Family Ownership

Shaw Media CEO Tom Shaw: The exit interview

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Later in this month of May, Tom Shaw will retire after 24 years as CEO of Shaw Media—and 47 years after he joined the family business in the circulation department of the Dixon (Ill.) Telegraph.

Tom Shaw is a fifth-generation family member leader of the company that traces its roots back to 1851, when his great-great-grandfather, Benjamin Flower Shaw, founded The Dixon Telegraph and Herald. He will also be the first Shaw to be succeeded at the top spot of company by a non-family member, the current president, John Rung. (See accompanying article.)

During his career, Tom Shaw has been general manager of the Telegraph, COO from 1986 to 1993 of what was then called Shaw Newspapers and then president and CEO starting in 1993.

In an interview with The Inlander, the 69-year-old Tom Shaw reflected on the years of his newspaper life—and the years ahead. (The Q&A format has been lightly edited for space and clarity.)

Q: So what, for you, has been the most gratifying aspect of working in newspapers?

A: The people. Most important are the people you attract to the business. For me, the most gratifying experience was the opportunity to work with the people in our company, the community boards I was on—not to mention Inland, PAGE (Cooperative) and the other associations.

Q: And no regrets through all this time?

A: No, not at all. When I went into it, I was not at all sure what I wanted to do. But I had the good fortune to work for my grandfather (Benjamin T. Shaw) who was publisher of the Dixon newspaper. That was a wonderful opportunity, I always had tremendous affection for him.

And then it was just one of those things about work where you wake up one morning and you realize you really like what you’re doing.

Q: Looking back, what is the accomplishment you’re proudest of?

A: In terms of being proud, it would probably be changing the culture at Shaw. I made a big effort on that as I increasingly got control with my hands on the throttle of the company, so to speak.

Not that it was a bad culture, but it had some hangover things that were…distasteful. There were some sexist attitudes, especially in the production departments.

But we tried to get people to understand that everybody is created in God’s image and is gifted in some way. We try to understand what that giftedness is and give people the opportunity to do what they are able to do with those gifts. A lot of that came down to HR.

We always believed in training and had for a long time a training institute in the company. It allowed everybody in the company to be recognized as somebody important. We try to get any roadblocks (to their achievements) out of the way.

There were mismatches and failures, too, but that’s just part of the process.

Q: In the past couple of years, there’s been some uptick in the number of family newspaper owners getting out of the business after several generations of ownership, saying they don’t see a sustainable business model for smaller independent newspapers. Yet Shaw is doing the opposite by acquiring some of those companies.

A: We’re in it for the long haul. We just believe that even though we’re a relatively small company if we understand how a locally based independent media company can succeed by being relevant to the consumer and providing marketing solutions that work or for business partners. And not lose sight of advocating for the community. We believe there is a business model there if we do those things.

Unlike families that are selling because they do not have a new generation interested in continuing, we have a future generation. (Son) J. Tom has an almost pathologically optimistic view of the company. (Son) