Because this session was videotaped,
material from other sessions may be repeated here.
[Begin Tape 1, Side A]
Biagi: Tell me what you're doing now at the Marin Independent Journal, what your job is. Explain it to me.
Shen: I'm associate publisher, which basically means the job is largely self-defined. I can do, within bounds, what I like, given the parameters of what's needed at the paper, which means I can dabble in advertising, circulation, production, news, marketing, personnel, you name it. In reality, because of what we've been trying to accomplish at the paper, it's been mostly probably news and circulation, and marketing recently, because we haven't got a marketing director right now. A new one is starting in mid-December. We've been without one for more than two months, I think, so to take up the slack, I've been doing much more marketing work with the one marketing assistant, who had just started when the previous marketing director left, so she was a little bit in limbo. I think she'd been here eleven weeks.
Biagi: What does a marketing director do? What's your role as marketing director here?
Shen: A marketing director for this newspaper—and it varies, depending on the newspaper—largely does presentations, including research and sort of the selling piece for advertising reps, does promotion ads to run in the paper for promoting our classifieds, classified offers, promoting news content and special sections, does various fliers and sheets about our various advertising programs, about special sections that we have coming. It's called collateral material, I've learned, producing advertising collateral material. The same thing for circulation, to a lesser extent, thinking up and doing the rack cards that go on our news racks, saying, "Coming in Sunday's IJ." For example, incest or a guide to Marin hiking trails. Doing sales presentations for our single-copy salespeople. Various support things to basically help us sell paper to advertisers and readers.
In past years, the marketing director, when we had more discretionary funds for it, also put together advertising programs, a cohesive one that included other media such as wall paint, you know, billboard, kiosks in shopping centers, radio ads, cable TV ads, bus backs, Golden Gate bus coupon covers, things like that.
Biagi: So out of necessity, you've been helping out there. Then what has your role been on the news side?
Shen: On the news side, we've been basically tuning and fine-tuning the news content we offer our readers, in particular our local news report, and that's been going on for the last year or so. It's partly a response to needs, but it's also in response to Gannett's News 2000 initiative, which I think you've probably heard about. It's been publicized in various media publications. It's really an effort to get back to the basics and do them well, which is be in touch with the community and what it needs and wants, and make our coverage more forward-looking, too, so that we're not telling readers just what happened, which is often all we do, but to make sure that we're telling them what is probably going to happen as a result, and keep on top of trends, which newspapers have certainly been behind magazines and other media in doing.
That's involved reorganizing the beats in the newsroom. It's involved doing a very hard thing, which is changing what some jobs are, using the same people.
Biagi: How do you see the Marin Independent Journal being in the year 2000?
Shen: Let's see. That's about seven years away. I think it will have made a decision as to whether to be an afternoon or morning paper in the long term. If the decision is made to go morning, it will be a significantly different paper. It will then have decided to go head to head with the San Francisco Chronicle, its current main competitor, anyway, but very few people read two morning papers. They get one morning paper. So we will be asking a lot of people to make a choice. Where previously they had read both the Chronicle and the IJ, a lot of them are going to be saying, "Well, I'm going to get either the Chronicle or the IJ." So you have to have a newspaper that is truly competitive, and that will be a challenge, because we are a 43,000-circulation newspaper and they are 560,000-circulation newspaper with the resources to match, both in circulation, marketing, promotion, as well as news. So that's going to be a challenge, finding a niche strong enough and a newspaper strong enough to compete in that kind of market. I think that will be the biggest decision that's made for the IJ in the next—I don't think it will be made next year, but I think that decision will be made within three to four years.
Biagi: When you talk about serving the readers in Marin, what does that mean, trying to fine-tune that in the last year? What does that mean to you?
Shen: Giving them the material they want and giving them the material they may need and don't necessarily want in a way to make them want it. We are not the kind of newspaper that basically shoves foreign news down their throat. Our niche is Marin news, whether that's the best places to go in the Bay Area and enjoy yourself or whether it's what's happening at Civic Center. Frankly, most people in Marin are interested in what's happening in Civic Center only insofar as it affects them. They're basically not interested otherwise. But a lot of coverage in the past in the IJ, and even still to this day, is too institutional. It tells you what happens at the meetings, but it really doesn't say, well, "How does that affect you, Mr. Joe Blow?" or Miss Josephina Blow in Mill Valley. Frankly, if it happens in Nevada, she's not going to care anyway.
I think it's tuning the coverage like that, and that means while they are writing, it means rethinking what you cover, because we have limited resources. We can't send everybody everywhere. And it means determining how much space certain stories really need and if most stories really need to be presented the way they are.
Biagi: Do 40,000-circulation newspapers have a future, do you think?
Shen: Oh, yes, I definitely think they do, but it all depends on where they are, and it depends on the economy, to some extent, and it depends on how their communities are growing or not growing. No, not all 40,000-circulation newspapers have a future, but a lot do.
Biagi: How do you feel that the different experiences professionally that you've had in your life have prepared you for the job you're doing now?
Shen: I think I have a firm grounding, and probably even firmer than I need, in the newsroom, which is the heart of a newspaper. The newsroom determines what the reader sees and determines why a reader, in effect, buys a newspaper. So unless you understand newsroom culture, how news is gathered, how it's presented, and why choices are made the way they are on a daily basis, I don't think you really understand newspapers. And they are really unique in that way.
They are very different from other forms of media, from TV or magazines or weeklies. Daily newspapers are different. That's worked to their detriment, as well as to their advantage. So in that way, I think I have the best grounding a publisher could have. I think in some ways that's more important than an advertising background.
Working joint operating agreements (JOA) has given me awfully good insight into the way the so-called service departments, such as circulation and production and marketing and advertising, although advertising isn't really a service department, have to mesh in order to make the product come together in an effective way.
Biagi: Why do you say that? What's important about that experience?
Shen: Because you've got a push/pull going. In the JOA, you have two partners, each of which have their separate editorial product, and a third independent party that runs circulation, advertising, production, etc. It's a triumvirate, and it's not always a smoothly operating triumvirate. In fact, most of them are not that smooth. There's always a certain amount of jockeying for position. There's always jockeying for power among the three, the publisher of each paper and the head of the newspaper agency.
You have to be very aware of what the possibilities are, of what your priorities are, of what you can and can't do. Since you're using the same presses to produce both papers, there's definitely a premium put on being efficient and getting the most you can out of your cycle, because you don't have the luxury of necessarily going back and saying, "This is so special, I'm going to produce an extra edition." No way! It's their press time.
Biagi: Who is your partner here?
Shen: Obviously this is not a JOA, so there is no such partner here, but the grounding it's given me in how to juggle things and how to make things work is valuable.
Biagi: So the JOA experience came in Honolulu?
Shen: Honolulu and, to some extent, in San Francisco, because San Francisco is a JOA. Although I was working solely in the newsroom there, you become very aware of what you can and you can't do and what's possible and what's not in a way that I think newsrooms in so-called normal papers are not aware, because they can afford to be much more isolated. Nobody can really afford to be isolated now, but they are much more so.
