As chairman of Charlotte-based American City Business Journals, Ray Shaw oversees the publication of 41 weekly business newspapers across the country, making him one of the largest – if not the largest – employers of business journalists in the country.
Shaw spent 29 years with Dow Jones & Co. before his retirement from that company as president and chief operating officer in 1989. He joined The Wall Street Journal as a reporter and later worked as an editor at the Journal and other Dow Jones publications before moving to the business side of that company. During the 10 years that Shaw was president of Dow Jones, the company’s annual revenues more than tripled to $1.7 billion and operations were extended worldwide.
Shaw began his newspaper career as a reporter for The Oklahoma City Times while attending the University of Oklahoma. He later joined the Associated Press, working for that news service in Oklahoma City, Louisville and New York City before moving to The Wall Street Journal.
Following his retirement from Dow Jones, Shaw’s Shaw Publishing Co. acquired control of American City Business Journals, which owned 21 business weeklies at the time. In 1995, American City was purchased by Advance Publications, which is the parent company of Conde Nast Publications, The New Yorker magazine, and the owner of more than 20 daily newspapers throughout the country.
In addition, Shaw was an early investor in Business North Carolina magazine.
On Sept. 12, 2005, Shaw discussed his career and business journalism. What follows is an edited transcript of that talk.
Q: When did you first get interested in journalism?
A: I grew up in a small town in Oklahoma and went to work for the county weekly for a part-time job as a ninth-grader. Back then, kids could do that sort of thing. The owner/publisher was a kindly man who took an interest in me and introduced me to the business. That’s basic journalism of course. It was simple stuff such covering high school sports.
Q: When did you first think about writing about business and the economy?
A: I went to the University of Oklahoma, and right after college, I headed to New York to work for the AP. I had worked as a staffer in the Oklahoma City bureau while in college, and had an opportunity to work in news-features in New York at an early age. I had worked there for a couple of years, and was contacted by the-then managing editor of the Wall Street Journal, Warren Phillips, who was later the CEO of Dow Jones and became my mentor. He had picked up my name from someone at the old Oklahoma City Times. Both of them were active in the old Sigma Delta Chi, which became the Society of Professional Journalists. So Warren Phillips wrote me, and I actually ignored his letter because I had no interested in financial journalism. He followed up with some persistent phone calls, and he convinced me to come over to The Journal in 1960.
Q: What was the perception of business reporting back then?
A: To me, it was pretty esoteric. It was more financial journalism than business journalism, to a large degree. At least the perception was that. And I wasn’t interested in financial journalism or trade journalism. But The Wall Street Journal was making the move to broaden the field of business journalism. And Barney Kilgore understood that business people were interested in more than business. When I went to The Journal, I was convinced that you could do very good journalism, covering business through people rather than the institutions. And that has been critical to their success throughout all these years.
Q: How easy was it for you to pick up on business jargon and find interesting stories?
A: You pick it up very quickly. You’re thrown into the thick of things in a sink-o- swim situation. You can learn very quickly if you’re not reluctant to ask questions.
Q: In addition to Warren Phillips, who were important mentors to you at the beginning of your career?
A: Bill Kirby, who preceded Warren Phillips as CEO of Dow Jones. He was Kilgore’s close deputy when Kilgore was moving The Journal along. My first city editor at the Oklahoma City Times, Ralph Sewell, was one of the best editors I ever worked for. I set up scholarships at the University of Oklahoma in his name and in the name of Merle Woods, who was the editor at that weekly in my home town, in recognition of what they had done to help me further my career.
Q: What was it like to be a reporter for the Wall Street Journal in 1960s?
A: It was starting to build that cache. In 1960, it was starting to put its imprint on the nation as a national newspaper. We probably had at that time, not more than a couple hundred thousand circulation max. But it was gaining steam, and was regarded as a very powerful voice in the business community.
Q: Did it help you open doors?
A: No question. It’s one thing to be calling a news source for the Wall Street Journal and another to call from a publication that a chief executive hasn’t heard of.
