Off the Record

The old debate about the value of a journalism degree became slightly more interesting with the creation of the Graduate

The old debate about the value of a journalism degree became slightly more interesting with the creation of the Graduate School of Journalism at the City University of New York, and the Monday-afternoon appointment of Stephen B. Shepard, the current editor in chief of BusinessWeek, as its new dean.

The school is scheduled to embrace its first flock of 50 students in the fall of 2006, will grow to a maximum of 200 students in its first three to four years, and will come with a price tag of approximately $5,400 to $7,100 per year, based on the current cost of a year of in-state graduate tuition at CUNY.

“You know, the City University people tell me there is no publicly funded graduate journalism school in the entire Northeast,” said Mr. Shepard, 65, in a phone interview on Tuesday afternoon from his office at BusinessWeek. “We will have what I hope will be a very good, distinguished journalism school with relatively low tuition. Which will attract people who otherwise wouldn’t be able to go to a graduate school of journalism.”

The school will be housed in the old New York Herald Tribune building, on West 41st Street, although many details remain to be worked out about the program, including the length (programs of one year and up are being considered) and the precise cost and curriculum. But the fact that CUNY’s tuition will be many magnitudes lower than the $35,000-plus sticker on a year at Columbia Journalism School or in the N.Y.U. Journalism Department throws the cost-benefit analysis of those programs into uncomfortable relief.

“I think it’s true that it’s expensive,” said Mitchell Stephens, the interim chair of the N.Y.U. Journalism Department, referring to his own program. “It’s a year and a half, three semesters, in a career that’s going to last 50 years. And we hope that it’s money well spent.”

“Let’s just answer by analogy,” said Nicholas Lemann, the dean of the Columbia Journalism School, when asked what enticement Columbia would have to offer. “If you wanted to be a lawyer, and you were admitted to City University and one of their schools, or Columbia Law School, you’d go to City University, wouldn’t you?”

“Almost all of our students are taking out student loans to go here,” Mr. Lemann continued. “We are very aggressively fund-raising, with the primary goal of raising scholarship money. That will drive down, I hope, the effective cost of going here. I would say, though, that you don’t often find a low-cost, public university that is able to draw meaningful numbers of accepted students away from an elite private university. And if it is able to do so, it says that the elite private university is doing something wrong and needs to offer a more meaningful deal to its students. That shouldn’t happen.”

Ultimately, Mr. Lemann said, the new program would be helpful.

“If CUNY is a meaningful competitor, it means we’ve got to work a little harder,” said Mr. Lemann. “It makes it easier for me to fund-raise, because I can say to our funders that we’re losing students to them, and use that to increase the size of the scholarship pot. So if I had that argument available to me, that’d be great.”

In fact, the CUNY school may be alluring to an entirely new pool of applicants, who otherwise might not consider journalism graduate school due to the prohibitive cost and relatively low starting salaries in the profession, auguring years of debt. Which may only serve to increase and diversify the batch of fresh young, aspiring journalists released into the profession’s bloodstream every spring, who go on to compete for jobs in print, cable and network television, and online news.

“Look, Columbia is an outstanding school,” said Mr. Shepard, who has taught there and served on the school’s Board of Visitors. “It’s just that there’s room for more than one. It’s silly to think that you can only have one model, and only one kind of school. There are plenty of students who are very, very good and want a good journalism education in New York City, and we will offer an option.”

As for BusinessWeek, where Mr. Shepard has been editor in chief for 20 years, most people have been “extremely nice,” according to Mr. Shepard. The search for a successor is “well along,” and Mr. Shepard said they should be able to announce somebody fairly soon.

“It’s tough for me, it’s been a part of my life for a long time,” said Mr. Shepard. “The weekly rhythm has been part of my DNA. But it’s time, and I think this is a very, very worthwhile thing to do.”

Mr. Shepard is also a proud product of the public school system.

“I grew up in the Bronx, I went to public schools: the [Bronx] High School of Science, City College, then Columbia,” said Mr. Shepard. “I played stickball in the streets.”

“I’m a New York City kid,” he said. “So this stirs my soul.”

Inside the Condé Nast mother ship on Times Square, staffers at Cargo, the men’s shopping magazine, are closing the February 2005 issue, their first since becoming a monthly. Increasing the number of issues from six to 10 a year is all part of James Truman’s campaign to recreate the success that Lucky magazine has had: amassing an army of 1 million shopping-addicted readers.

As the title progressed over the past year from prototype to bimonthly to monthly, and as readers have given the catalog-magazine (the trendy term is “magalog”) concept a hearty bear hug, the little known story is that putting out a magazine such as Cargo may be one of the toughest jobs in the New York media world.

The magalog jobs have certainly created a new breed in the Condé Nast tower, where most New Yorkers picture a well-manicured set that line-edits 5,000-word think-pieces by cherished novelists in the feature well on a two-month deadline, (between nips down to the Four Seasons to sip martinis and pick over the occasional beef carpaccio).