Biagi: In which of your experiences have you had personnel responsibilities?
Shen: You mean for the newspaper as a whole? I've had personnel responsibilities for departments at the Chronicle, basically running departments. I determined who would work there and who wouldn't, did the hiring and the firing for that department. At the Star-Bulletin, I had responsibility for hiring and firing the entire newsroom.
Biagi: And here do you have any of those responsibilities?
Shen: Here, no, I don't have a lot of responsibility. My input might be sought, but the final decision, I would hope, would be the department heads', with tacit agreement, obviously, with the publisher and associate publisher. If we had a violent disagreement about it, we would obviously have to come to some consensus, but the department heads here obviously run the departments.
Biagi: When you have had hiring responsibility, what have you looked for in people?
Shen: The ability to get along with people, knowledge, in general, of the job. But knowledge of the job, you can teach. I would much more look for simple native intelligence and common sense and the ability to get along with people, be flexible, and be adaptable. That's what I would look for.
Biagi: What does your ideal newsroom look like?
Shen: You mean hierarchy or—
Biagi: In terms of people who are in the newsroom, types of people and how it works, how people work together.
Shen: I would hope—and this is very difficult to achieve, both in the newspaper as a whole, but in the newsroom, too, I would hope to have a newsroom that doesn't have a lot of turf battles between, for example, "Lifestyle," or whatever you call them, "Lifestyle" and sports, city desk, all the main—because otherwise you get editors who are basically—a certain amount of creative tension and competition is a good thing, but when you get editors who just patently sort of don't get along, who will not lend reporters, who are back-stabbing, the entire newspaper really suffers, and it's not a very enjoyable place to work. You tend to get a lot of turnover, a lot of churn, and a lot of people not working at their capacity because they're basically unhappy.
Biagi: How important to you is diversity in the newsroom among the people who work there?
Shen: It's important because newspapers, as they're constituted now, are a mass media. Therefore, they need to appeal to a lot of different people. You can only appeal to a lot of different people if there are a lot of different viewpoints going into what content should be. Other than that, diversity is also fun. It's more fun to work in a place where there are lots of different viewpoints, even if there are flashpoints. After the first six months, it's extremely dull to work in a place where everybody is like you and thinks the same. It's also not very creative.
Biagi: In that way, did the Star-Bulletin newsroom differ from the newsroom here, would you say?
Shen: Actually, the newsroom of the Star-Bulletin was much more diverse than the newsroom here because of the nature of Hawaii and because of the nature of the newspaper. That was a metro newspaper. It was much larger. It did have a larger staff, and it had people who had been around more, simply because that's also Hawaii. We had a mix of people who had spent most of their lives, if not all, in Hawaii, and were quite entrenched, and then you had people who had been around to a lot of different places and come back to Hawaii. You had people who were trying out Hawaii, you know. You probably had more varying income levels because it was a metro paper and a larger staff. You obviously had more Asians just because of the makeup of Hawaii and the history of the newspaper.
Here you've got much more of a middle-class white newsroom. This is also much more of a middle-class white community than Honolulu is. I mean, Honolulu is a metro paper in a metro environment. This is a suburb of San Francisco that is limited geographically and in numbers. It's very small. Marin is about 96,000 households, 295,000 people. That's small by anybody's standards. And it's fairly homogeneous.
Biagi: Compared to Honolulu, which was—
Shen: Oahu itself—and most of our circulation was in Honolulu—was 800,000. The state of Hawaii is about a million. The island of Oahu has about 800,000 people. Of that, most of it is Honolulu. So you can see the difference in size alone.
Biagi: You said earlier that your time in Honolulu was about the happiest time you had professionally. Why?
Shen: I think it was the people. It was the nature of the job, to some extent, because I was basically running my own ship, which I enjoyed immensely, and because there were a lot of things to do with that newspaper when I first started, so I wasn't taking over something that was sailing along merrily and on a good course. Not that it was on a collision course, but there were things that needed to be done in terms of personnel, coverage, emphases, and definitely presentation and looks.
So I enjoyed the challenges of doing that, and I immensely enjoyed, more than I thought I would, living in Hawaii, and I enjoyed the people. I still have very, very good friends there that I miss. I enjoyed the Asianness of it, too. I never had the luxury before of looking around and finding that most of the people looked like me. And it really is different. There is an Asian consciousness about Hawaii that makes it very different from the mainland, and a lack of Eurocentrism that you don't realize until you basically leave the mainland. I like it. Not to say that there weren't mornings when I would wake up and say, "Another sunny day. There is nothing to do here. I am going to go nuts. If I go to Ala Moana Center one more time—" You know, there were days like that, too.
Biagi: "Shoot. The beach again."
Shen: Yes. I don't even like the beach! I spent most of my time avoiding the beach. I don't like sand and I don't like relentless sun and I don't like palm trees. I actually prefer a kind of deciduous northern temperate climate that has pine trees in it. Actually, there is that climate in Hawaii. If you go two or three thousand feet, you will get that climate, but Honolulu is not at two or three thousand feet.
Biagi: Let's go back to the East Coast, which is where you started, and growing up in a community which you said was not particularly Asian. You weren't surrounded by Asians there, by contrast. Describe a little bit about where you grew up and your family there.
Shen: It was basically a very nuclear family. I really had no extended family. It was basically my mother, my father, and myself when I was growing up. I did have a half-brother, but he didn't come to this country until I was an adult and living on the West Coast. We had Asian friends who were our best friends, Chinese friends specifically, and then we had professionals, sort of white friends for whom the good china was brought out and it was a more fancy, formal thing.
The suburbs I grew up in were Cambridge and then Belmont, Massachusetts, certainly especially Belmont, where I moved when I was twelve, a white community. There was one other Asian, a young girl who was there for a while. It's a very white-collar community that's largely composed of physicians, Harvard [University] professors, other people like that. It's about four miles square. It's very, very small. It's a very pleasant, very pretty community, and I sort of enjoyed it, although I never felt totally at home there. I didn't have a large group of friends there. I had a couple of friends, all of them white. Actually, I'm still in touch with two or three of them.
They're still my friends to this day, although we don't see that much of each other. I didn't have any Asian friends, really, because they weren't there. They weren't around. I had some family friends, but they weren't the same age as I was.
Biagi: You said that your family worked very hard to make you Chinese.
Shen: Yes. They sent me to Chinese lessons as a child, on Saturdays, so that was guaranteed to mortify me. We ate Chinese food, which was lucky for me, actually, although my favorite meal was always roast beef, mashed potatoes, peas, and canned creamed corn, you know, the kind with a lot of cornstarch in it. And hot dogs. So what can you do?
Biagi: But every day would be Chinese food at home?
