Johnny Walker Black Label? For all I know, they may be produced by the same company. I'm not real savvy about liquor brands.
It's basically a competitive market where you have one product. Coming from a newsroom, I hate to call it a product, but that doesn't bother anybody in advertising or marketing. You have a product that you try to get people to prefer over another product.
Biagi: As an associate publisher, how do you do that? What is your contribution to seeing that happen?
Shen: That's strategic planning. The publisher and I work together pretty closely and talk a lot about it, as we talk with all the other directors, the head of advertising, the head of circulation, about what directions we should go in. In the end, the directions that we choose to say to corporate, "These are the ones I think we should go with," and why, as we come up with them, we have to justify them. We have to do the business plans for them. Corporate will say yea or nay based on the strength of our arguments.
Biagi: And if they work, what happens?
Shen: If they work, then the IJ [Marin Independent Journal] will have basically solidified its existence and its profitable existence in the market. If they don't work, I would say the long-term future, twenty, thirty years down the line—and a lot depends on how the world changes, too—
would probably be questionable. I'm not sure that this market twenty or thirty years from now could support a major metro and a little 40,000 circulation newspaper. There are plenty of weeklies around that cover towns on a very, very local basis. There is a major metro that covers the region, the state, international news. There are plenty of national papers. The L.A. Times, the New York Times, and USA Today all have their constituency. What you have to be sure is that you have positioned yourself so your niche exists, so you don't get totally squeezed out of the market.
Biagi: Describe your readership as you see it today.
Shen: Actually, we did a survey on this a couple of years ago. Our readership very closely mirrors the demographics of Marin. That means they're mostly white. Eleven percent in the latest census of the county is minority. Much of that is Hispanic concentrated in the San Rafael area. Some of it is Asian. Some of it is black, although in numbers it's not that many, and they're mostly concentrated, unfortunately, in Marin City, sort of a ghetto in the southern part of the county.
They are affluent. The median income is well into the $50,000, might be $60,000 [range]. It's an extremely wealthy county, one of the wealthiest in the United States. It's very highly educated, lots of four years of college and beyond. It's very, very white collar. It's older than average and getting older. It has fewer households with children than is typical of the national average. People read more here, far higher than the national average, particularly books and magazines. They travel a lot. They have disposable income. They drive everywhere. They value open space and parkland and that quality of their lives probably more than anything else. They have consistently voted in no-growth city councils and favored no-growth initiatives. I'm not talking slow growth; I'm talking no growth. They don't want any more office buildings. They really don't want any more population, even if that means a tax base shrinks and shrinks and they have trouble paying for social services, because, frankly, the people who vote in this county are not the ones who are the recipients of those social services. Therefore, there's this large gap between what they perceive as being really necessary in this county. It's an elitist county and somewhat smug.
Our readership is slightly older. We would like to appeal much more to younger readers than we are. Marin is slightly older, but our readership is also. But that's probably the history of the newspaper. It goes back a long time and was locally owned till the early eighties, had an intensely local focus until the early eighties. That garners to you long-time residents. So that's not a surprise. But we need to make ourselves a paper that will be compelling for people under the age of thirty-four, for example.
Biagi: Is it a stable readership or stable population?
Shen: Yes, especially compared to most California populations. There's very little growth in population. Net, there is almost virtually no growth. There's not that much churn. According to the DMV [Department of Motor Vehicles], whose records are basically driver's license changes, about 5,000 people moved into Marin between July 1990 and July 1991. About the same number moved out. I think there was a net gain of 365 people. In fact, I know it was, because I was looking through those statistics the other day. So you can see it's basically no growth, unlike the counties just to the north of us, for example, which are exploding. They had thirty-four percent growth in the last five or six years, and this is all dictated by affordable housing. Marin housing prices are high. In order to afford your own home in California, you have to increasingly go
farther away. People are commuting from the outskirts of Sacramento to San Francisco! You know that.
Biagi: Fairfield and Vacaville.
Shen: Yes. Because that's where they can afford to buy housing. Marin has very high housing prices, so the "haves" tend to stay here and the "haves" tend to move here, and the "have nots" tend to move out. The "have nots" in many cases are the children of people who live here.
Biagi: So that would be a nightmare for a newspaper with a static population number, with no growth. So it really is a challenge.
Shen: Yes. Exactly.
Biagi: A big challenge. Do you see the newspaper going into other areas of the business?
Shen: We're constantly investigating other areas, and we're not alone in that. There are lots of things on the horizon, and I think things are going to break. There are a lot of ways to deliver information, which is basically our business. You can deliver them over the airwaves, you can deliver them over the phone waves, so to speak. You can deliver them via computer, you can deliver them in a different form from a printed newspaper. You can deliver only parts. You can deliver specialized news publications. You can go into the delivery business. The newspaper has a wonderful distribution system, probably unparalleled except by the U.S. mail system, which has to do it at a much higher rate. Since a newspaper is delivering a bunch of stuff anyway, there's no reason why it can't go in and deliver other stuff, and some newspapers have gone into that.
Biagi: What would you deliver besides the newspaper?
Shen: Some newspapers are delivering magazines under contract, for example, advertising fliers, catalogs, anything you get in the mail. A lot of that could actually be delivered at a cheaper rate than the U.S. Post Office by the person who's sending it. Now, not everything can be done. The post office has pretty strict rules, obviously, about what can and cannot go by mail, but those rules leave a wide open window. Those "rec and park" catalogs you get from your local town, there's no reason those couldn't be delivered not through the mails. A lot of advertising catalogs, fliers, your Land's End catalog, your L.L. Bean catalog. There's no reason that has to be through the mail.
Biagi: So regional distribution for a larger catalog service perhaps.
Biagi: You'd shrink wrap things together.
Shen: There are all kinds of possibilities, and technology is just making more and more things possible. That's why the newspapers are locked in this battle with the Baby Bells. They're basically locked in battle over the right to deliver information electronically, and that's big business. That's very, very big business.
Biagi: If you had thought about where you are today forty or how many years ago when you were born, maybe when you were ten or twelve, that would be how many years ago?
Shen: It would be over thirty years ago.
Biagi: Would you have any idea that you'd be here?
Shen: No. I didn't have any career goals. I really, really didn't. I really did not have career goals. I basically grew up with the idea that I would do what I liked to do. This was a very naive assumption. I majored in English in college, a useless topic. People were majoring in physics and reading just as much as I was at M.I.T., and they got both, you know. Now they run places like Broderbund and Microsoft. [Laughter.]
Biagi: Wordstar. [Laughter.]
Shen: Yes, exactly. They're doing fine, thank you very much. So I did not have any specific career goals. My first job out of graduate school was for a book publisher, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, and I loved it, but what I found also was it was real slow.
Biagi: Was it Jovanovich?
Shen: It was already Jovanovich. In fact, William Jovanovich was a very hale and hearty man, I think in his early fifties.
Biagi: In San Francisco?
Shen: He was based in New York, but this branch was in San Francisco. It no longer has it. In fact, the Pierce Arrow building, where it was, a beautiful building on the corner of Polk and Geary, is now one of the homeless shelter sites. Although it's needed for that purpose, it breaks my heart, because I know how beautiful that building is inside.
Biagi: Just say "Pierce Arrow" and you think twenties and thirties and deco.
Shen: It's a wonderful building. It really breaks my heart.
Biagi: How did you get there from this drifting English major and not knowing what you wanted to do?
Shen: When I got out of school, I basically needed a job. I didn't work on the high school newspaper. I didn't work on my college newspaper. I thought that journalism or some form of publishing would be interesting. You could still find a job then.
Biagi: This would be what year?
Shen: I graduated in 1969, went to graduate school through 1971, so we're talking about late fall of '71. I went looking for a job, and I knocked on the door of every newspaper. I got to know the Bay Area by going around to every newspaper, not just the big ones where Abe Mellinkoff, who recently died, asked me very patronizingly if I wanted to work in the library. I'll never forget that.
Biagi: That was where?
Shen: That was at the San Francisco Chronicle. There were no women on cityside then except for one, Carolyn Anspacher, who died a few years ago. She was a real battle ax, and she was the
only woman on cityside for years and years. A real sexist place. It's not that way anymore, but that's the way it was then. Abe Mellinkoff as city editor, I won't forget that.
Biagi: He wanted you to do what?
Shen: He wanted me to work in the library.
Biagi: At least he offered you work.
Shen: At least he offered me work.
Biagi: Filing things?
Shen: I'm not sure. Probably. Now I think it has a much higher tech library. It would be a different kind of job now.
Biagi: How did you get to Abe? How did you get that far?
Shen: I can't remember. I think I basically wrote a letter and called up and walked in. There was a bureau for Women's Wear Daily there, and I walked in, had a nice talk with a man who I know just put my résumé right in a drawer and said, "Don't call me. I'll call you."
Biagi: Even though it was a women's magazine.
Shen: I don't recall very many women sitting at those desks. Basically, Women's Wear Daily was looking for hard gossip in San Francisco. It didn't have a fashion presence at all, actually. It's a very good news publication.
I went to [places] that don't exist anymore, little weeklies or whatever. I left notes and I never heard from them.
Biagi: Did you go to the Santa Clara Times or the Peninsula Times-Record?
Shen: I probably did, although I don't actually remember. I went all around.
Biagi: You didn't come here?
Shen: I did come to the IJ, but the IJ wasn't here at the time. The IJ was in offices in San Rafael.
Biagi: So you did try here, and they didn't hire you.
Shen: This was under previous owners. Oh, no, they didn't hire me. Finally—and this is really strange—I went to the office of some publication in a downtown San Francisco office building. There was nobody in the office. I went to the office next door to say, "When are they going to be back?" It was an open door. They said, "We don't know, actually. Why? What are you looking for?" I said, "I'm looking for a job." Well, it happened to be an employment agency. They said, "You're looking for a job? Okay."