As the production schedule has tightened (the announcement that Cargo would go monthly came in May), Cargo’s had a bit of a molting. Not unusual one year into a new magazine’s run, to be sure. But all of the subjects interviewed by The Observer echoed the same sentiment about why they or colleagues had left: The magalog is a tough place to work, with long hours and little writerly satisfaction in the meticulously combed-over copy.

This summer and into the fall, Mediabistro’s Revolving Door newsletter swelled with names of Cargo staffers on the way in and out. Among the recent émigrés listed were former style editor Daniel Ou, who is now installed at real-life catalog Abercrombie and Fitch after leaving the magazine in July, and former senior editor Sam Grobart, now an assistant news editor at The Wall Street Journal’s Weekend Journal. More recently, former products editor Sonia Zjawinski left for Budget Living in October, the same month fashion writer Mike Albo left to write a book. And Barbara Reyes, formerly the magazine’s art director, exited in November and will soon be starting a position at Teen People.

“I think the biggest challenge is, at the end of the day we’re recommending something that somebody is spending their money on, that they’re going to enjoy or not,” said Ariel Foxman, Cargo’s editor in chief. “What that means for a magazine like Cargo, which covers so many things, is that we need to have expert hubs of editorial people who know every category. Either on staff or outside editors. That’s the biggest challenge.” Mr. Foxman did not think that staff turnover at Cargo had been higher than at any other “healthy magazine.”

These Cargo categories of expertise run the spectrum of 21st-century male desires: gadgets, grooming, cars, culture and fashion. Shepherding this product knowledge onto the page has taken its toll on Cargo staffers, as the magazine has recently witnessed its first wave of turnover on the middle of the masthead.

Some former Cargo staffers share Mr. Foxman’s assessment of the challenges of becoming a monthly expert in every product under the sun, recommending items culled from a list and writing the accompanying captions to justify their presence in the magazine. That, combined with the frenzied start-up magazine atmosphere which eschews the privilege and comfort of having editorial assistants handling daily tedium that is common to many publications in their early stages, led some to both excitement and burnout.

“In a way, it’s almost harder to write 40 words about something than 400,” said Mr. Grobart, now installed in his Weekend Journal post at The Wall Street Journal. “I was responsible for a lot of technology coverage. You’re not only trying to show someone a new product, but you’re trying to educate them about it, without talking down to the reader. When you’re dealing with all this information, you have to find a way to distill it so it’s clear and also entertaining. It’s very challenging.”

At outfits like Cargo, products must be corralled from manufacturers to the writers to test and photographers to shoot. Captions are pored over and scrutinized with a laser-like focus. All of the “shopping,” presumed to be dreaded by Cargo’s male readers, is done instead by editors and, where they exist, assistants.

“In a shopping magazine, suddenly you have to be an expert in five things that you don’t really know. You have to really research,” said Mr. Ou, who said that he enjoyed his year as a style editor at Cargo. “Let’s say you’re doing a story on iPod cases. You have to get all the best ones, expensive to cheap, all the different price points, all across the country, put them in a little presentation and go over them with the editor. And let’s say you have 100 different ones, but maybe you don’t have a wide array of cheap ones, or maybe the colors aren’t right. You have to go out there and look for more. There’s a lot of trial and error involved. And for every issue there’s 10 new things, so it’s just really time-consuming.”

Another former staffer recalled having to dash off to a store to locate multiple copies of a product in the middle of the day when a photo shoot was rescheduled at the final minute and the test products hadn’t been shipped from the manufacturer yet.

“Luckily, I had my corporate credit card,” he said.

Thank God for Condé Nast!

On top of that, sustaining relationships with all the product manufacturers involves going out to parties and product launches, fielding an endless parade of publicist calls, C.E.O. lunches and look-sees, that fills much of staffers’ out-of-the-office hours.

Mr. Foxman said that he didn’t feel that there was more labor involved in a magazine such as Cargo than at other titles, and that the business-social obligations were similar to those at a places such as Vanity Fair, where editors might spend evenings at movie premieres, schmoozing with potential cover subjects.

“I think our magazine is as much work as any other magazine, not less,” he said. “I appreciate the hard work that people have put into the magazine, and I think our readers appreciate it. As far as I’m concerned, their great work has really shown through, at the same time, its’ a pretty smooth evolution. For the most part, people understood that we were in this together, that we would hash it out, but for the most part, it’s very typical of a launch.

“It’s not an intense environment,” Mr. Foxman continued. “People do their work, they work really hard, they do their pages. It’s not intense in the sense that it’s not doable. There’s a level of expertise not only that the reader demands, but that the company demands. This is very serious business, telling people how to spend their money.” Off the Record