Shen: Yes, because that's basically what my mother cooked. The treat would be she did cook Thanksgiving—actually, she made excellent turkey. She also made a Chinese pork roast to go with it. Most people had the Chinese pork roast because she did a better job on it. It was very eclectic. It was kind of deracinating, because I was surrounded mostly by white people wherever I looked. For example, my son here has a Japanese-American pediatrician and a Chinese-American dentist. I, of course, every professional I went to, every service person I went to, unless I happened to be in Chinatown doing errands, was basically white. White and Jewish, actually. [Laughter.] Mostly that. Or Lebanese. A lot of Armenian and Lebanese population in the Boston suburbs, a lot of Irish, obviously. Just not a lot of Asians of any ilk. It's very, very different.
I think when I first came to San Francisco as a tourist in my teens, I was really struck by the number of Asian faces and the fact that they were in all walks of life. I was used to Asian professionals simply because those were my parents' friends, mostly. [Tape interruption.]
—deals with on a regular basis, whereas when I was growing up, basically the people I dealt with, whether they were my doctor, my teachers, the people at the candy store, whatever, were all basically white, and they were basically white Europeans.
Biagi: Describe your mother for me.
Shen: Oh, my mom. My mom is—well, she's a very opinionated woman who's accomplished a lot. She basically emigrated for professional reasons from the Far East, from southern China, went to Tulane University, got her medical degree, and she's a physician. Since she's in her early eighties now, this was a long time ago. That would be the early 1900s. Pretty rare, and pretty rare to do it out of old China. She kind of straddles old China and modern China. Her father was a fairly wealthy man and had concubines. She missed having her feet bound only because her mother said, "This is ridiculous." Had she had a more old-fashioned mother or been born probably even ten years earlier, she probably would have had her feet bound, at least for part of her childhood. So I mean, she really straddles a part of history.
Anyway, so a lot of her postgraduate education was spent in this country, and she was fairly old, especially for that time, when she had me. She did not have me till she was forty. While that's very common now—I was forty when I had my child, for example—it was very uncommon then. But she did, and she had one child, and that was me.
She's retired now. She lives in the Boston area still, in the suburbs. She's still fairly independent, thank goodness, although recently, actually, I've been doing some research on retirement homes in this area and other areas for her. It's just a mess, let me tell you. It's worse
than trying to pick a pre-school. It's easier to get consumer information on schools than it is on retirement homes. There are a lot more retirement homes, and the options, what they offer, varies a lot more.
Biagi: So for the first time in a long time, the possibility is that she will be living near you.
Shen: Yes. I think she'd like that, but the problem is she does have friends she'd miss. She would lose her mobility, because she wouldn't be able to drive. She'd never pass a driver's test out here. In fact, in two years when she has to renew her Massachusetts license, she said she's not going to renew it, which I think is a good thing. So actually, that wouldn't be possible in Massachusetts either, in a couple of years. Mostly I think it would be nice for her to be closer to her only grandchild.
Biagi: Tell me about Benjamin.
Shen: He's about three years, seven months now. He's a joy. He's a really cute kid. He's very verbal, he's very active, very high energy. He's funny. He has a real sense of humor. It's a real revelation to me.
Shen: Well, I really didn't know what to make of being a parent. I didn't have any siblings, and I don't really like children, as I told you before. I don't like other people's children, and I don't like children sort of as a class, in general. But I do like my own child, obviously. Lucky thing, too. So each stage he goes through, it's just a totally new thing for me and a total surprise in some ways.
Biagi: He was born in Honolulu, wasn't he?
Shen: Yes, he was. I spent my pregnancy in Honolulu, and he spent the first two months of his life in Honolulu.
Biagi: How did you work that with being a publisher at the Star-Bulletin at the same time you were pregnant?
Shen: I worked, actually, until two weeks before he was born, and although I had severe morning sickness—although, actually, you can get together and talk with people, and I guess I don't know what's severe in morning sickness. Some people were just throwing up twenty-four hours a day, apparently. It's like war stories. But I did not feel well at all for the first four or five months, although I didn't really have any physical problems. The last few months, I felt fine, was very mobile. I'd watched my diet, my health, and exercised for fifteen years prior to getting pregnant, not with the intention of getting pregnant, just to keep myself in shape, so I was in excellent health. I still am—knock on wood.
Biagi: You're a runner, aren't you?
Shen: Yes. I continued to walk until very late in the pregnancy, so I felt great. I could have worked until the minute he was born and it wouldn't have been any problem.
Biagi: Did having a child change your perspective in any way?
Shen: Oh, yes, it changed my perspective entirely. There's nothing it didn't change—the way I comb my hair, the way I keep my house, the way I drive my car, the way I look at the world, my priorities. Not one thing it didn't change. Not one thing.
Biagi: For instance?
Shen: For example, I spend time on different things. I'm not as fussy, either, about the household. I had mostly white furniture and white walls. I still do, although it's kind of gray now, I guess. I'm just not as fussy about the way the house generally looks. I have a much greater tolerance for mess. I really don't care about my own clothing anymore or spend any time shopping for it. It's lucky I built up a reserve. I basically spend time with my son, I spend time at work, and I spend very little time socializing or going out, in the sense of going out to movies or going out to dinner or stuff like that.
Biagi: Let's go back a bit to your family. I'd like you to describe your father.
Shen: My parents were both physicians. In fact, they were both hematologists. My father was slightly younger than my mother.
Biagi: Also an immigrant?
Shen: Yes. He also did a lot of his postgraduate education in the United States. He worked very long hours. He was a research physician. He didn't have a private practice. I remember him leaving the house around seven or 7:30 and coming back around, I don't know, six, maybe, something like that, so he worked long hours. But on the other hand, I didn't feel deprived of his presence, probably because I didn't have to share his attention with anybody once he was home.
I went through periods in my life sort of alternately when I was much closer to my mother than I was to my father. He died at the age of sixty-five. He died in the mid-seventies. So I really, as an adult, never really knew him. As an adult myself, I really didn't know my father. I was in my mid-twenties when he died. And I'm sorry about that.
Biagi: What do you feel their expectations were for you?
Shen: Very high, at least academically. I was expected to get straight As, and I was expected to do really, really, really, really well. It was a very Chinese Confucian thing, I suppose, that the way to success was education. The way to success was to do very, very well in school, particularly for people who were in the sciences, which they were.
Biagi: You said that that wasn't a particularly good area for you.
Shen: No, except for biology, which I actually enjoyed. But to some extent it was also a rebellion. Since they wanted me to do that, the chances that I would were probably slimmer. Now, as I said, I kind of regret it, because the more useful things in life tend to be economics and political science and math.
Biagi: Yet your major was—
Shen: English, of course. Useless.
Biagi: And continued to be in your master's study, wasn't it?
Shen: Yes, it was.
Biagi: So you were on the impractical side for quite a while.
Shen: You could afford to be in the sixties. I don't know this firsthand, but I have a feeling now that college students are much more goal-driven now simply because the economy is so awful.