Q: How did your career progress?
A: In 1963, I moved to Dallas as a bureau chief and stayed there until 1966. That was right at the height of the civil rights struggle, and the Dallas bureau had a big part of the coverage of civil rights in the South. I came back to New York in 1967 and took on Dow Jones decided to get in on an international news service. I came back to get that going. It was a joint venture with the Associated Press, and since I had worked there, did it. That was my first move outside the Wall Street Journal into the business side.
Q: What stories did you write that got the most reaction -- from either readers or the subject?
A: Civil rights was a continuing series of stories, but I was part of a team that won a Pulitzer on LBJ’s business dealings and how he became the owner of a broadcast TV station in Austin. He was able, even while he was in Congress, to get those rights to start a television station. His fingers were involved in a number of other business enterprises. It was a good, strong series of stories as LBJ as a businessman. It was not something he advanced.
Q: You also wrote a front page story for the paper on Hugh Hefner’s business at one time, right?
A: That was Barney Kilgore’s idea – who is the guy out in Chicago attracting attention with a publication out of the mainstream for sure. I went out to Chicago and spent a week profiling Hefner. That was the first national story, to my knowledge, on Hefner.
Q: How did you make the switch from being an editorial employee of Dow Jones to someone on the business side?
A: I don’t recall it as difficult. I picked up additional responsibility gradually, and one of the positions I had at Dow Jones that helped me the most was being named head of corporate development, which was new projects and new business. It was a combination of it being content based that made it an editorial/business position. That opened my eyes to a lot of things at the company. Dow Jones and the Wall Street Journal, the content is critical at that company, whatever they do. I don’t think you can be an effective business person unless you understand the value of content.
Q: Was that transition easier because you had covered business?
A: Probably. But I can’t quantify that. Certainly by covering business, there was a heightened interest in business.
Q: Why has Dow Jones always had former journalists as its top executives, and what do you think that means for its editorial products?
A: It has had former journalists always at the head. Whether that will continue in the future, I don’t know. The family that controls the Dow Jones, the Bancrofts, looks on the company as a public trust. In all my years of being around them, they were most proud of the editorial content. They looked at it as a business, but at the same time, they were most proud of what the paper was delivering to its readers. It was just a natural thing.
Q: What interested you in running weekly business newspapers?
A: When I retired at the age of 55 in 1989, our family had a small publishing company in North Carolina, including Business North Carolina. We had several other little publications, and I was going to help my two sons grow that business. I retired on a Friday, and on Monday called the CEO of American City and told him I wanted to buy the Charlotte Business Journal. We ended up in talks, and we bought the whole company. I could see there was a role in publishing that was really unique for these publications. American City had a build up that was too fast and was in some trouble, so we bought control of it.
Q: How are they different than mainstream daily papers that cover business?
A: Where local business journals stand out, if someone looks at the corporate readership, only about 20 percent to 30 percent of their readership reads The Wall Street Journal. The more cosmic coverage of The Wall Street Journal really does fit a certain segment of the business audience. There’s a whole different business audience concerned with what’s happening across the street and with the local economy than what’s happening on Wall Street or in Tokyo because what affects them are economic conditions where their customers are, and that’s local.
Q: Was that something that took you a while to realize after being at The Journal?
A: I sensed that pretty quickly. It was not as if it was an overnight discovery. We knew, and The Wall Street Journal liked to call itself the largest small business publication in the country.
Q: What contributions to business journalism do you think weekly newspapers have made?
A: I think their message is that people who read the business journals are better equipped to run their business.
Q: What do you see happening in the future of business journalism?
A: I don’t know if there’s a new content format. But I am pretty optimistic about the future of business journalism. It’s the one area of journalism that can combine print and online effectively, and we’re doing it with our strong online presence with American City. And you look at The Wall Street Journal at wsj.com, they have a strong effort. Forbes.com is one of the most robust online sites. BusinessWeek as well; it’s very information driven. I’m very positive about how we can combine print and online into a valuable franchise.