So I walked in and sat down, they took my résumé, whatever, and that's how I got a job. They called me back a few days later and said, "There's an entry-level job. We placed it before.
It's for an art editor for a book publisher in town. It's a good job for somebody who is starting out." They sent me there, and I got that job.
Biagi: What does an art editor do?
Shen: These were children's textbooks. This is big business. States like California adopt these textbooks. This is big stuff. It's not your 40,000 circulation [newspaper]. A 40,000 sale of a book would be big. If you're talking textbooks, that's nothing.
An art editor works with the text editor to get a product that has basically both words and graphics and art that work together. For a textbook, that's extremely important. When you're trying to illustrate a concept, you are doing that, text and graphics. Newspapers are just coming to this twenty years later. The fact is, graphics is information, photographs are information, text is information. They are all ways to communicate and present information. Textbooks realized that long ago and were doing it back in the early seventies, and an art editor's job was to work with the text editor and the textbook designers to come up with the concepts and the artwork and the photographs that would make the text work. You make it come alive for kids.
Biagi: That's what I thought they did, but none of your background would lead a person to say you should be an art editor.
Shen: It was an entry-level job.
Biagi: And you said, "I can do that."
Shen: Oh, yes. I never had any doubt I could do that.
Biagi: Did anybody ask you, "Have you ever done this before? What experience do you have?"
Shen: No, because it was an entry-level job. The first few months were spent scurrying around, working with the designer, who would say, "I think this is what we're going to go with. You work with the illustrators." Or find the illustrators in many cases, although I had help doing that. "You find the art to go with it." So a lot of it was scurrying around. It was a great entry-level job. I don't know if they still exist. They probably cut all those jobs. It was some of the best training I ever had in my life. It was one of the best jobs I ever had in my life, it really was. It paid $6,000 a year. I was happy with it.
Biagi: Was it enough to live on?
Shen: At the time, yes. I was living with the person whom I eventually married, my first husband, and he was a schoolteacher, so he was bringing in part of it. I was twenty-three years old, you know, renting a small house. How much money did I need? Housing then was reasonable. I had the car, I drove the car that my parents had given me as a graduation present. I kept that car for fourteen years.
Biagi: What kind of car was it?
Shen: It was a 1969 Volvo sedan, 142S, two-door sedan. I sold that car to the dealer when I left for Washington to work at USA Today in 1985. That's how long I kept it. I've owned two cars in my life. I'm on the second one now.
Biagi: Which is?
Shen: A 1986 Honda.
Biagi: So you have that now, and you've held onto it.
Shen: Yes, and I will keep that.
Biagi: You are very loyal to your cars. [Laughter.] How many brakes did you go through in San Francisco?
Shen: Not that many. Clutches is what you go through. I loved the art editor job because I got to work with words, text, graphics, I got to work with everybody, the people who ran the libraries in San Francisco, the photo syndicates like Magnum.
Biagi: You were acquiring art?
Shen: Yes. The in-house researcher, the people who were actually writing the textbooks. I got to know a lot of freelance photographers and illustrators, although we had our own photographer also in San Francisco. I went out with them on their shoots. It was a great job!
Biagi: What kinds of books do you remember working on?
Shen: Social studies, primary and seventh, eighth, and ninth grade social studies books, primary science books. Actually, after I went back East to Maine, I came back to Harcourt Brace briefly and worked making educational filmstrips for them, doing much the same thing, but at a more sophisticated level. Then I had to do soundtracks, but it was the same concept of getting things across in an easy-to-understand way.
Biagi: So you literally fell into that job.
Shen: I did. There was one other job I was offered at the time, because I want to give credit to myself. Freeman Publications in the city, which does Yachting and Sea World, does educational programs, I went in to them, took their entry-level tests. The woman in personnel was very nice. They also offered me a job as some kind of beginning news editor in the very bottom rungs, and they also did offer me a job. I chose to take the Harcourt Brace job.
Biagi: They both came through the same agency?
Shen: No, the Freeman one, I walked in. So I was offered two jobs. If I were to come out in this job market now, I would be hungry. [Laughter.]
Biagi: You think so?
Shen: Oh, yes. I think so. I didn't really have any hard skills. At least I didn't see myself as having hard skills. I had an excellent education. I had a wonderful education, and I was eager and I was a hard worker. I did very, very, very well. I got sterling recommendations, and they sent me on, whether I looked or somebody came calling for the next job.
I left the first job for lifestyle reasons. This was in the early seventies. The traffic from Berkeley to San Francisco was terrible. It's nothing compared to what it is now, but my perception was it was really awful.
Biagi: Were you living in San Francisco or Berkeley?
Shen: I was in Berkeley. My husband and I decided, "Let's go live in Maine. Let's go live a simpler life." So that's basically why I left. I went and I tried to get a job in Maine, and I ended up working for the summer between jobs, actually, as a part-time reporter for the Boston Globe. My husband and I lived with my mom and dad, who lived in Belmont, Massachusetts, which is a suburb of Boston, during that summer while we both looked around, looked for a place to move to in Maine.
Biagi: This was the summer of what year?
Shen: This must have been the summer of '72 or '73. '72, I guess it was. I did find a job working for a daily newspaper in Brunswick, Maine, but my husband did not have a job yet. He moved up and got a job as a substitute teacher in the school system. We rented a house in Wiscasset, Maine, and I got very bored.
Biagi: You're kidding.
Shen: No, I didn't get bored with the work; I just got bored with the whole pace of life living in Maine. I met good friends, but I just wasn't ready to live in Maine yet. I really, really wasn't.
Biagi: How big was the town?
Shen: Two-thousand people, the town I lived in. Brunswick was much larger. Brunswick has Bowdoin College in it and it's only about forty-five minutes north of Portland. But I found myself going back to Boston for the weekend. You know what I mean?
Biagi: To visit your parents or visit friends?
Shen: To visit my parents, just so I could be in Boston and there would be more going on. My husband loved Maine, he really did. He was very reluctant to leave. So one day I just got on the phone back to San Francisco and said to my old employer, "You know, I think I'd like to move back."
Biagi: How long had you been in Maine?
Shen: Less than a year. In between going back to San Francisco, we went to Europe. This was the good life.
[End Tape 1, Side A; Begin Tape 1, Side B]
Biagi: So you were traveling in Europe for a month.
Shen: We were traveling in Europe, and I had a job waiting for me back in San Francisco.
Biagi: But your husband didn't?
Shen: No, he didn't. He'd been teaching in the Bay Area. He went back and he actually got a teaching job in the same school district.
Biagi: Where did you live? Did you live in Berkeley again?
Shen: Yes, we did. We did move back to Berkeley.
Biagi: So you commuted.
Shen: Yes. I came back, I worked in filmstrips for Harcourt Brace for a while. What started to bother me about Harcourt Brace was really endemic to publishing: it's slow. Publishing like that, it's a long time between start of the concept and the finished product, and I wanted something faster. I thought magazines would actually be perfect, but there are not a lot of magazines (there still aren't) in the Bay Area that pay a living wage. So I went over to the Chronicle.
Biagi: You were working at Harcourt Brace. They aren't far away, right?
Biagi: You can just walk over there.
Shen: It's Fifth and Mission. I could just take the bus.
Biagi: Is that what you did, literally, one day?
Shen: I called a friend of a friend. There was another graduate student I'd met who had a friend who worked as a copy editor, actually was a news editor for the San Francisco Chronicle, Peter Sussman. He is still there, by the way. In fact, he was editing "Sunday Punch" and was the one who originated that Dannie Martin correspondence, the correspondence with the ex-convict, a convict at the time, who became quite controversial. He's taking leave now to write a book about it. People at the Chronicle normally never leave; they're there forever.
Biagi: They really are. It really does have good staying power.
Shen: So I called up this guy and said, "I might be interested in working for the paper. Who should I talk to? Who should I call?"
Biagi: You had never worked for a paper at that point except the Boston Globe.
Shen: I had worked for the Brunswick Times as a reporter on a daily newspaper, and on a paper that small you do everything. You do the photography.
Biagi: So you had three months at the Globe.
Shen: Yes, and less than a year, maybe seven, eight months.
Biagi: Nobody goes to a major metropolitan daily with a year and a half experience.
Shen: Yes, but it was the only paper around. Nothing like this ever daunted me, really. I don't know if in the tenor of the times it was that unusual. It's hard for me to remember back.
As I recall, I didn't think I was doing anything at all unusual, frankly. As you can see, I'd made all my choices based on where I wanted to live.
Biagi: You lived in very nice places.
Shen: Yes. In fact, we were in graduate school, which is where I met my first husband, at Claremont grad school in Los Angeles, we hated Los Angeles. We thought, "Maybe San Francisco." So we came to San Francisco on the basis of its being San Francisco and then looked for a job. When I went back to Maine, the job had nothing to do with it. I wanted to live in Maine. When I moved back to San Francisco, it was because I wanted to live back in California. The job was just a means to an end. I think that was very much the mentality then. At the time I thought I would probably retire when I was thirty-two and live a life where I would do what I wanted to do and live where I wanted to live. Here I am. [Laughter.]
Biagi: What income would you retire on?
Shen: Exactly. I thought I could somehow make it work, but I had no goal. If I had been smart, I would have gone to business school and become a stockbroker and actually try to amass the money.
Biagi: M.I.T. [Laughter.]
Shen: There are people who have done that, the Microsoft people. [Laughter.] But those people don't want to retire. Those people are having far too much fun. Making money is incidental to them.