Biagi: Do you think of yourself as a child of the sixties?
Shen: In some ways, yes. In some ways, no.
Biagi: In what ways?
Shen: I'm a child of the sixties, although I'm by no means a real rebel and am more conservative. That's one way the child has changed me. I don't have a lot of respect necessarily on a gut level for organized authority. That doesn't mean I jaywalk continually or I'm throwing rocks into windows. It means that it's hard for me to work in a corporate environment. It's very hard for me to work for a corporation. Gannett certainly is the media corporation [unclear], you know, the mother of all media corporations. I find myself impatient with that kind of hierarchical authoritarian way things come down. I would probably be much more comfortable culturally in a Silicon Valley firm that I assume is more collegial, although extremely sexist, unfortunately. I think that's being a child of the sixties.
On the other hand, I was very apolitical as a college student and even as a young adult. I was not involved in political campaigns. I wasn't even involved in the Vietnam War protests, and I was in college in '68 and '69.
Biagi: Were you at any time aware of any of the women's lawsuits that were filed at newspaper companies?
Shen: No, I was not. In fact, I was not aware of them until very late in my career. I was not really aware of them until Anna Quindlen gave a talk either to ANPA or AAJA in New York City several years ago, where she talked about the class of '77, which was a nickname for women at the New York Times who were the beneficiaries of a class-action suit that had been filed. No, I was totally unaware of that. I was totally unaware of journalism history, really. I wasn't aware of any of that.
Biagi: You've talked about the reasons you felt that at different points in your career Gannett hired you for particular jobs. I'd like you to talk to me about that. The Honolulu job particularly comes to mind, when you had that interview.
Shen: I remember that, because I'd been at USA Today for only six months and had no history with Gannett. They had hired me from the San Francisco Chronicle and had moved me from San Francisco to Washington, D.C. So I certainly had no roots or ties. When the subject came up, I had a talk with John Quinn, who at the time was editorial director for all of Gannett. That wasn't his title, but that's, in fact, what he was. I had dinner with him. He called me back when I was on vacation in Santa Fe, to have this dinner. I had flown all day. He said, "What about this Honolulu job?" We talked a little bit, and I asked him, "Why me?" since I'd been at USA Today for only six months and people barely knew me. He gave me some patter, you know, which was BS. I said, "Well, my take on it is that you want me because I'm a woman, because you want an Asian, and the only other qualified Asian, semi-qualified Asian, is a copy editor, and those are
the basic reasons." He just sort of smiled. I knew that was the reason. But I also knew it was a great chance.
When John Quinn was there, and Al Neuharth, to some extent, Gannett really took a lot of flyers for various reasons, some not very altruistic. Nevertheless, they did take flyers, and they took a flyer on me, and it was to my great advantage.
Biagi: How do you feel your management style was any different from the person that you succeeded at the Honolulu Star-Bulletin?
Shen: That was a very anomalous situation. The person I succeeded had been a longtime Gannett staffer, Phil Gialanella, and he had been originally a circulation director. In fact, he was the first publisher of USA Today, dealing mostly with circulation issues. He had a long history with Gannett. He made a lot of enemies and a lot of friends in the company and still had them. He, all of a sudden, just up and left and went to the other newspaper in the JOA, which was a very unusual thing to do, to say the least. He never had very good people management skills. I mean, most people really disliked him personally, although he had, certainly, friends, but most "newsies," I think, really disliked him.
I can say this because it's widely quoted in the book, The Making of USA Today*. There's a passage where they talk about how they recruited Cathie Black to come to USA Today, and they sent Vince Spezzano and Phil Gialanella to basically first approach her, and they were old longtime Gannett employees. The old-timers at Gannett, although some are very talented, very smart, and know the newspaper business as well as anybody, are not real classy. Vince Spezzano actually, however, can be very nice, is very nice. He's also very short. Phil Gialanella is sort of Phil. Cathie Black's take on it was, "They sent a grease ball and a midget to interview me," which I think was a very good description of both of those, certainly of Phil Gialanella. Phil Gialanella was the grease ball. He is a very shy man who is not very socially adept. He's a very smart man, and he loves Honolulu. He will not move from Honolulu. That's the reason he left USA Today.
Biagi: So what was the relationship then? Here you've taken the job that he's just left, and he's working in a newspaper that's at least in the JOA with you.
Shen: We've hardly met each other, actually. We've dealt with each other very little. We've sort of dealt with each other through the agency head, and we did not really meet socially. I had a very different set of friends, thank God, although we did have some mutual friends.
Biagi: How do you feel, then, that your management style was different?
Shen: Mine was collegial; his was totally dictatorial. There are horror stories about what Phil used to do. He used to pit department heads one against the other.
Biagi: But you, on the other hand, were trying to do what?
Shen: I was trying to build a team that worked well, and I was really trying to put out a quality news product.
Biagi: How did the news product, do you think, change because you were there?
* Peter Prichard, The Making of McPaper: The Inside Story of USA Today, 1987.
Shen: It wasn't just because of me; it was because of the people I hired. I got a chance to hire very shortly after becoming an executive editor and managing editor. There was less kowtowing to the powers-that-be, slightly more honest reporting, a little bit of higher standards in writing and editing, a much better-looking paper, one that was much more accessible to readers and easier to use, a paper that was livelier.
Biagi: How do you go about making those changes if you're the publisher?
Shen: Through the people you hire, through the tone you set. Publishers generally work fairly closely with their editors. In this case, I was by myself without an editor and a managing editor, in effect, for the first six months. I had an acting managing editor. He and I very much worked as a team to redesign the paper and to set new priorities and change staff assignments.
Biagi: Was it difficult to cover Honolulu honestly?
Shen: It is a very inbred place, does things its own way, has power groups that are still in power, does not understand the true meaning of investigative journalism, and everybody's connected to one another. It runs on relationships. Because of the Japanese cultural influence and because of Hawaii being basically an island, you don't ruffle feathers at all, because you always need those people down the line, and you can't get away from them. They are there.
Biagi: Did you ruffle some feathers, do you think?
Shen: Not personally. The paper did. I don't think I personally ruffled any feathers. That was actually one of my roles, if anything, to unruffle feathers. [Laughter.]
We did a piece on Kamehameha schools. Kamehameha schools are schools financed by the proceeds from Bishop estate, which is probably the most powerful entity in the state of Hawaii. It owns most of the land in the state of Hawaii, and you can imagine what that's worth. It is also in the process of selling off some of that land, and at Hawaii prices, even in this recession, it's an enormous amount of money. The five trustees, for example, whose remuneration is based on a percentage of those sales, now receive almost a million dollars a year. These are trustees of a foundation, and they're political appointees.
Kamehameha schools is the one beneficiary of this vast trust whose endowment exceeds Yale University's. What the Hawaiian children get for this money is a subject of great dispute. They do get education, but a lot of people think the quality of eduction of Kamehameha schools is far below what it should be in terms of truly preparing these kids for the world. They get a lot of Hawaiian music and dance, which is great, but they are not getting, in many people's view, a strict enough academic environment.
