“I never worked on the high school newspaper, never worked on the college paper, I was lucky the guy that I worked for saw something in me … basically I’m very nosy.”
Alicia Shepard’s career in journalism took her by surprise, then led her across the country and halfway around the world. She wrote for a number of years for “American Journalism Review” and has contributed to the “New York Times,” “The Washington Post” and the “Chicago Tribune.”
Shepard served as the public editor for “National Public Radio,” and has taught journalism across the nation. In 2012 she joined the UNLV Greenspun School of Journalism as a guest professor, bringing the school the instant credibility of a nationally renowned media figure.
In her undergraduate studies at George Washington University, Shepard focused neither on journalism nor communications, instead majoring in English and minoring in biology. “I always thought I wanted to be a high school English teacher,” she confessed. Her senior year however, fate intervened. “I needed a part time job and I saw there was a news bureau the needed an assistant,” Shepard remembers. “I had no interest or knowledge of journalism other than getting the newspaper every morning at home.”
But she was in the door. “It was at a place called ‘Scripts League Newspaper’, a small family owned chain that had papers all over the country.” Once there she learned the ropes as she was taught to rewrite press releases and do smaller stories. “I had an aptitude for it and I liked it and he offered me a job when I graduated. I thought what the heck I’ll do it for a year. And of course I loved it.”
Shepard spent the next few years writing in D.C. It was a strange entrance to the news world, being a young, inexperienced woman just getting on her feet in the industry. “It was the late 70’s and there weren’t a lot of female journalists. It was mainly older, middle aged white men for whom this was the crowning glory of their career to end up in Washington.” Yet there was Alicia Shepard, starting near their finish line. Never one to sit still for long, she knew she needed work in a big newspaper, and like many before her, she chose to look west.
“I had one of those turning points that happens too many of us and so in Aug. 1981, I took a month leave of absence, I bought a car, I drove out west, and I would just show up at newspapers and try to get interviews. I ended at the Albuquerque Journal and they offered me a job in their Santa Fe Bureau, which I though was like dying and going to heaven.”
Then she faced another crux point. “I fell in love.” she admits. “I had met this guy who later became my husband and he was going to work at the San Jose Mercury and so I had to decide between Santa Fe and San Jose. And I chose to go with him to San Jose.”
There was no counterpart job waiting in California. “I got a temporary job (at the “San Jose Mercury”) filling for someone who was on maternity leave and I made sure I was asked to stay. I worked really hard and it was a good lesson. You just get your foot in the door at the place you want to work and you make yourself invaluable.”
Shepard spent the next five years working for the Mercury, even after her husband, Robert, left for the local NBC affiliate. She covered the city of Sunnydale and the court and police beats before moving to investigative reporting. Her last piece was delving, with another reporter, into how doctors were licensed in California, which she mentions as being particularly troubling as she was seven months pregnant at the time. And so she prepared for her next adventure.
“It was something my husband Robert and I had always wanted to do, before we even met.” The couple had plans of leaving their city, their family and their friends to sail to other side of the world, not for a vacation, but for three years. “We lived in Palo Alto, bought a 32 foot sailboat and learned to sail in San Francisco Bay. Then we moved on board the boat to save money. That was hard, we had to live on 32 feet while we had to dress for success and go to work.”
But work they did, keeping clothes in the car, saving for the adventure of a lifetime. Saving to buy their ride, because as she points out “Bank of America was not about to let us take their asset offshore without paying a huge amount of insurance that would have made it impossible.”
And so the pair became strong sailors, learned to navigate and took classes in celestial navigation. So enamored were they with their new lifestyle that they named their son Cutter after their vessel. “He was named because we had a Cutter rigged sailboat.”
When they had prepared themselves and saved money to purchase the yacht, purchase supplies and afford to live, they took off.
“We lived very cheaply, had our home with us. It was basically food and gas. We did have catastrophic health insurance in the event that something horrendous happened.” It all sounds so easy as she pauses, “But we also had … a nine month old baby. I look back and think ‘was I on drugs?’” She was not.