Anyway, so I'm back here in the Bay Area, living where I want to live, and I walk into the Chronicle, and a door finally opens. I actually talked to Bill German. Bill German is now executive editor and has been for years, and is a wonderful guy and, I hope, a friend of mine. He lives in Mill Valley, by the way. He was head of the news desk which runs the copy desk and other desks. I wanted to be an editor, because to tell you the truth, I'm actually kind of shy. It used to bother me to just go out of the blue with my notebook and actually have to ask people questions just out of the blue, although I thought I hid it pretty well and I actually loved the sitting down and writing of it, although it is sweating blood, the way Red Smith used to say. I did like that. What I didn't like was going out with that notebook.
Biagi: Is that right?
Shen: Oh, yes. I was terrified.
Biagi: Do you remember times, say, in Maine or Boston when you really got scared when that happened to you, when you froze?
Shen: Every time. I never froze, but it was always a big step for me to go out. I actually enjoyed it—once I was into it, I enjoyed it, but it was that first step. This person doesn't know me from Adam, I'm about to do a story, I don't even know much about the subject matter either, frankly, and here I am. I remember a time I actually thought I was going to break my leg on a snowmobile. This was the seasonal Christmas tree story, and there were a lot of Christmas tree farms in Maine. This one happened to be run by a former Korean War general. It was freezing. It was so cold. I finally got a pair of hunter gloves knit for me that had the index finger free so I could press the shutter on the camera.
Biagi: You were doing photography, too?
Shen: Yes. I was taking the pictures, too, and it is so cold in the winter in Maine, and the equipment you really had to keep warm and you couldn't grab that equipment without gloves, but you couldn't operate it in mittens either. [Laughter.]
Biagi: I would never have thought of that. [Laughter.]
Shen: But in Maine, you can find people who knit and they knit me a pair of hunting gloves that have the index finger and the thumb free, but the rest is a mitten.
Biagi: Marvelous. You could write, too.
Shen: Yes. So he said, "Get on the snowmobile. We'll go into the middle of this thing." Well, the damn snowmobile tipped. I didn't know how to ride a snowmobile. My leg was dragging on the ground, and I thought, "Gee, I can't ask him to stop." I was too shy to ask him to stop and say, "My leg is going to get broken." Fortunately, the snowmobile, feeling this drag, stopped and suddenly turned over, so we did come to a halt. Anyway, I got a good story.
The Korean War general, who had actually been interviewed many times in the Korean War, actually called the executive editor and said it was the first time he'd been quoted accurately. I had actually made a point of taking shorthand, actually learning shorthand, and I also write very fast. So I can to this day actually take down people's quotes at a much faster pace than a lot of people I know and get them right. I don't paraphrase. This whole Jeffrey Masson—I can't remember the name of the New Yorker—
Shen: To me, what this woman did was horrendous. She basically paraphrased stuff and put it in quote marks. To me, that's a mortal sin. If it's in quote marks, it has to be what was said, even if it's in dialect. It really needs to be what they said. So for me, this was important, so I learned shorthand.
Biagi: Did you take classes?
Shen: I took shorthand classes when I was in Maine. Gregg shorthand was one of the easiest things on earth to learn. I'll tell you the two most useful things I ever learned were shorthand and typing. Isn't that horrible? [Laughter.]
Biagi: No, it isn't.
Biagi: Women don't like to admit that, but I take shorthand, too, and it really has been useful.
Shen: Unfortunately, I've forgotten most of my shorthand, but let me tell you, I'm a faster typist than most of the publishers I know who type like this.
Biagi: With two fingers.
Shen: Those white men get up there and they type like this.
Biagi: Plus you can write your own correspondence.
Shen: That's right. They do it, too, but they're real slow.
Biagi: Because they didn't come through the newsroom?
Shen: They didn't come through the newsroom, and, my god, they didn't take typing.
Biagi: That was forbidden.
Shen: Yes. It's real interesting. They still hunt and peck, a lot of them. It's saved a lot of time in my life because I can type.
Now where were we?
Biagi: We were in Maine and you were having stories that you enjoyed. You were shy.
Shen: I was shy.
Biagi: Are you still shy?
Shen: Yes, probably. Less so now, much less so. So when I went to the Chronicle, I specifically wanted a copy editing job. That's the reason I didn't go to cityside at the time. I wanted to sit at a desk all day long, where I wouldn't have to go out with that notebook and face the unknown.
Biagi: Even without the mittens. [Laughter.]
Shen: Yes, and face the unknown. I just wanted to sit there. I knew I could edit, frankly. My grammar is perfect and my punctuation is pretty damn good, although I didn't know there's a lot more to copy editing than that, but in my naivete, I thought, "I can spell." God knows I'd never written a headline. And he gives me a job.
Biagi: This is Bill German?
Shen: Bill German gives me a job starting out part time. I don't even know if it was starting out part time. It might have been starting out full time, but the shift sometimes started at 1:30 in the afternoon, sometimes at 4:00, and ended eight and a half hours later, whatever that happened to be, and split days off, Saturdays off and one other day during the week. Frankly, I think that he gave me the job at the time partly because I was a minority. I think he was just starting to feel some pressure, just the inklings. That may have been a factor. I know there were no openings at the news desk at the time, because another copy editor came up to me and very pointedly told me that. [Laughter.]
Biagi: Just thought you'd like to know this?
Shen: Yes. This was an editor who subsequently became a friend. She was an editor in another department, and at the time had wanted to perhaps make a move to the news desk. Suddenly I appear. I told her I was working on the news, and she said, "Oh, I was told there were no openings on the news desk." I think at the time he hired me under some program that might have been moribund, but was open to give new people opportunities. I don't know if it was a minority program.
Biagi: 1973 or '74?
Shen: Yes, I think it was '73, maybe in early '74. Anna Quindlen talks about the class of 1977 at the New York Times, which was the class that basically brought a class action suit against the Times, which the Times lost and ended up hiring a lot of wonderful people like Anna Quindlen and Nan Robertson, who brought them fame and glory. So it just goes to show the Times was kind of badgered. On its own, it's winning its prizes. Or not on its own in winning its prizes.
Biagi: The Sacramento Bee suit actually predated that in 1970.
Shen: There you go. See the timing? So they were aware of it. It was very male. There was one other woman.
Biagi: The AP [Associated Press] suit was '74, I think.
Shen: So they were probably just beginning to be aware of it. That's how I started.
Biagi: There was one other woman out of how many copy editors?
Shen: Just the rim, not the news desk, but the rim, the grunts who edited the copy as a last resort before it went to the composing room, eight or nine, actually slightly more because we didn't work all the same shifts. That's a good ballpark figure. She is still there. All these people I worked with and am talking about are still there.
Biagi: The friends.
Shen: Yes, and they'd already been there for a while, so I'm talking twenty years ago and they'd already been there. You're talking longevity at that paper.
Biagi: I can see you admire that as a publisher.
Shen: I don't necessarily admire that. In some ways it appalls me. It appalls me that at that young age they would have stayed in the same place for twenty-five years. They would have spent their entire youth. But a lot of people make that decision, just as I did, on the basis of a lifestyle, not a work decision necessarily, but a lifestyle decision. San Francisco is a great place to live. They put down roots here. Eventually they have kids and a mortgage, you know. It feeds into itself. I don't know if you find that same kind of longevity in places that are not so pleasant to live in. Anyway, that's how I got my foot in the door.
Biagi: As the copy editor, what didn't you know going into copy editing?
Shen: Most of it.
Biagi: Did they give you a test?
Shen: No. If they did, I don't remember it. They may have. In fact, they probably did, but I actually don't remember it. I gave Bill German my résumé. I remember I gave him a bunch of the clips of writing I had done. I used to write just off the top of my head, as well as my clips. I do remember him saying to me that he did like the writing I'd done, number one. Number two, he liked the fact I was not coming from twelve years at the Kansas City Star, was the way he put it.
In other words, I was malleable. I could learn something. I wasn't coming with a lot of preconceptions.
Biagi: That was a nice cover to put on inexperience. [Laughter.]
Shen: Yes, exactly, now that I look on it.
Biagi: That was very nice.
Shen: Actually, I think he meant it. The Chronicle has always been known in journalism circles as a very quirky paper. Now it seems very establishment. At the time, when it came from a tradition slightly before me of sending a guy who lived in the woods bogusly, to write dispatches back, I mean, he probably didn't want somebody who, "My god, she's had ten years of people telling her what a nutsy paper this is." That's probably what he meant, to a large extent. So that's how I got my foot in the door. My headlines were atrocious! It took me a long time to write a good headline.
Biagi: Do you remember some of them that were really bad?
Shen: I remember a good one. You don't remember the bad ones. Remember, they have to be a certain typeface, they have to fit. This was on a JIT [short filler material]. JITs are short. You write a lot of JIT heads when you're a beginning copy editor. The headline was "Better Dead Than Wed." It was a joke story. It was not real funny, I suppose, but the gist of it was funny. There was some guy who apparently just couldn't take being married and somehow did away with himself. It was written in such a funny, jocular way that the tone of the head was not amiss. I remember the one good head I wrote.
Biagi: You did that job for how long?
Shen: Let's see. Nixon resigned while I was doing that job. Probably about a year and a half. Toward the end of that, I told Bill German to keep an eye out, because I really wanted to move to other sections of the paper. I didn't just want to be on the news copy desk. The one thing that opened up was the "People" department. If something had opened up on the sports department, he probably wouldn't have told me about it, but the "People" department was the features department. There were no men in that department. An opening was there, and I went over. The hours were a lot better and the days off.
Biagi: How many people were in the department?
Shen: On the copy desk there were five people and about seven to eight reporters.
Biagi: All women?