Biagi: You should probably explain who goes to Kamehameha schools.
Shen: Only children that are part Hawaiian. So it's a benefit for literally the children of Hawaii. And not only that, they don't take all the children. They have one main campus in Honolulu, and they turn away people for lack of space. So the question is, with all this money, why can't they take more kids, for example?
Anyway, we did a series of articles taking a hard look at Kamehameha schools and where the money comes from, and let me tell you, our reporters were threatened. They said, "Your house is on Bishop estate land. You're going to run into trouble." I mean, it was really something.
Biagi: What role does a publisher have in making sure that a series like that goes forward?
Shen: You say, "Yes!" You say, "Let's do it," and you take the heat, because they call the publisher, let me tell you. They don't call the editor. Well, some of them call the editor. Mostly they call the publisher, particularly the powers-that-be. [Tape interruption.]
Actually, speaking of publishers and editors, there's a great story about Katherine Graham and Ben Bradlee, where at one point she had gotten a lot of pressure from her friends in high places not to publish. I think it had to do with the Pentagon Papers at the time. There's a story about her pleading with him not to run the stuff, and he ran it. So that is a situation you would not find in many papers, and I really admire the independence the editorial department of the Washington Post is given.
Biagi: As opposed to—
Shen: As opposed to many papers where if a publisher really says, "This isn't going to go," it doesn't go.
Biagi: Let's go back to managing an organization. Do you really feel that an individual can make a difference in the corporate environment?
Shen: Well, they can certainly make a difference in the arena in which they work. I don't know if they make a difference necessarily in the entire corporate environment. I can make a difference at the Independent Journal, the IJ, as it's called, and I've been able to make a difference wherever I have worked, at the Chronicle, largely because also I'm dealing with stuff that appears in the paper, so in a very direct way, yes, I can make a difference. I can decide if we cover a story or not. But I don't think I make any difference in the corporation—that is, Gannett Co., Inc. Not particularly, unless it would be, for example, contributing to the bottom line, or, in this particular case, probably putting an Asian face among a sea of white faces, although Gannett's not as bad as a lot of other media.
Biagi: Why is that important, do you think, that that Asian face be there?
Shen: Because I just think it's psychologically harmful to onlookers and internally to a company just to have white people working there. It doesn't reflect the country. It doesn't reflect anything.
[End Tape 1, Side A; Begin Tape 1, Side B]
Shen: —fair-mindedness, in a company that employs so many thousands of people. For example, in the newspaper division alone, I think there are six thousand people at Gannett, for example. That's a lot of people.
Biagi: How many Asians?
Shen: I don't know, because I don't know the broadcast figures at all. Probably be lucky if we have a hundred in the newspaper division. Actually, if I go by how many attended a meeting,
when we still had money to send people places, it's probably thirty in the newspaper division. Broadcast, I don't know.
Biagi: Do you remember a time when you being there actually made a difference in the arena where you were working?
Shen: You mean the work I did?
Biagi: Where the work you did and just being there, having your point of view there, really made a difference.
Shen: I remember when I worked at Harcourt Brace Publishing, which was one of my first jobs, and when I came back briefly before going on and becoming a copy editor at the Chronicle, I made filmstrips. I wrote them. These were simple educational filmstrips for elementary school. I decided to do a filmstrip about how a child learns to play tennis. It was about learning behavior. I scripted it for a young Asian girl, and that's how it was filmed. My script, you know. I'm the one who directed it. So that young Asian girl became a filmstrip that was basically mass produced and mass distributed for elementary schools.
Biagi: That is, the illustrations were of a young Asian girl?
Shen: Yes. The example of the learning behavior was learning tennis, and the child, a cast of one, the only child in this that's showing this example of learning behavior, was a young Asian girl.
Biagi: Have there been times since then when your perspective was useful, do yo think, as an Asian?
Shen: Yes, any kind of newsroom discussion tends to be useful, certainly. As a woman, also, because newsrooms have tended, in the managerial ranks, to be male. Not so much in the reporter/copy editor staff. Yes, news decisions, there's almost no way your particular viewpoint cannot add something.
Biagi: Have there been discussions or circumstances specifically that you can remember where it made a difference?
Shen: It's not something I actually like to do, because there are so many day-to-day news coverage decisions. I know I tend to comment or send notes or mark up papers where minorities, especially Asians, are stereotyped, missing, you know, or portrayed in a mainstream way. I do comment on that, and I do notice it, and I do send those papers down.
Biagi: Here, too?
Shen: Yes, here. Oh, absolutely. Everywhere I've been.
Biagi: Has the idea that you're going to do that, do you think, changed the way people report on issues?
Shen: Probably. Yes, probably. There is probably a heightened awareness, but I don't attribute that just to myself. Gannett has also made that a newsroom goal for all its newsrooms.
Biagi: You said that you think that the most fun you could have in a newspaper is in a newsroom. Do you still think that's true, and why do you think it's true?
Shen: I think it's the most fun. The advertising director would think the advertising department is the most fun. The circulation director would think circulation is the most fun, so to speak. But I like words. I like being involved in what people are reading or looking at, or whatever. My first jobs were in words, but not in newspapers, for example. I like being involved in presentation, in the creative part of what's produced.
Biagi: You've been involved in several redesigns, haven't you, of some papers?
Biagi: What do you think is important? How are you trying to change a paper?
Shen: I think newspapers are, by their nature, somewhat difficult to use. Anything you can do to make them easier to use, whether it's a more predictable format without being boring, whether it's a use of graphics which can be more effective than words, whatever, basically I think you need to communicate information quickly and well. I think a lot of newspapers have not done a good job in doing that. So in a redesign, that's what I'm looking for—how better to communicate information quickly and well.
Biagi: When you achieve that—
Shen: You never really achieve it. It's always ongoing.
Biagi: When you start out with a product that you don't like and turn it into one that you really like, can you remember a time?
Shen: The very first step—and I've actually said this to people—you sit at your desk initially by yourself and you go through the paper or several weeks' worth of papers. Any page you don't stop at, there is something wrong with that page. There's something wrong with it; it just doesn't read. You just read it as a consumer. You can get a really good idea from doing that as to what needs to be done.
Then basically you would get together with your editor, or editors, whoever you choose, and your graphic designer or artist or whoever fills that function at your paper, and you redesign the paper with those different viewpoints. You can also do a task force that includes representative employees from different departments and different levels of the newsroom to come up with recommendations and be part of that process. There are a lot of different ways to do it.
Biagi: What kind of obstacles do you face in redesigning a paper?
Shen: Some of them are logistical. Some of them are what are you capable of producing on deadline, and that has to do with resources, what your press equipment looks like. We have great presses. If we decide to do great color, we can do great color. The Chronicle and Examiner cannot do great color because they don't have the technological capacity to do it. On the other hand, they have more artists and graphics that would be effective in black and white or color. So a lot of it has to do with logistics.
