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People first: Retiring Shaw Media CEO reflects on legacy

April 4, 2017 GMT

?DIXON – It was frigid. Hands numbed to the cold, hours before the sun rose. Yet there was Tom Shaw and one of his closest friends, Jeff Shoaf, a kid brother of sorts, trapping muskrats in the Rock River.

Tom was in high school, and the trapping season ran from early November until the river froze. He raked in about $200 a week – a year’s worth of spending for a teenager in the late 1950s.

He had to figure out different ways to trap, learned that if you didn’t pull your traps soon enough, the river would freeze, and those $1.50-a-pop contraptions would be lost come the thaw.

Shaw cited that “Tom Sawyer” childhood as a key to his success. It taught him independence and the gratification of going his own way, and touched off a spirit of enterprise.

Perhaps most importantly, he and Jeff grew a bond.

More than five decades later, the relationships he’s built are the cornerstone of Shaw’s legacy.

Toward the end of May, the 69-year-old will retire as chief executive officer of Shaw Media, a name that, in some iteration, has belonged to his family since 1851, when his great-great-grandfather, Benjamin Flower Shaw, published the first Dixon Telegraph.

Recently, utmost emphasis has been placed on looking at success through employees’ eyes, assuring success through their happiness and fulfillment and, as a result, contributions to society.

“We enjoy a great reputation, from outsiders who aren’t trying to sell us something,” Shaw said. “A big part of what I’ve accomplished, if there’s a legacy, is that, for Shaw to be legendary because of the commitment to the excellence of our people.”

HIS ASCENSION

Tall for his age at 13, Shaw’s media career began when he passed for a 16-year-old and was hired by Dixon Publishing Co.

He graduated from Dixon High School in 1966 and got his bachelor’s degree in business administration in 1970 from Colorado College in Colorado Springs, then considered the Harvard of the West.

He sold subscriptions to the Colorado Springs Gazette between his junior and senior years. Seeing the start of an arc, the family put him into circulation at the Telegraph.

He quickly moved up to accounting but hit a wall within six months.

“I just wasn’t wired for that sort of tedium,” he said.

Long before “community journalism” became an industry buzzword, he bent then-General Manager Arthur Lund’s ear about community events that weren’t being promoted. No one was winning there.

“He told me to go do it. It was also to get me off his back,” he said with a smile.

A star was born.

Shaw advanced to Dixon Telegraph general manager in 1975, a title he held until 1986. He was chief operations officer of Shaw Newspapers from 1986 to 1993, and was named president and chief executive officer in 1993.

Times have changed with the increasing focus on digital content. Names have changed, too, to reflect that trend, with Shaw Newspapers becoming Shaw Media.

“The challenges just don’t stop, and we’re trying to figure out the model for our business to be viable,” he said. “I’ve just always had a belief that the people in our company will figure things out. They always have, and we have the right people to continue that tradition.”

Rare in this business, the Shaw company remains a family operation. His sons, J. Tom and Peter, are general manager of Shaw Media’s Suburban group and corporate strategy coordinator, respectively. Peter also is a member of Sauk Valley Media’s editorial board.

His other son, Ben, was Shaw Media’s chief digital officer before moving to Germany in 2014, where he is global advisory director for World Association of Newspapers and News Publishers.

HIS PARTNER

He and his wife, Tammy, have six children and have fostered about 20 kids, most of them infants facing significant distress.

Tammy admitted she’s often taken a moment to admire her husband, particularly the way he doesn’t change between the office and home.

“He is exactly what you see,” she said. “He’s my hero. He’s very compassionate about what he believes in, to the point of always being meticulous – as a father, he knew everything about his children. As a husband, he’s still my boyfriend. As a churchgoer, he’s still a Bible-reader who wants answers.”

He’s survived colon cancer and had his knees replaced in the past few years, but still, she’s looking forward to challenging him in his retirement.

“I’m an obsessive kayaker, and most of my friends have fallen away because I’m a little bit rabid about it,” she said. “Even though he’s had two knees replaced, he’s eager to be my kayak partner. He’s giving me the best gift ever, that he’s going to try to kayak with me.”

Shaw, a devout Christian, has been on a lifelong faith walk and doesn’t have a bucket list, per se.

“When you just go about your business, opportunities present themselves,” he said.

Approaching retirement has presented another challenge of sorts.

“That part’s been a little bit harder than I thought – to step out of something that’s been such a huge part of my life,” he said.

Their youngest daughter, Kylie, 17, has another year to go at Dixon High, so the family will be around at least another year, during which Shaw will serve on the company’s board of directors.

That’s not to say he’s not ready to let go.

“Your emotional strength has layers,” Shaw said. “Over the past couple of years, I’ve had those layers peeled back. I find myself more vulnerable emotionally. That’s when you know you’re ready to step away.”

‘I ALWAYS FELT LIKE SHAW WAS HOME’

About four years ago, Shaw named John Rung as Shaw Media’s president; he will be named CEO when Shaw retires.

Rung is a testament to Shaw’s mission statement: Foster great workers in an environment driven by employees’ vision.

Shaw has seen many employees leave then return; it’s a source of pride. On two occasions, for instance, Rung left for greener pastures in 1995 and 2000, only to return – the last time as publisher of the company’s flagship newspaper, the Northwest Herald in Crystal Lake.

“This was a long-term investment, because I saw value in John’s leadership, his ability to develop people and make things happen,” Shaw said.

“I always felt like Shaw was home,” Rung said. “There’s a freedom here – you don’t feel like you’re looking over your shoulder all the time. It’s about the work, and it’s a supportive, collaborative culture.

“That’s always been his mentality: If you have the right people, even when the industry changes, you’ll always find a way.”

Sam R Fisher, Sauk Valley Media’s publisher, has known Shaw most of his professional life, since 1983, when the company bought Free Press Newspaper Group, for which Fisher worked. It owned publications in Crystal Lake, Carpentersville and Elgin.

“I figured, ‘I won’t be here long,’ “ Fisher said. “I didn’t know anybody. The reason I’m still here is because of him.

“I’ve had other opportunities, but there’s no other newspaper company in the country like this one. Tom always had a vision, and he created a culture where it doesn’t feel like a job.”

It’s always been his job to do, however. When Fisher was about to spend $500,000 on a printing press in Princeton, he asked Shaw for a second opinion.

“He said, ‘No, I’m sure you’ve done your research and you’re making the right decision,’ “ Fisher said.

“He always gives you the latitude to do your job.”

Tom and Tammy returned Tuesday from a 10-day vacation. Even on the brink of retirement, he was exhilarated to learn what he’d missed.

“I’m just overwhelmed by the depth and breadth of information we have,” he said. “Our business model is challenged, but I sit back and wonder whether communities realize how valuable this is, and if we weren’t here, what would the community be like.

“If you have a newspaper that won’t take stands and won’t speak out on issues, or if there isn’t an effective newspaper, the quality of the community, its moral compass and economic viability, they won’t be as good as they should be.”