Shen: Yes. And a bunch of freelance columnists. Merla Zellerbach was one, for example. Adeline Daley, you might remember. These are names from the past. Count Marco had just left. Joe Carcione. We were responsible for editing the food pages also. They had their own editor, but we had to copy edit their material. Merle Ellis was still around, the butcher.
Biagi: Joe died.
Shen: Yes, Joe died, and his son, who sounds exactly like him, has taken over. No, I'm mixing him up with Bert Bertolero's son who has taken over.
Biagi: What did you do there?
Shen: I was basically copy editing copy for that department.
Biagi: So you went over there as a copy editor.
Shen: As a copy editor, yes.
Biagi: You stayed there how long?
Shen: I don't remember, but I left because they were forming a new section of the paper, a zoned section, although the content wasn't zoned. The ads were zoned, but the news content wasn't zoned. They were net new. They had already thought up the concept and they needed somebody to execute the concept, and the concept was a Wednesday "Living" section, home improvement, stuff like that, but it was all canned. I had no staff. And "Briefing," which was international news. So my job was to basically put out those sections. I had to get the copy, edit the copy. The news desk knew what copy to send me. I'd write the headlines for it, get the art for it, edit it, send it out to the back shop, oversee the makeup of those pages, proofread those pages, everything there was to do.
Biagi: They were sending it from other sections?
Shen: Sending it from other sections, mostly wire service stuff. Not only that, at the same time the Chronicle was going cold type. They were just introducing computers to the newsroom, and I was the first department to go cold type, so I had to learn this new computer system.
Biagi: Which was which system?
Shen: It was SII.
Biagi: System Integrator, which is Sacramento, right?
Shen: Exactly. Big, old, clunky. So I had to learn that. I was a very fast learner for that kind of thing.
Shen: Exactly! And basically inaugurated it, you know, with this section. It would not have been possible to put out this section. There were three, then eventually five, I think, or maybe more now, different zones, and I would get different dummies for each of these zones because the ads were different. I would have to fit the same copy into each of those five sets of dummies.
Biagi: Even though the ads were different?
Shen: Yes. There was no way you could keep that straight without being able to do it on a computer, which, if you had an elaborate header, you could fill out, so you could call up at a glance everything that went on page C2, as opposed to A2, B2, D2, E2. It would have been impossible. It was an organizational nightmare. So that's what I did, and I eventually had a staff
of two under me, helping me do it. I did that for several years, had a good time, and eventually got so I could do the whole thing in about four and a half days.
Biagi: And then go home.
Shen: Yes! Exactly. Then Ruth Miller died. Ruth Miller had been the longtime head of the "People" section. Much to my surprise and everybody else's at the paper, shock, and much of the San Francisco society's shock, because Pat Steger, who works in the "People" section, for example, that's where all the "society" stuff runs, Bill German selected me as the editor of that department. You have to understand that I was the person who, over Ruth Miller's objections, continued to wear jeans to work as a copy editor, who basically had no interest in clothing, wore no makeup, zilch makeup.
Biagi: Why would that upset Ruth Miller?
Shen: Ruth was a very sweet person, a smart person, very smart person.
Biagi: How old a woman was she?
Shen: She died an untimely death from illness, but she was, I think, in her late fifties, early sixties when she died, and much younger-looking. She did a lot of things during the war. I think she did a lot else at the paper during the war. She was beloved by a lot of people, a lot of old-time journalists. She was a very petite woman. In her younger days, they tell me she was just a raving beauty and a real coquette, could talk her way around anything. So the old newsies knew her well, as well as San Francisco society, because by this time she was fairly well entrenched. She was a very good friend of Charlotte Mailliard Swig, who dedicated a rose garden in Golden Gate Park in her memory.
Biagi: Why should you be a challenge to her?
Shen: I don't think I was a challenge. We got along very, very well. In fact, she was the one who recommended me for the zoning job. It was to get me out of the—no, it wasn't. This was not acrimonious. She had a maternal instinct about her, because everybody in the department at the time, except for two people, were in their twenties. She sort of saw us as her "girls," so to speak. Only reporters have to dress in a businesslike way. She was just sort of the old school that way, but she couldn't say anything because I had come over from the news copy desk. There I wore jeans all the time, and she could hardly set a different standard without, she knew, you know, raising a big stink. So she couldn't say anything.
Biagi: You just knew personally.
Shen: I would notice I was the only one who did it! [Laughter.]
Biagi: Everybody else is there in skirts.
Shen: Yes, or at least nice pants, not jeans. I notice I did get kind of exaggerated compliments when I wore anything that wasn't jeans, because I think the other people in the department also looked a little askance at it. "Not our way," you know. I really didn't think much of it. I was kind of oblivious to it, and I enjoyed working on the desk and I liked everybody very much.
But suddenly I was catapulted into actually managing a department. It was almost twenty people, all very different people. Feature writers have huge egos, and most of these people had been at the paper much longer than I had. Luckily, I knew how the department worked, having known it from the inside out, so to speak.
Biagi: All women?
Shen: All women. I hired the first man. I transferred somebody over from cityside, Jerry Carroll, who works there to this day. He's a Marin resident, a great writer. I brought him over when an opening occurred.
Biagi: Affirmative action, huh? [Laughter.]
Shen: I also brought over men on the copy desk. Virtually everybody I hired, actually, is still there.
Biagi: What does that tell you? Is that the Chronicle or is that your hiring choice?
Shen: Both, I think. So there I was, no management training. I skipped a step. I'm sorry. I was at the Chronicle for eleven years. From the zone section, I actually did run a much smaller department. They wanted to revamp the Sunday magazine, which was "This World." It's still called "This World." At the time it was adhering to the same concept it had had when it was conceived, and it was conceived as a competitor to Time magazine in the 1940s, I think.
Biagi: Things change rather slow at the Chronicle. [Laughter.]
Shen: You bet! They decided they wanted a more modern approach, and I was dubbed to do that. Again, it was a sensitive personnel issue, because Dick Demarest, who is now dead, had been doing it for years, and they were basically putting me in to conceive a totally new thing while he put out the old one, and then they would install me as the head of it. It was a real insensitive thing to do to Dick, actually.
Anyway, I ended up doing it. Bill German, who by now was executive editor, loved the new design, was proud of the fact that I had done it basically on my own. I think I went to him only once. We had a new graphic designer at the time whom I worked closely with, and again I had a ball. That's what I like best. It was conceiving a new thing, working with a designer, coming up with a design that would really communicate stuff. Because of my background, I never did see text and art as two separate things. It drives me wild when they assign photographs of art and the story's already done. It just drives me wild. Then you wonder why the stuff is decorating the story.
Biagi: And somebody in the story says, "She was wearing red," and in the picture she's wearing green. [Laughter.]
Shen: Yes. Or it's this talking head. It doesn't further the story at all. Drives me wild.
Anyway, I had a great time and came out with a product I was really, really proud of, even though it was wire [service] stuff. It wasn't locally originated stuff. I did that with a staff of basically two.
Biagi: How long did you take to do that?
Shen: I don't remember how long I was given. I also had to come up with all the computer codes to do it, which was a lot of trial and error stuff. They didn't want to write the shorthand formats until they knew what was wanted, so I was stuck setting this copy with fifty-character codes that I'd basically copied for the people who were working for me, so they didn't have to think, they just had to get the numbers right. It was months before we ever got shorthand formats, so that was one thing. I had to work very closely with the back shop and with the advertising people who were dummying, who'd say, "This is how big it's going to be. These are the kind of ads they're going to run." I did that previously. I guess those were the jobs that actually gave me the great opportunity to work with the advertising department, which most people in the newsroom don't get to do. But I was thinking up new sections. What I was creating was net new to the paper. So I was very lucky, actually. It's still the thing I love best of all.
Biagi: What is that?
Shen: To create something new. It's a bore after you've been doing it for two years. When you can create something new, there's nothing better in the world.
Anyway, so after I'd been doing "This World," it was on its feet, whatever—
Biagi: About a year, do you think?
Shen: It must have been, at least. It was months. It was like three or four months to get it established before we actually rolled it out, and then I must have worked on it for at least another year, maybe more. It could have been as long as two years.
Then Ruth Miller died, and the other scenario kicks in. Suddenly I found myself working with live reporters who would bite back. I don't like that. You know what I mean?
Biagi: You can rewrite it.
Shen: Yes. Now I had live reporters. Now I had readers calling me up when they didn't like something. I mean, really didn't like something because it was about local people. It was a baptism by fire, it really was. I would come to work thinking, "What can go wrong today? I know something's going to go wrong."
My first day at work, I wanted to make the section a little—I thought it was not graphically compelling. That was one of my things. We had a fairly innocuous story about a program in schools to teach children about the perils, "Don't talk to strangers," you know, but this was young children. We ran a large picture. It's not the best judgment. We wanted to make a really compelling page of a kid crying. The headline under it was, "Teaching Children Not to Fear," a fairly large headline, a fairly large photo. Well, the people who ran that program were just incensed. They thought that we had totally distorted the story. The reporter who wrote the story took a vacation day that day, as a coincidence. This is my second day on the job. That phone rang nonstop that day with people just shouting vituperation at me. I thought to myself, "Well!"
Biagi: What did you say? Did you just listen after a while? What could you say?
Shen: Yes. But let me tell you, the newsroom employees back then were pretty arrogant. "The great unwashed" was their view of the readers. It took me a long while to really get a manner that was at all good on the phone. I really had no management training that way, and it was a great lack.
I also had no role models, really. Ruth Miller spoke very quietly, and, frankly, I didn't really listen to her. I'd never seen anybody in action dealing with the public, really. All my jobs, except for my reporter job, which was a different thing, and I guess maybe everybody liked my stories, I don't know—
Biagi: Nobody called.
Shen: They didn't say anything. Nobody called.