Very little of it, actually, has to do with newsroom resistance. Usually in this day and age, people are pretty well—some of it has to do with reporters, for instance. Many reporters—and journalism schools do not help us out here, I must say—have one concept of a story, largely because they're writing it: a story is a written piece, usually the longer the better. And that's just not true. They see themselves as writers and reporters. They do not see themselves as communicators of information, so they never stop to think, without a lot of prodding, as to how best to present this material. If you don't think of it at the beginning, it doesn't get done. Then you get newspapers that are decorated. You have a lot of text—not even that much text—that are basically decorated with pictures and charts, and there is no integration between the two.
Biagi: What role do editors play in that?
Shen: They basically have to make sure that the plotting process becomes one in which how a story is best communicated comes in at the very beginning of the discussion between, let's say, the assignment editor and the reporter, rather than at the very end with the finished product sitting there and the graphics persons saying, "How can we make this from looking like thirty inches of gray type?" There's a world of difference between those two approaches.
Biagi: In the management side of a newspaper, have there been situations where there have been ethical controversies or ethical issues that you've faced that you've had to make a decision on covering a story?
Shen: Yes, but not so much covering a story. Actually, as a publisher it's less. It's pretty clear-cut whether or not to cover a story. More to do really with community response. For example, we recently started running—and many newspapers have been running them for years—lists of real estate transactions with names and addresses. "House on 50 Bluebird Way sold to M. Smith for $515,000 during the month of March." Pretty innocuous unless it's your house. Well, of course, readers scream—that's not an ethical decision. One reader called up and said, "I am here in Marin, and I have an abusive husband who lives in another state. He knows the state I live in. I am worried that if at some point if he wants to badly enough, he will find out where I live, and this is one way he can do it." My feeling is that he can go to the public records department of Marin County to find out the same information if he wants to that badly, and if he's going to want to that badly, he will. That's a dilemma. Or D.A.s [District Attorneys] will call up with the same thing, saying, "I don't particularly want people I've prosecuted to know where I live." That kind of thing.
Invasion of privacy issues are much more prevalent now, partly because I think people are more sensitive to it, and that's a good thing. For example, we recently ran an accident picture, and a lot of newspapers will not run accident pictures. Frankly, at the [Honolulu] Star-Bulletin, our managing editor, said, "Unless there is some overriding reason to do so, we will not as a matter of course run pictures of accident scenes. Period." I thought that was actually a pretty good rule, but every newspaper, for their own reasons, has different audiences, different sensibilities. We ran a picture of a local accident where the woman was killed, and we ran a picture of the body bag lying on the highway, a foot sticking out. We got a lot of letters about that. We don't get a lot of letters if we run pictures of starving Somali children, which I think is actually more horrendous.
People don't like stories or pictures that show their neighbors and themselves in vulnerable positions. My gut level reaction to most of that, although I would never say this, is, "So what?" If we publish all the salaries of public servants, yours is going to be among them, and you want to know everybody else's.
Actually, the Aspen Times—I was vacationing there once—it's a tabloid, a weekly that I'm very fond of. Maybe a daily; I can't remember. It has a wonderful motto in its masthead. It's, "If you don't want it printed, don't let it happen." I think that's great.
Biagi: [Laughter.] Is it basically your attitude?
Shen: To some extent, I must say it really is. I mean, for all the lip service that's given to invasion of privacy—and I recently attended a very good one where we heard from victims at the American Press Institute in Reston, Virginia, an invitation-only seminar—to some extent that remains. When you start to get into judgments—and I know inevitably you do—where do you stop? Where do you draw the line? If you don't show grieving parents, do you show people grieving over a house or a pet? Where does it stop?
I think, frankly, there are no rules. People just have to judge each case on its own merits, and, frankly, they're all newsworthy. If they weren't newsworthy, we wouldn't be arguing about them in the first place. If people really want to see this stuff. There are things where I draw the line, where other people might not.
Biagi: Have there been tough calls or a specific tough call you can remember?
Shen: No, I actually can't.
Biagi: But if there are a set of circumstances, do you think you would come down most often on the side of publishing as opposed to holding the story or the picture?
Shen: Probably. Probably more often than not.
Biagi: Your background has not been a journalism background; it's been an English background. Do you think that there's any difference between your perspective as somebody who is trained in an English literature program as opposed to somebody who's trained in a journalism program?
Shen: Well, I tell you. I'm a lot fussier about the English language and appalled by the lack of skills in a lot of copy editors. Grammar in newspapers is awful! It's really awful. I'm not talking headlines, where there's a lot of license or in cutlines; I'm talking about body of the text. All you see are split infinitives and semi-colons used improperly and dangling participles. I mean, that's all you see. These are not quotes, either. So I'm actually rather appalled by that. I'm also sometimes appalled by how badly a story can be organized or how poorly a story can be told. How poorly a story can be told, actually, a journalism person would also be appalled by, but I think the mangling of the language probably bothers me more. Also I started out as a copy editor, so it sort of fits in. I'm appalled by misspellings, by lack of awareness of what I consider fairly common terms in at least Western civilization.
Biagi: How does the staff find out that you're appalled by this?
Shen: I mark it up and I send it down. Sometimes I do, sometimes I don't. It sort of depends. I pick my shots.
Biagi: [Laughter.] What's your best shot? Do you remember one?
Shen: No, I really don't.
Biagi: It's kind of an ongoing thing? You do it all the time?
Shen: It's ongoing.
Biagi: In your career, have you had any mentors, any people that you feel have really helped you along the most?
Shen: I've had people who have helped me along in terms of encouragement. I haven't had a lot of role models, frankly, because there aren't any. I mean, people look at me as a role model, so there are not a lot of Asian women in newspaper management or media management, for that matter.
John Quinn, whom I mentioned earlier, encouraged a lot of people, and I was one of them. Ron Martin, who was editor of USA Today for the years I was there, he's now editor of the Atlanta Journal and Constitution, was, and is, a wonderful man who encouraged a lot of people, and I was one of them. Those are about the two. Bill German, who was executive editor of the San Francisco Chronicle, at certain points was very encouraging, although probably in some ways less so than John Quinn and Ron Martin. I would say just in terms of encouragement, not necessarily modeling my work style on what they were doing. Yes, it was John Quinn and Ron Martin.
Biagi: Have you been a mentor to anybody else that you know of? Have there been people who have told you that you were important in their careers?
Shen: No, I don't think so. I have, actually, been a formal mentor to, for example, a young Asian reporter who is at the Vallejo Times Herald, a small Donrey paper across the Bay. I have people who call me on a regular basis, one of whom, luckily, has just gotten a job at the Orange County Register. She was a copy editor at the Oakland Trib and before that she was in Seattle. She calls me regularly, and I can only think that's because—I mean, I'm not personally all that friendly with her. She comes for lunch once in a while. She'll call up and say, "Can we have lunch?" So I assume that's true.