“I wrote a column called “Letters from Paradise” for the ‘San Jose Mercury’.” The monthly columns and the savings paid most of the bills as Shepard and her young family crossed the world’s largest ocean, making their way to Tahiti and Micronesia.
“We did spend a lot of money on equipment that we hoped we would never have to use.” She added, “a life raft and an emergency beacon,” but not everything was paid for. “We did freelance writing to pay for beer.”
“It’s not a day on the beach when you’re sailing, I was a housewife on a sailboat. Had to boil water to wash the dishes, we had to do laundry in a bucket. We didn’t have refrigeration, we didn’t have a good radio system, we didn’t have radar … we did have a really awesome propane stove, so we could bake and cook really well.”
It was not all bad, not only was hot food readily available but there were unforeseen blessings as well. “I did not expect that we would make friends, but you ran into many of the same people, we were the class of ‘87. We were the ones who made the passage across the Pacific and you got to know people, as you island hopped around Tahiti.”
Shepard also found the locals to be helpful in Micronesia. She “met a Catholic priest there. I am Catholic and we would visit the churches. Many times the priests could speak English, and they became tour guides and friends. And one of them was from Pulap.”
“It looked from the charts like you couldn’t get into this island, too much coral around it. But he told us that we could and showed us how to do it.” “So we were the second sailboat to ever go there. We were going to just stay for the weekend and we stayed for six weeks. We just hung out. There was a Peace Corp worker there and we became friends.”
“On that island there were maybe 200 people and if there was electricity it was from a generator.” It all sounds quite amazing. Except for the hurricane they sat through during their stay.
Once her taste for the sea had been quenched, or perhaps the money ran dry Shepard and her husband decided it was time to make for dry land. “After little research, and some word of mouth,” they made for Japan after hearing of the improving economy and an apparent interest in the purchase of sailboats. They sold their boat and Shepard got a job teaching English at a school run by the BBC and stayed for two more years, because she wanted to learn Japanese. But finally, after five years away from home, with only two return visits in all the years away, the time came for her to return home.
Since then Shepard has written extensively for AJR as a media commentator, and she’s written freelance for numerous other publications across the country. She co-wrote a book on the part journalists played in the unfolding of the events on Sept. 11, 2001: Running Toward Danger: Stories Behind the Breaking News of 9/11 and she authored an interview heavy retrospective on Woodward, Bernstein and President Nixon’s Watergate scandal. Perhaps most notably she served as the ombudsman for NPR.
Currently she resides in Las Vegas and, as a visiting professor at UNLV, has taught media ethics and other journalism subjects.
Dan Stout, director of the School of Journalism at UNLV, beams with pride as he speaks on what she has brought to the students and the school. “We’ve had one of the finest media critics in the country here. It’s not only been a great thing to have her in class, but to have professors and students discuss what’s going on the industry in an informal way has also been a great opportunity. She’s been a real mentor too,” and “having a visiting faculty member that is known nationally for her excellence communicates that the Greenspun School is serious about education in journalism and media studies.”
Her effect on students has also been well received. One student who graduated in December, Alexia Gyorody, said that Shepard was “a guiding light,” helping her revise resumes and writing samples, eventually assisting her in breaking into public radio in North Carolina. “Alicia provided emotional support when my anxiety would take over and always brought me back to what the goal was, what I should be focusing on. When I felt hopeless about my future, she would remind me that nothing comes easy and I had to keep working hard toward my goal, Gyorody said.”
Shepard brings with her an undeniable level of expertise and credibility, but her unquenchable thirst for life may be just as valuable in helping students to become, not only successful professionals, but also happy people.
In 2002, at the age of 50 she bicycled from Amsterdam to Paris, a distance of 517 miles. She says, “I wanted to do something at 50 that I never thought at 23, I would have been able to do.”
Her spirit has not gone unnoticed. Rochelle Richards, a journalism student, found Shepard’s ethics class so rewarding that she sought out her professor for independent study. She says of Shepard, “she has been great as a teacher, extremely knowledgeable and willing to put herself on the line for criticism.” Mostly importantly she has taught Richards, “you can’t let anyone stand in your way. You just have to put your mind to it and work hard.” Some lessons you can see coming from half a world away.