Biagi: They called the editor.
Shen: They called the editor. Exactly. So I was really at sea. Then dealing with the reporters, I knew these were reporters, because I had dealt with them as a copy editor, but now I was dealing with them as their editor, their superior, and it was a different thing. I basically had to okay or not okay the stories they were going out on. I basically had to work with them to mold the story. I was basically the first one to read the stories when they came in.
Biagi: What did you learn, first, about the public, and then about working with reporters?
Shen: I learned that the public was the great unwashed in some ways. Dealing with the public in most ways did not increase my respect for them. That came a long time later. I was very defensive and really not very effective on the phone. Luckily, I had someone who was very effective on the phone, who actually had the job of answering the phone. I think she happened to be out that day, too, who screened the calls. I learned. I basically learned on the job to have a better phone manner and to really learn to listen to people. To this day, though, it's hard for me sometimes. To this day it's hard.
The editor of the "People" section was a well-established position. The mail that came in—this is a metropolitan newspaper—the mail every day was probably two feet high! I had to go through that and glean what was good, throw out what wasn't, assign, talk about reporters. I first read every story the reporters wrote, as well as the daily copy, such as Pat Steger's social column. I also found myself much more on the social circuit, which I had minus-ten interest in.
Biagi: Now you have to dress.
Shen: Yes. Now I had to dress. I pointedly dropped a hint to Bill German at one point that some editors in my position, I'd heard, had a clothes allowance. My wardrobe consisted mostly of jeans and shirts. That fell on deaf ears.
Biagi: You didn't get one?
Shen: I did not get one, no. I did, however, manage to get a parking place. At the time, the Chronicle had a very small, much coveted parking lot, because parking around Fifth and Mission is horrendous. It's very expensive.
Biagi: You don't want to be on the street.
Shen: You don't want to be on the street. Actually, back then when I was a copy editor, I used to walk back to the East Bay bus terminal at eleven at night. All you encountered was the occasional drunk. I'd never do it now. This was the early seventies. I did it on a regular basis, but I never had a problem.
Biagi: Neither did I. I used to work down on Mission Street.
Shen: Now I would never do it. It's a harder area now, but it wasn't real hard-core drugs then and no homeless. The people on the street I met were as scared as I was. [Laughter.]
Biagi: So you got a parking place.
Shen: I got a parking place by asking after a while what had happened to Ruth Miller's old parking place, because I noticed they weren't that forthcoming. What had happened, in reality, Rosalie Wright started to work as the overall feature editor about the same time or shortly after I became "People" editor, and they gave her Ruth Miller's parking place. I noticed. It just occurred to me. I wrote a letter and I justified it. The veiled threat was, "You want me to get raped on the street after dark?" But what I actually wrote was, "My hours are irregular, I often end up at events at night. I love my job, but what I don't like about it is creeping around at night trying to find my car at nine and ten at night." And it worked. I got a parking place in that lot, but it was one of the photographer's parking places, one of the eight which are always kind of first come, first served. The photographers were incensed, but, nevertheless, I got the damn parking place.
Biagi: Let's go back. What did you learn about working with reporters that you hadn't foreseen?
Shen: Tiptoe. You have to be very diplomatic and you have to be very, very clear from the very beginning about what you want. What is not clear in the beginning becomes a huge problem when the story is handed in. I learned a lot about real editing, about shaping something from the very beginning, because before I'd basically been getting stuff that was already done and making it better, trimming it, that kind of thing. I wasn't originating the stuff. Now, especially in features, which don't depend on breaking news, you're basically originating the stuff. You're creating it from scratch. It was a whole different experience. And putting together a section every day that was coherent. In "Living" and "Briefing" I did it, but they were better defined. In "People," there's a much wider definition. There's a city, a living and breathing city, a region more than a city, to cover. I did that for almost four years.
Biagi: Were there expectations that you hadn't foreseen, such as social life, that you were forced into? Did you feel comfortable in society?
Shen: I was too naive to feel—if I were suddenly to do it now, I would probably feel more uncomfortable. I was so young and I was so green, and I had absolutely no social ambitions at all. I really didn't. A lot of women really like that in life, a lot of men really like that in life. Somebody who moves to Maine when they're twenty-five because they want a simpler life is not usually prone to wanting the bright lights and the glitter. That has never been a problem for me, and I'll get to it much later, but it stood me in good stead when I went to Honolulu, that particular trait of mine. I have a lot of problems, but wanting to be part of the people I cover or what people are covering has never been part of that.
The first lunch I went to, I had Charlotte Mailliard on one side and Lita Vietor, who has since died, on my other side. Mrs. Roger Walther, who had just moved and her husband had bought San Francisco magazine as an entrée to San Francisco society, had just moved from Greenwich, Connecticut; this was in the private dining room at the St. Francis, and it was some society luncheon for some pre-benefit. I had a very preppy way of dressing then. I hadn't changed my way of dressing since I'd left Boston.
Biagi: Describe what you were dressed in.
Shen: I remember this. I was wearing a Madras shirt—not a blouse, but a shirt—and a tan skirt. It was a Calvin Klein skirt, but there was nothing remarkable about it. It probably looked more like a golf outfit than anything else. And some flats, probably Joan & David flats, very serviceable shoes. The women next to me, of course, were dressed like ladies who lunch, you know. They were dressed in their who knows what, their Adolfo dresses and their little Chanel—
Biagi: You didn't recognize it.
Shen: No, I didn't. So I was seated in the place of honor there and I talked to them very nicely. Now when I think back, what the hell could they have been thinking? I was so different from Ruth Miller, and I was Asian. I didn't think of it at the time, and I'm glad I didn't, because I would have been very self-conscious. But the history of racism in California against Asians is extreme. It's the history of the place. So for these white women to have this young, green, Chinese woman sitting there, who they knew would edit Pat Steger's column, I can't imagine what they must have been thinking!
Biagi: But they didn't say anything?
Shen: They didn't say anything. There are two or three women I met during those years (there probably are others) who I've found to be the classiest women I know. They would be classy if they had no money. They're classy if they have a million dollars. One of them is Charlotte Mailliard. One of them is a woman who has since became Sister Mary Joseph in a Carmelite monastery outside of Chicago. Her last name will come to me. She had ten or twelve children, too. She lived at the very top hill on Pacific Heights. Her last name, I believe, was Walker.* Her husband died while I was "People" editor. I thought the woman, before she became a nun, was a saint. She gave it up. She had a lot of money, wonderful friends. I thought she was one of the nicest women I ever met. The other woman I thought was nice was Gail Schlesinger, who was Al Schlesinger's nurse at one point when he was recuperating from something and they fell in love. They got married and have been married every since. She's much younger than he is. But particularly the first two, Charlotte and this woman whose name I can't remember, were wonderful, wonderful, wonderful women.
I saw Charlotte for the first time, since 1985, two weeks ago, last week, at her apartment for Women's Forum West, which is a women's professional organization I belong to. She was hosting a reception because of the new main library of which she and her husband are benefactors, and she recognized me. She had not laid eyes on me since 1985. I thought that was remarkable.
Biagi: Have you crossed paths at all?
Shen: Our paths have not crossed. I was in Washington and Honolulu. Since I've been working in Marin, I don't frequent San Francisco haunts. I have a child, so I don't go out in the evening anyway. She had not laid eyes on me. I found that amazing. I found that remarkable. That's why she's good at what she does and is as effective as she is.
Biagi: Did you ever change your clothing during this time?
* Actually, it was Ann Miller. CS.
Shen: Yes, I did. I learned to spend an enormous amount of money on clothing, which I did until the baby was born, actually. Now my baby has a wonderful wardrobe. I've transferred the impulse. Yes, I learned to spend an enormous amount on clothing.
Biagi: You were in a good place to do it.
Shen: Yes, and buy designer clothing. I was within walking distance of Union Square.
Shen: Exactly. I learned to spend an enormous amount of money on clothing, and I learned to wear makeup, although to this day I don't wear much makeup. I wear hardly any. I learned to wear makeup. But some of that was also the fact that the fashion editor was also under my aegis, and the fashion editor at the time was Beth Trier, also to some extent Joan Chatfield-Taylor, Beth Trier in particular. She has since left the Chronicle.
Biagi: Somebody who left.
Shen: Under rather mixed circumstances that I won't go into now and has had a rather checkered career. But for all her problems, she was extremely savvy about fashion, one of the smartest fashion people I know, looked at me and realized I needed help. So she would suggest things. She helped me along.
Biagi: Did you ever go shopping together?
Shen: No, we didn't go shopping together, but she said, "That's kind of a preppy way you dress." Once she said, "You like to wear clothes that conceal your body all the time, don't you?" [Laughter.] I mean, she made me actually for the first time look at the way I dress. Also, everybody else in the department, the female reporters, there was a lot of emphasis on what they wore. It was just the department culture. So I began just naturally to—and then I was going to the society functions looking at all this clothing, you know, so I changed. I really changed. But I didn't change in other ways. I had a good time at these functions, but I never considered myself one of these people. I knew exactly why I was there.
Biagi: Do you think that's a danger that sometimes happens to people who cover society?
Shen: Yes, it is, and it's a real easy trap to fall into. It's real easy. The trick is, you have to realize these people—there might be an exception or two—are not your friends. They're business acquaintances and they are nothing more than that. Absolutely nothing more than that. I think people in the mayor's office have the same problem. I think Frank Jordan is probably having the same problem. Never consider them friends, because they're not. I had my own friends with whom I had a lot more in common.
Biagi: So that was a business function.
Shen: To me it was a business function. The symphony, the dinner before the opera opening, the symphony openings, the Museum of Modern Art, the events that San Francisco takes seriously, I was there for the tasting dinners at Trader Vic's, where you taste the menu and decide what would be served, the little corner banquette tables, you know.