At the Asian-American Journalists Association conventions that I've attended, people do come up and we talk about careers and things like that. [Tape interruption..]
Biagi: You are a member of some organizations, and one of them is the Asian-American Journalists Association. Why do you think that affiliation is important for you?
Shen: Because it's a one-of-a-kind thing. It's very specific. It's what I am. It speaks to what I am more than a lot of organizations, frankly. Also it's a very new organization; it's only a few years old. It's been very successful, and it's a relatively small organization.
There was a count done of Asian-American journalists in the late eighties. This included everybody, and it didn't differentiate among broadcast, print, and whatever. It came out with a count of between seven hundred and eight hundred in the country, in the U.S. That's not very many.
Biagi: So is it satisfying, do you think? It's a small group. Do you like that about it?
Shen: No. I'd be thrilled if it were a huge group, but it means that you probably can know a lot more members than you would in a larger organization. You're not as anonymous. There's a more personal feel to the whole thing.
Biagi: Is that how you met the person in Vallejo that you're working with in Vallejo?
Shen: Yes, they matched me up with her.
Biagi: As a formal mentor?
Shen: Yes. They started a mentor program which, actually, has since fallen into a kind of dormancy, and they're trying to revive it. But I said I'd be glad to be a mentor to somebody, so they matched us up.
Biagi: There are other associations around here that you've been involved with. One is the Forum.
Shen: One is the International Women's Forum, which I first joined in Hawaii, or was asked to join in Hawaii, and then when I came here, I decided it was still a fairly worthy organization. Although I must say I have really not participated in almost any of their events except a few receptions for people or things that I was remotely interested in. I might attend two or three receptions a year. That's about it. I have met some interesting people, but they haven't become my good friends. It's mostly professional women at a fairly high level. I could be more active, but I, frankly, don't have the time. I don't have the time to go for their weekend annual retreat, for example. So it's something I think is worthwhile, but I'm not sure exactly why. That's really about it. United Way of the Bay Area, I'm a board member, but that is professional as much as personal. I don't know how long I'm going to continue to do that, frankly. It takes a lot of time, and I'm, frankly, not sure how much good it really does me [unclear] organization.
Biagi: While we're talking about professionalism and time, is it possible, in your view, for a woman to be a management professional, married, and have a child, easily?
Shen: No. No. Not at all.
Biagi: What makes it difficult?
Shen: Time. It's perfectly possible in a marriage. It's the child or the children that adds the straw that breaks the camel's back, because in most families that I know, no matter what the age of the participants, the woman is still the one who does the lion's share of arranging and child care and shopping for food or clothing for the child, who takes the time when the child is sick. And she is the one who is pregnant for nine months, besides, and if breast-feeding is done, is the one who breast-feeds the baby. I mean, there's just no way around this. Some of it is biological, some of it is cultural, some of it is hormonal, because I do not think that most mothers want to be separated from their child for the first year of that child's life. So it becomes a terrible psychological pull.
Biagi: So how do you cope? What happens?
Shen: Well, if you're lucky enough to make a good salary, you cope with the help of nannies and babysitters, varying kinds of child care. I don't know what you do if you don't make a good salary. I frankly don't know what you do. You make do with lesser child care. The world is
slowly changing. For example, Safeway now delivers. You pay for the service, but you don't pay through the nose for the service. You can get stuff delivered to your door, whether it's dry cleaning, food, whatever, much more so now than, say, six or seven years ago. Microwaves exist for at least heating up food. I don't recommend them for anything else. There are dishwashers. There are washing machines. There are things that make life easier.
Biagi: But do you think it's a great lie that women have been told, that you can have it all?
Shen: But I don't know anybody who has ever believed you can have it all. I never believed it.
Biagi: You didn't?
Shen: No. No. I don't think you can have it all. I don't think you can even have it all as a single successful professional, because, as I've said to people actually in speeches in Hawaii, as an Asian female publisher, I found myself very professionally and personally lonely at times, certainly professionally. Personally not so much so, simply because it was Hawaii and I managed to make a few good friends. So, no, you can't have it all even without the husband and the child. I've never thought I could have it all. I've always thought something has to give.
Biagi: And what gives?
Shen: In this case, I've been divorced twice, so obviously that has given. Probably the child would come first at this point in my life. The child would come first.
Biagi: You also said that the expense of supporting all this help—
Shen: It's awful.
Biagi: —is pretty devastating. In what sense?
Shen: It is. Well, it's devastating in sheer cash. I mean, between his pre-school, which at this point is cheaper because it's only three mornings a week, and his nanny, I'm shelling out, in cash, $21,000 a year. And that doesn't count clothing, it doesn't count medical deductible. It doesn't count all the extras. That's as much as it costs to go to Princeton, and he's only three and a half!
Biagi: So would you say that you're on a budget now that's going to carry you through until he needs to go to Princeton, do you think?
Shen: I'm hoping it lets up when he's in full-time school, because then the need will only be in the afternoons. On the other hand, then his school will cost $10,000 a year. The nanny is an expensive indulgence. Obviously I could do it otherwise, or I could try to get a cheaper nanny. I probably actually will have to, because, after all, she's only looking after him for two full days and three afternoons—I'm still paying her full time.
Biagi: Or you could get a wife. [Laughter.]
Biagi: Which is the old line that women always say they want a wife.
Shen: I don't know too many willing male wives. Some people have them. Very few people have husbands who are willing to be extremely supportive and probably do a lot of "more female" things, very, very few. Very few even get a fifty-fifty split, you know. I mean, really.
Biagi: Do you think it's possible to be a publisher of a large newspaper, perhaps, even, and have spouse and children and manage the job within a regular workday?
Shen: No. Something has to give. I knew very few Gannett women publishers who are happily married, with families. One is Donna Donovan, who has been around Gannett for quite a while and is currently publisher in Utica, where she finally succeeded in getting back to, because her husband has a long-established family there. She has two or three children. In fact, I talked to her once about it at a Gannett meeting that we hardly knew any female publishers with families. Most are divorced. Several are single parents.
Biagi: Yet there are many men who are publishers at that level.
Shen: Yes, but that's because they have non-working wives or wives who work part time or wives whose careers are clearly far subordinate to their own.
Biagi: Is that what it takes?
Shen: To be a successful publisher? Not necessarily. I think it helps.
Biagi: I want to go back. We talked about your parents already, and we talked about your Asian background and its role in your life. I want to go back a little bit to a couple of things that you talked about—taking some trips to the Far East. The first time you went to the Far East, if I remember right, was with your mother. Is that right?
Biagi: That was when? How old were you?
Shen: I'm trying to remember. It was between my freshman and sophomore years in college.
Biagi: Tell me about that trip and why you went.
