There’s nothing quite like small-town newspapers, full of local history and anecdotes, promoting nearby sights, celebrating achievements big and small, and connecting people with needs to those who want to help.
As more newspapers crumble under the pressures of increasing costs and declining revenue, Michael Shepard (’85 Comm.) has found an unusual place to help resurrect that connection: magazines distributed by local electric utilities and broadband providers.
Shepard is CEO of Pioneer Utility Resources, based in Hillsboro, Oregon. The 67-year-old communications cooperative helps more than 250 not-for-profit public utilities, broadband providers, and state associations communicate with their customers. Utilities from around the country and as far afield as Liberia, Africa, take advantage of the company’s expertise in publishing print materials, designing websites, running social media and marketing campaigns, and implementing 24/7 responses to outages and emergencies.
“Our biggest thing is our magazines,” Shepard says. In this age of digital media, “the growth has been stunning.” Ruralite and six other magazines, a mix of utility information and local content, are delivered to more than 1.4 million mailboxes from Barrow, Alaska, to Key West, Florida. “We are sometimes one of the few sources of local news,” Shepard adds.
Recent issues explored stargazing, hot- air balloons, a paralyzed teen who does barrel racing, and a company that makes elaborate cakes for hospitalized children. Northwest-focused Ruralite magazines ran a yearlong series on the changing face of rural health care and another on the robot revolution.
The “Readers Exchange” section prompted a group of women in Pendleton, Oregon, to collect buttons for a Walla Walla woman’s request for her granddaughter’s button collection. They keep on meeting monthly to socialize and fulfill other requests, from heirloom seeds to doll clothes.
“The history of electric utility publications is fascinating,” Shepard says. “In the early days of installation of electricity, there was no profit for electric companies running wire over so many miles in rural areas. So farmers started not-for-profit entities to electrify their areas, federal government gave loans, and there was a substantial aspect of altruism within the co-ops. The same thing is happening with broadband.”
A desire to get back to a rural lifestyle prompted Shepard’s move to Pioneer in 2016, after 31 years in the traditional news business. He and his wife, Rhonda (’87 Socio.), live on a 20-acre hobby farm outside Hillsboro with dogs, goats, and chickens.
He started his journalism journey in the small town of Friday Harbor, where he edited the high school newspaper, and continued at WSU as reporter and then managing editor at the Daily Evergreen. After college, he took a job with what’s now the Moscow-Pullman Daily News.
In his next small town, Silverdale, he edited the Reporter newspaper, and was eventually promoted to managing editor of 16 Washington newspapers run by Sound Publishing. “I kept asking questions about advertising and distribution, and so they said, ‘Why don’t you try running the Port Orchard Independent?’” he remembers. “I felt I had more business sense than reporting skills, and you end up where your skills take you.”
After almost 12 years with Sound Publishing, his business acumen and love for local news led him to the Seattle Times Company, where he served as publisher of the Walla Walla Union-Bulletin and the Yakima Herald-Republic. He rose to senior vice president of business operations for the Seattle Times, overseeing circulation, buildings, presses, and human resources, then held a senior management position with Wick Communications.
At Pioneer, he manages about 100 communications, digital, and energy efficiency professionals. “My goal is to unleash the talent of the team,” says Shepard, using baseball to describe his management style.
“In baseball, there are five key tools that a non-pitcher can have: hitting for average, hitting for power, speed on the basepaths, fielding ability, and throwing-arm strength. Having all five tools at a major-league level is exceedingly rare. The key to success in baseball, as it is in building a company, is building a successful team that can give you those skills where and when they are needed—a collection of two-, three-, and four-tool players.
“I’m not a five-tool CEO, but I think I am decent at assembling good teams and leveraging those major-league skill sets.”