Biagi: It creates its own culture, doesn't it?
Shen: Yes, it does create its own culture. In fact, when I first started in the "People" section, the copy desk used to get treated by Trader Vic's to an annual sort of holiday lunch. We would all go. Hans Brandt was a legendary maŒtre d', and he was the maŒtre d' at Trader Vic's. He's still alive, frail but alive. He actually did become friends with people in the "People" section. He was a wonderful man of the old school, and he would order us up everything and really take care of us.
There's a line in the Paul Theroux book I'm reading now called The Happy Isles of Oceania: Paddling Through the Pacific. It's a brand-new book. I'm a Paul Theroux fan. I'll tell you a Hawaii story about him long after. Anyway, there's a line in it where he's staying at the Sydney Regent Hotel, on a book tour, and he has a suite and he has the chocolates and the fruit and a valet at his beck and call, and he says, "Sluttish comfort is one of the most dangerous addictions in life," and you can be addicted in a day. I learned that, because, yes, you can become very addicted to not waiting in lines in restaurants, to having the maŒtre d' know you, getting very good service. It was a whole world, but I knew that if I went in as just Catherine Shen—I dropped Cathy. I went to Catherine when I went to USA Today, because it was my only chance. Too many people knew me by that. I always wanted to be Catherine, but too many other people called me Cathy. So I succeeded. I'm Catherine. I was Cathy, as they knew me, Cathy Hendley, because I was married for most of this time—they wouldn't know me from Adam. You know what I mean? They really wouldn't.
Biagi: So you have to keep that in your mind.
Shen: Absolutely. I still had a good time at the parties.
Biagi: So you took advantage of it, but you knew that you were apart.
Shen: In fact, the society editor, Pat Steger, and I are friends. She's very different from me. I admire her immensely. She has the best story ideas of the Chronicle. She's one of the hardest workers. She does a great job in what she does, and she knows everything that's happening in this town. She knows more than Herb Caen sometimes, but she doesn't put it in print.
[End Tape 1, Side B; Begin Tape 2, Side A]
Biagi: Let's talk a little bit about your experience as a society editor in San Francisco.
Shen: The society column then, as it is now, was kind of a holdover from the old days when I think that section was called "Woman's World" or called "Society." It had a very strong connection through its column to San Francisco so-called society, but this was only one column in the section. The rest of the section was actually resolutely moderate, and, in fact, was basically staffed by yuppies. [Laughter.]
Biagi: Learning how to dress. [Laughter.]
Shen: Yes. Middle-class yuppies. We covered the gamut of what today's feature sections cover. I liked fun stories, although we did our serious stories. One thing we did once was when Queen Elizabeth was coming to town, that was a big story for San Francisco, and, of course, everybody was kowtowing and trying out their British accents. All this emphasis on what she would wear, we had designers dress her up, and we had a cut-out of Queen Elizabeth, and we had four or five local designers, well-known ones, redo her wardrobe, and we ran these pictures. We actually asked them to send in sketches. It was great. It's the irreverent stuff we do that I really like.
Biagi: The makeover? [Laughter.]
Shen: Yes, the makeover. It was great, because I think the big one we ran actually had her in kind of a cheerleading outfit. She is, after all, the chief cheerleader for England. It was quite apropos. [Laughter.]
This was a Pat Steger idea: she is a romance fan. She loves romance novels and knows a lot of romance writers. I was racking my brain to think of a Valentine's Day feature. So God knows—I thank these nice women from the bottom of my heart. For fifty dollars each, these millionaire romance writers agreed to write me, like, five-hundred words of a continuing serial. One would start it and then I'd send that installment to the next one, and she would have to write the next five-hundred words. We did this for four or five episodes, and it was great. It was wonderful. They did it out of the goodness of their hearts, because, frankly—
Biagi: Did you have to call them or write to them?
Shen: I wrote them a very nice letter explaining what it was, explaining, "I can offer you only a token fifty dollars to do it. My God, they agreed to do it. It was good exposure.
Biagi: What was the story?
Shen: I don't remember. The ending was disappointing, though. We wanted it to go on.
Biagi: You could have continued it at the next Valentine's Day. [Laughter.]
Shen: That's true. One of the fun things, "Tales of the City" at that time was running and was new in the "People" section. Armistead Maupin was a gay who actually came out as being gay during writing this serial, from North Carolina, a military family, had actually served in the Vietnam War as press attaché or something, showing generals around in helicopters, is how he put it. He wrote this rather raunchy serial—and many readers wrote in to object—about life in San Francisco. It took place on a fictional Barbary Lane, which was fashioned after Macondray Lane, which is one of those quaint pedestrian-only alleys in San Francisco on the top of Russian Hill. There was a young girl named Mary Ann who had just moved to San Francisco from Cleveland to live on Macondray Lane, and the friends she made, among them a gay man named Michael. It was the whole San Francisco scene. They've since become very successful books here and abroad, and Armistead is a celebrity. But he became a celebrity under our very eyes, starting by sitting at a corner desk and eventually moving. So the time I was in the "People" section was an extremely fun time to be in the "People" section.
Biagi: Had he been hired by somebody?
Shen: Bill German. I don't know the story, but Bill German, even though a lot of people object to the Chronicle's coverage, is brilliant at finding unusual people to do the unusual for it. What other paper has its own local cartoonist on its back page? Phil Frank just decided, "I want to be local. There's the Chronicle." And it runs the cartoon on the back page. What other paper does that? It's wonderful because it takes off from the news of the day. And what other paper has this raunchy—actually, now they do, but back then, this was fairly unusual. This was the late seventies, early eighties. It had episodes that talked about quaaludes, that talked about marijuana, that talked about gays and bisexuals, that had people who were transvestites as one of the main characters. That's how [Charles] Dickens started. He used to write newspaper serials. It's a great tradition. Mark Twain used to write for the Chronicle.
Biagi: Everybody claims him. So does the Sacramento Union.
Shen: It's actually true of the Union and the Chronicle. It's a great tradition. So it was a fun time. It was a real fun time to be at the Chronicle.
Biagi: Why do you think that is, that Bill German was able to do that? What quality is that in an editor that you see?
Shen: Part of it is Bill and his background. He started out as a flaming radical at Columbia and gradually became more conservative, but his friends have always been, at least until recently, fairly unconventional. He's been at the same paper for forty-five years. He's never let those bastards in Washington get him down. "Let Ben Bradlee do what he wants. Let them look down their nose. I'm going to do what I'm going to do." I think in some ways he had his finger on the pulse of a certain quirkiness about San Francisco, because San Francisco is quirky. It's outrageous to a lot of people. It's freakville, it's crazy. It's the people who are in Marin that are not crazy. After all, they moved out of it, you know.
Biagi: People I know who are from San Francisco, who have moved over here, now will say that they're from Marin. They'll never say they grew up in San Francisco. They'll shift it. You'll say, "Are you from San Francisco?" They'll say, "No, actually I'm from Marin."
Shen: It's the greatest gift an editor can have is to recognize raw talent and what it can do for you. Very, very few people have it. Very, very, very few people have it.
Biagi: So your tenure there was four, five years?
Shen: Yes, in the "People" section it was.
Biagi: What about personnel issues, about managing other people? That was a new experience for you. Was it difficult?
Shen: Yes. It was extremely difficult. A lot of competing egos, a lot of competing personalities. You have people with personal problems that show at work. Yes, it was very, very difficult.
Biagi: Were you prepared for that in any way?
Shen: No, not at all. Zilch. It was very, very difficult. I can't even elaborate. It was just difficult. Although it was fun, that part of it was like going into a maelstrom.
Biagi: What also did you learn or observe about the difference from having people as friends and then moving into what was a professional situation as a boss?
Shen: There was a difference, although many of them did remain my friends, to tell you the truth. That transition wasn't as hard for me as I thought it would be. I was actually more worried about that and found that wasn't as much of a problem, because none of them were my bosom buddies. They were not the people I normally had been with, except very occasionally. They were not the people I would call. I didn't really have good friends there, so we're not talking about real friends. Then it might have been a problem. Under these circumstances, it really wasn't a problem.
Biagi: Most journalists that I've talked with, their friends have been their newsroom buddies. Was that not true for you? Their close friends have all come out of the newsroom, they tell me, because they don't have time to make friends anywhere else, they're at work so much. I wonder if that was true for you, or you had another life separate from that.
Shen: I had another life, but, to tell you the truth, I made one great friend at the Chronicle. The guy I lived with for eight years was a great friend, but he didn't work in the newsroom. To tell you the truth, until I moved to Hawaii, I never made any good friends in the Bay Area. I really didn't, except for the person I was living with. The friends I made were from my very first job at Harcourt Brace, when we were all in our early twenties together. A couple of those friends I still have, so it's over twenty years. Between that time and the time I was in Hawaii, I did not make really, really good friends. I went to people's parties, ate dinner with people, had a good time, but a friend, a real friend you can confide in, no.
Biagi: Do you think it's different for a single child as opposed to one that comes from a family of children?
Shen: I don't know, because I can't compare. All I know is my own situation, and I really can't compare it.
Biagi: You were on another coast from your family, who were still in Boston.
Shen: Yes. I have no relatives out here. I really had no support group out here. Even my first husband's relatives were also all back East.
Biagi: We should back up, because now we have you living with somebody. We should back up and talk about your marriage.
Shen: My husband and I were divorced in late '75. I had just started on the "People" desk at the Chronicle. The marriage was rocky in Maine, and he sort of moved back with me thinking it would save the marriage, and it really didn't. He's a great guy. We still talk on the phone. He's remarried, still lives in the Bay Area, still teaches school. I'm sorry we ever got divorced, because I think he's a wonderful guy. It really wasn't his fault; it was my fault. If I'd been older and more mature, here's where being an only child did not help me. I found it very difficult. I still do find it difficult to get along with another person on an equal partnership basis. That's very, very difficult for me to live with another person—to put up with them, so to speak, to allow them into my space.