Shen: I went, actually, sort of at the last minute. My mother, as I said, is a physician, and she had a medical convention in Sydney, Australia, so she sort of planned a trip that included the Far East. It included Hong Kong, anyway. I didn't really express any interest in going until the last minute, when I decided, "Hey, it wouldn't be bad to go on that." So I asked her, and she said, "Well, okay." So I went along. That's, actually, I think the first time I saw San Francisco, too. I stayed in Hong Kong with family friends while she went on to Australia to her convention, and then she came back and picked me up in Hong Kong, and we came back.
I really loved it. I loved Hong Kong. I liked San Francisco very much. I liked San Francisco the first time I saw it, partly because it was so different physically from the East. Here you have those dramatic hills and vistas, and you also had what were relatively pastel-colored houses. The lighting was different. I just thought it was very nice, like a Wayne Thiebaud painting, but I didn't know Wayne Thiebaud at the time. So I really liked it, and I thought the food was great. I liked seeing all these Asians.
Then I went to Hong Kong, and I liked our friends there very much, and I thought Hong Kong was physically gorgeous, so I had a great time. I just found that I really loved the Far East. I liked the smell of it. I liked the look of it. I liked the sound of it. Hong Kong harbor is one of the great harbors. Who could not fall in love with a ride on the Star ferry across Hong Kong harbor? It's not as if I went to Calcutta or Bangladesh for my first exposure to Asia, you know; it was like going to the Paris of Asia.
Biagi: Did you visit any family? Was there any family left?
Shen: Not until years later when I went to China, actually, because that's where my parents' family was. In Hong Kong we had friends; we didn't really have family. I met a few of my mother's—her father had all these concubines. She's got a lot of half-brothers and half-sisters. So when I was meeting my mother's relatives, I was never sure really how closely related they were. But we did meet some in Hong Kong. I do remember. But the fullest relatives I have were all in China, and I didn't meet them until a trip with my mother back there in 1975. This was very soon after China opened itself up to foreign visits.
Biagi: To what do you attribute your quick likening to the culture there?
Shen: I have no idea. Partly it was familiarity. After all, I'd been brought up on Chinese food. I'd been brought up hearing about China. I had an Asian face and these people had Asian faces, so part of it was being able to meld into a crowd more easily. Part of it was seeing the source, what the food really was supposed to taste like. And part of it was the physical beauty.
Biagi: Do you speak Chinese?
Shen: I speak very little. Those lessons didn't take very well. Actually, I seriously learned Chinese in college, where I actually studied it, and from there I learned to really speak and write Chinese. In fact, I kept a diary for a while in Chinese that I can't read now. But, unfortunately, once I left college, I was in an environment where nobody spoke it, so I've basically forgotten almost all of it, although I still understand some.
Biagi: Then there was another trip that you took to China later on.
Shen: Yes. That was with JetCapade. That was with Al Neuharth. That was a professional trip with the Gannett Board of Directors and the top Gannett people for two weeks of a month's-long escapade around the world, where I did a few reporting duties, was sort of a PR person. The part of the leg I was on included Hong Kong and Singapore and China, and in China it included Xian, Beijing, Shanghai, Guilin, not in that order.
Biagi: We talked about the minority hiring program within Gannett and the emphasis on it. Do you think it's worked?
Shen: It's definitely worked in terms of numbers. The pitiful numbers there are, are better than the numbers at media companies that aren't as committed to it. The fact of the matter is, a lot of minorities are leaving journalism. In fact, for all I know, a lot of whites are leaving journalism, and that has to do with pay and hours and frustration, a lot of different things. There was just a very recent survey that came out in the last few days in the paper showing how much more dissatisfied journalists were with their work in the last few years, and what a large percentage of them were probably going to leave the profession within five years.
It's not an easy profession. It's certainly not an easy profession as the bulk of baby-boomers becomes more family oriented and more established. It's a profession that gives its greatest rewards, I think, to people who are semi-nomadic and in their twenties, without a lot of family ties.
Biagi: How can a corporation or a corporate culture respond to that, or how should they respond to that?
Shen: Well, the economy has helped that in some ways, and it's become so expensive to relocate people, that companies just do a lot less of it. I think most companies, whether they're Motorola or G.M. or Gannett or Knight-Ridder, are also downsizing and will continue to downsize. You'll see that for the next five years or six years. More journalists are going to be out of work, definitely. But I think that makes the ones that stay more stable.
I think there's less shifting around. There's more recognition of the fact that at least in community newspapers, people really do need to have ties to that community, and there's more unwillingness on the part of these baby-boomers to be moved around. Me, for example. I'm a perfect example. I'm in my early forties now, and I've said, "Halt."
Biagi: What do you see as the next step for you?
Shen: I don't know. It probably will not be in newspapers, however.
Shen: For a number of reasons. One is, I think the job opportunities are better in certain other forms of media. The other is that newspapers have basically reached maturity and, if anything, have started on the inevitable downward slide, and will turn around very slowly. Because of the way newspapers are, they're so established, they move glacially. They are slow to respond to readers. They are slow to respond to changes in society, both in the pages of the newspaper and in their corporate cultures. Magazines, for example, react much more quickly. They also die and are born much more quickly. There's more creativity and there's more adrenalin flowing through the magazine industry in some ways.
Biagi: So what attracts you to that idea that you might work for a magazine?
Shen: I like that, because my favorite times have always been start-ups, redesigns, when you're really on the cusp of doing something unexpected or new or provocative. Maintaining the status quo, to me, is really boring. For newspapers, I think their survival is, to some extent, maintaining the status quo while finding new niche products. Newspapers are extremely bad at finding new niche products—very, very bad at it.
Biagi: And if there are to be some in newspapers, as you see it, what will they be?
Shen: They'll probably be magazines. [Laughter.] Who knows? I may find myself back in the newspaper industry. I think I have a lot to learn. I have learned as much as I can learn in the newspaper industry for now. I want to learn something new.
Biagi: Thanks. [Tape interruption.]
Shen: —a time limit on how long I would be here. I know I said that from the beginning, but now it's basically a year away. I told John Curley on a boat in Guilin [China], because that was the only time I could get him alone and apart, you know.
Biagi: One last question. You've talked a lot about your early days when you were making tennis filmstrips, and here you are now in what is a large office, self-described as a large office, looking at the Marin hills.
Shen: It's a much larger office than I need.
Biagi: Yes, it is. You have it set up that way. In fact, you're all at one end of the office, with your son's drawings on the wall and everything around you. To what do you attribute this?
Shen: You mean going from filmstrips to this big office?
Biagi: Yes, as you look back on it.
Shen: Luck, a willingness to say yes at the right time, a willingness to just pack up and move on almost a moment's notice, move great distances, being at the right place at the right time.
Biagi: Do you attribute any special skills to this?
Shen: I think I get along well with people, and I think I manage people very well. I think I'm very clear with them about what I expect, and I don't play political games. I'm basically a pretty straight shooter.
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