Biagi: Do you think you're difficult to live with?
Shen: Oh, yes. No question about it. Nobody would disagree. I don't think anybody would actually disagree that I've ever lived with.
Shen: Because I like to have things my way. That's why I'm divorced again, and it's not that much fun to be a single parent, certainly. That's probably because of a clash of personalities, because he's the same way. Basically if there are two sofas and one's his and one's mine, and I don't like his and I like mine, I would find it very difficult to allow his sofa. You know what I mean?
Biagi: You could have two sofas. You would want yours?
Shen: Who has room for two sofas? In reality, you know, I like my taste and I like my stuff and I like my space. I don't like having other people's detritus around. My son is about as much as I—he has managed to take over the house, but my son is my son.
Biagi: Your husband is just your husband. [Laughter.]
Biagi: Is that different?
Shen: I don't have a role model for this. My parents [Shu Chu Shen and Helena Wong Shen] did not have a wonderful marriage and were not getting along for a large part of my childhood. My father died of the aftereffects of cancer in 1975. He was only in his early sixties when he died, but he'd been ill for quite a long time. He had been ill from about the time I was late in college until he died. He was ill and he'd been ill off and on since I was about twelve. They did not have a good marriage. There was a lot of shouting in the house and a lot of going off with one of them to do things, but not with both of them to do things. They were just not getting along, so I don't have a good example of family life.
Particularly when I had my son, I suddenly saw myself and my ex-husband recreating that from my childhood, and I just couldn't take that. I would not do that. I think I would have done it if we'd been married without children. I think I would have done the same thing. I just said to myself, "I will not do this to my child."
Biagi: Just having your child in an atmosphere where parents are not getting along, is that what you're saying?
Shen: And we get along much better now. It is better for my child. There's still bickering, but there's not that real arguing or that real animosity. So obviously my parents' marriage was in some ways a seminal influence on me. And being an only child, also, probably. Maybe if my parents had had a happy marriage, I would still have this problem. I don't think so. I think I don't have a role model for what marriage should be like. I grew up as a very selfish, rather self-centered child, which has exacerbated the whole problem.
Biagi: Why did that happen?
Shen: I was really the apple of my parents' eye. They expected a lot of me. The unfortunate part was they expected a lot of me. I think the unspoken thing I absorbed was, "We won't love you if you're not perfect in the way we consider to be perfect." I think that's really harmful to a child. We as parents make different mistakes. We don't make the same mistakes. So I'm real careful about that with my kid, who will remember all other problems. You don't have to share things in your own house when you're an only child, at least beyond a certain point. It's sort of all for you. You're an only child, and you may not think the same way. Only children have a difficult time thinking that at a crucial moment the world does not revolve around them.
I was very active in the drama club when I was in high school. I loved it. I loved being on stage and acting. I thought it was great. It was fun. I really enjoyed it, and I loved plays. I still love to read plays. It's literature. I thought they were great. So there is something about being center stage that I don't mind. There's also something about being a publisher, therefore, that I
don't mind. But that's very separate from social climbing. Wanting to advance in the social milieu, I have no interest in. I'm good at giving speeches, I'm good at appearing at public appearances, so to speak, and that stood me in good stead in Honolulu, very much so, because I was on center stage there. But then I could go back to my own condo and just do whatever I wanted to do. Not only that, I was lucky enough in Honolulu to actually make some friends.
Biagi: So you're saying that that was a different situation and you could make friends there.
Shen: Yes. You see, that's the interesting thing. It's a very Asian place, Honolulu. A lot of people look like me. If anything, it's the whites who are at a disadvantage. They have "kill haole [white person]" days. Ha, ha, ha. I thought that was great. A haole friend of mine told me that in horror, and I'm thinking to myself, "Sounds great! Sounds great!" [Laughter.]
I think the people in Honolulu, in some way the few women I met, and they were women, were somehow more congenial to me, and I don't know. I can't tell you why.
Biagi: Were they Asian, most of your friends, or not?
Shen: One was Asian and she is the closest friend. One was not. One was actually an old classmate from Wellesley [College], whom I did not know well at Wellesley, who recontacted me when I moved there. We became good friends. I'd say the bosom companion is an Asian-American woman who is just about my age and who has one son and is married to a Caucasian man, who was from Connecticut.
Biagi: So you have a lot in common with her.
Biagi: Let's go back now. I want to catch up with your husbands.
Shen: We were divorced in 1975.
Biagi: I should get full names.
Shen: His name is Peter L.D. Hendley. And Bruce Cost is the father of my son.
Biagi: He's not the fellow that you lived with when you lived in San Francisco?
Shen: No. The fellow I lived with in San Francisco—this is something you can never do. This guy is now the managing editor of the San Francisco Chronicle, as a matter of fact, and we're still friends. I've managed to remain friends with all of them. Life is too short for real acrimony. That's how I look at it. Besides, I like these people.
He worked for me in the "Living/Briefing" zone section. He was much younger than I. It was his first real job out of college. His father was a longtime editor at the San Francisco Chronicle. His father and I worked together closely on various projects. His father at that time was in charge of setting up that new computer system and making it work for our newsroom. I being the first guinea pig, I worked very closely with him. His son had just graduated from UC Berkeley. He worked summers, but now actually came to work for the Chronicle. I had an opening. He was good, energetic, a good entry-level job, the third person in this three-person department, basically, editing and sending out stuff.
I was actually really lonely. I had been divorced now since '75. This was about three years later. I really hadn't been dating that much. I didn't have that many friends. This guy and I really hit it off.
Biagi: How much younger than you?
Shen: Eight years, but at the time it was a larger eight years because I was in my mid-thirties and he was in his mid-twenties. So it was a bigger gap. In fact, this was my early thirties. I left the Chronicle when I was in my mid-thirties. This was my early thirties. He was eight years younger. He was like twenty-two years old. He was just out of school, as I said. His friends were in college. I hated that. [Laughter.] Anyway, as it turned out, we had a fairly long-lived relationship. We didn't live together. He maintained a separate place, but we were together all the time. We sort of lived together, for all practical purposes, and we had a good time. We had a great time. But one of the reasons it worked, he was much younger, I basically introduced him to a lot of things, from sushi to good wine.
Biagi: Is he haole?
Shen: Yes. Blonde, native San Franciscan. When you grow up in Boston, you don't meet a lot of Asians. It was a revelation to me to come to the Bay Area, to see other Asians. Some of them were mildly attractive, and even more of a revelation to go to Hawaii and see Asians and find that a lot of them were quite appealing, that this was actually a world of people who looked like me that I could move in, and that there were enough contemporaries so that there was a choice. It wasn't just my mother's friend's son, whom I would have hated if he were blue. At the time I didn't meet Asian people. I lived in the suburbs. I lived in North Oakland in the Rockridge area. I commuted to work at a workplace that had almost no Asians in it. My social life didn't revolve around anything, much less an Asian community, which was too bad. I think it would have given me a lot of support.
Biagi: Were there any other Asian women or men at the Chronicle?
Shen: There are a fair number now. I think back then, no. There was a reporter, Lisa Chung, who started there while I was still there. Gary Fong was a photographer, and I think that was it. For most of the time I was at the Chronicle, I was the only Asian person at the Chronicle, period. This is in San Francisco. The city is forty-five percent Asian.
Biagi: Were you conscious of that fact? Not of the forty-five percent; of being the only Asian?
Shen: No, and I'll tell you why. I had grown up in Boston, where I was also the only Asian. Even though my parents' friends were all Asian, when I went to school I was basically the only Asian except for one Japanese-American. It was a very white suburb. My milieu was basically white, so I learned very early to basically move in white society. It was a deracinating process.
One of the reasons I live in San Francisco is for my son, so he will see faces around him that look like his. If we move to Marin, he wouldn't see that. Even if we move to the East Bay, he wouldn't see that. In San Francisco, especially where I live, which is on the lower slopes of Russian Hill, there's everything. There are not a lot of blacks. I will admit there are not a lot of blacks, but there are a lot of Asians and whites, so every other person he sees is Asian. So he'll never think he's odd.
Biagi: Did you think you were odd?
Shen: No, I didn't think I was odd, but what I didn't realize until later was a huge blinder I put on. I remember distinctly one day, as a teenager, walking past a row of windows and seeing my reflection. It surprised me that the reflection I saw was Asian. It just startled me for a split second. I obviously pretty much thought of myself as white in a lot of ways. Very, very disorienting. My parents were actually very good to me. They sent me—gave me the privilege, actually—to Taiwan for a summer to learn Chinese and just have a good time with a group of other Asian-Americans under the auspices of something, I can't remember what. A lot of these Asian-Americans were from California, obviously, and for the first time I looked at Asia, for one thing, the continent, the island of Taiwan. We looked at Hong Kong, too. I looked at all these people like me who were Chinese-American, and I looked at the continent of Asia, and it was a revelation. The Asian-Americans said the same thing. On the bus going into Tokyo, they said, "My God, everybody looks like us." And they were from California. I also got along better with that group of people than any group of people I've met before or since, and it was a group of young Asian-Americans. So in some ways I think I must have missed out, really, as a child. I mean really missed out.
Biagi: What did you miss out on, do you think?
Shen: Having true peers. I had wonderful friends in high school. My problem making friends was an adult problem. It wasn't a problem so much. At least I wasn't as aware of it. But I was aware of somewhat being an outsider. I wasn't popular when I was in school, and now I don't know whether it was because of my personality or because I was Chinese, because I was the only one. Now I really don't know. When I look back on it, I wish I could have separated the two. I wish I could have known. I still have some good friends from high school that I still communicate with. I do have three or four extremely good friends. They were my best friends then and they're in some ways my best friends now.
Biagi: Let's get back to this guy. You said it was a no-no. What did you mean by no-no?
Shen: It wasn't race, but you don't date people you work with, particularly in the same department. It's quite one thing to date someone. And that's someone who works for you. I mean, it was bad enough, somebody in your department who you see every day, but someone whose superior you are? It's horrible, just awful.
Biagi: But you didn't know that or you didn't think about it or what?
Shen: I knew that in theory, but it didn't seem a terrible thing to be doing at the time. Number one, I really did not abuse it. Number two, we only worked together for—I became other things within a year—and we were working in totally separate departments then. It really wasn't an issue on a paper that large. What can I say?
Biagi: What about the taboos, supposedly, between older women and younger men?
Shen: I thought about that, because his friends were all so much younger, but, to tell you the truth, I was lonely and this was somebody who wouldn't fight me. He wouldn't say, "No, I want to eat Korean food tonight." You know what I mean?
Biagi: If there were two sofas to move into the room—
Shen: He didn't have a sofa. He was too young to have a sofa. You see? He didn't have any furniture. He was coming out of a dorm, for God's sake. That's another advantage.
Biagi: You think it was because you were able to run things?
Shen: Yes, I really do. I think that's the reason we got along. He is also an extremely nice person. But the interesting thing is, he now has had a several years' relationship with another woman at the Chronicle who is my age. In fact, she's a year older than I am. This wasn't right away. He eventually went into another relationship. Of course, she's a very different person, but in some ways it is very similar. So there was something he liked about it, too.
Biagi: Was your marriage a victim of the newspaper business?
Shen: My original marriage, the first one? It's hard to tell. I think it was more a victim of immaturity and a lot of other things. The hours didn't help. At the time, for the latter part of my marriage, I would work in the afternoon and evening, and he, as a schoolteacher, of course, would be getting home. He worked in the mornings and early afternoons. Since I had split days off, sometimes two or three days would go by where we essentially wouldn't see each other. That didn't help, but that wasn't the dominant factor at all. The dominant factor is we just couldn't get along.
Biagi: Then you had a friendship in the relationship with the fellow that you worked with, and he was still there and you were at the paper, but in a different department.
Biagi: So you both had in common that you both worked for a newspaper.
Biagi: Do you think there was that commonality and sharing that helped or got in the way?
Shen: No, I think it got in the way. Another problem is, it's a problem with people your own age or people who are slightly younger or people who are establishing themselves, you're always in competition with each other. I felt that with my second husband, that I was in competition with him to establish myself to some extent, and I don't like that feeling. Actually, one of my friends in Honolulu, Sharon Weiner, is a public relations person whose husband started the firm that she now runs. One of the things she talks about is the relief of having no competition, because he's retired. He's sort of hors de combat, so to speak. Otherwise, there is that kind of friction and competition. So, no, being in the newspaper, no. Our discussions about newspapers were not the most pleasant discussions we had, let's put it that way. It was much better talking about other stuff.
Biagi: Where did you feel competition? To both achieve at the paper or to achieve more, make more money, get a higher position?
Shen: To be right. To be more enlightened. To think that our vision of a newspaper was the right one.
Biagi: So you were debating against some great standard of a perfect newspaper?
Biagi: Having been there for the years that you were in the "People" section, what made you move? What made you change?
Shen: USA Today came at me out of the blue with a job offer at a time that was personally a very difficult time in my life. I was actually totally willing to pull up stakes.
Biagi: What year now?
Shen: This was 1985. It's very clear in my mind, because I've gone over it a lot, because it marks a real turning point in my life. I had been going with this guy for a while and was, I think, feeling bored in the relationship. I had started to date another fellow who eventually, years later, became my second husband. I was feeling a great conflict there. I was actually trying to sort of juggle two balls and felt guilty about it. However, I had just upgraded myself, sold the first house I'd bought, luckily in '75, and moved to a larger house in Oakland Hills, which I liked very much, but it required a lot of work. I'd only owned it for a year and a half. I thought, "I'm going to own this house for ten years and sell it for a million dollars." So that part is not wonderful.
I had just come back from a wonderful European vacation with my sort of old boyfriend. We'd had a great time. We went to Paris for two weeks and to London for two weeks. We'd had a super time, thanks in part to my friend Pat Steger, who had a friend in London, who knew of a great apartment in Sloan Square that she rented to us for peanuts, so there we were living next to Lady Caroline Conran for peanuts. Let me tell you, there are some things that were really nice. Get to know Pat Steger and you'll live.
Biagi: All these activities!
Shen: Sluttish comfort. Right. I had a wonderful time. Anyway, went to Paris, had a wonderful time. Came back, and you know post-vacation letdown. It was such a good vacation. I came back to the Chronicle. I'd been at the Chronicle now for almost eleven years and was feeling totally bored at the Chronicle. I got back in early June. In late June, Joe Urschel, who at the time was managing editor for the "Life" section at USA Today, was in town for a business meeting, a convention, something, and called me and said he'd like to talk to me.
Biagi: How had he heard about you?
Shen: This is the journalism grapevine. One of the copy editors at the Chronicle whom I worked with for years had a friend whom she knew from working with somewhere else in the country, Ron Schoonmaker. He at the time, bouncing around many places, was an editor at USA Today. Gannett has a very aggressive minority hiring program, and I'm sure when Joe Urschel's opening came up as assistant managing editor in his section, he was told, "You look around and you look at women and you look at minorities. They have to be given a chance." This is reality: he probably went to every editor at USA Today, asking, "Do you know any feature editors who are minority?" Ron said, "You know, there's one in San Francisco I met once when I was visiting a friend of mine."
Biagi: Is that how he had met you?
Shen: Yes. He had been visiting socially, just vacationing in San Francisco, and he came in one day to work, to pick up this other woman for lunch. That's how he met me. Joe Urschel said, "I'm going to be in San Francisco. I'll give her a call."
Biagi: You hadn't had any deep discussion with him at this point or anything?
Shen: I didn't know who the man was.
Biagi: He'd seen you once?
Shen: No. Urschel.
Biagi: Oh, it was a friend. Schoonmaker.
Shen: Yes, Schoonmaker who had absented himself from the scene, having left my name. Joe Urschel then took this name with him to San Francisco and gave me a call. I had no idea who Joe Urschel was. So we had dinner. He said, "Know a good place for dinner?" So I took him to Campton Place. He picked up the check. That one dinner resulted in a job offer to me about two weeks later.
By that September, I was living in Washington, D.C. as an editor for USA Today. That's how fast it was. But let me tell you, I woke up every morning until I left, once I'd made the decision to go, and it was a hard decision, with a terrible feeling in the pit of my stomach, thinking, "God, I think this is a mistake." A lot of it is that I was leaving what had been home to me for a long time, what had essentially been my home for fifteen years, the Bay Area, for an unknown, a real true unknown. I had to sell my house. I was very attached to my house. I had put a lot of work into it. It was just totally new for me. I was really, really, really scared.
I also knew that the Chronicle at that point was a dead end for me. There wasn't anyplace to go. There weren't that many editors above me. The ones who were had either just gotten there or were not going to leave for the foreseeable future in any case. There wasn't anyplace to go. The Chronicle was also not known for aggressive promoting of women and minorities, or even progressive hiring of women and minorities. I felt if I were going to make a career move, I was thirty-six, it was the perfect time. I didn't have kids, I wasn't married. I had a mortgage, but the real estate market was still okay. I could sell my house at a profit, even after a year and a half.
So I did it, and it changed my life. I knew it had changed my life.
Biagi: So you went there to take a job as assistant managing editor.
Shen: Assistant managing editor. And, boy, did I not realize what a hornet's nest I was in at USA Today.* We can talk about that later. It was a big decision for me, but it's interesting that in the crucial points of my life, I actually have always been willing, at least up until now, now I have a son and it's a little different, to just uproot myself and move thousands of miles.
Biagi: And it comes out of boredom, it seems.
Shen: Yes, it comes out of boredom, just general dissatisfaction. There I made the decision out of boredom and career, because I knew Washington, D.C. would not be a more pleasant place to live than San Francisco. I did not make that decision on the basis of lifestyle. I knew the lifestyle.
* The existing assistant managing editors had a special, close relationship, and I was more of an outsider than I normally would have been. CS.
When I sat in front of that steak at Joe & Mo's, I realized just how far that quality of life had changed. [Laughter.]
Biagi: The culture shock was too much, was it?
Shen: Yes, but I knew that Washington, D.C., although exciting, would not be—it wasn't Maine. It didn't beckon with less traffic.
Biagi: What did it beckon with?
Shen: I thought it was a good career move.
Biagi: Did you see yourself staying there for a long time in Washington?
Shen: I didn't know. At the time I really didn't know. USA Today was at the cutting edge of a lot of things, it really, really was. It was doing some different and exciting things. My misgivings were I didn't want to leave home, and the other was that USA Today was not a highly respected paper by either me or anybody else I knew.
Biagi: Did you tell that to him when you went to dinner?
Shen: No. It was not like saying, "I'm going to work for the New York Times." That wasn't it. I must say I don't know what would have happened if Joe Urschel hadn't appeared on the scene. Certainly I could have written the L.A. Times. I could have written any of these papers and tried to get myself out of the Chronicle. The fact remains that I had so far not done that. Maybe I would have done it in another year, but I had not done it up till then.
Biagi: We'll stop for now.
© 1993, Washington Press Club Foundation.
Washington, DC. All Rights Reserved.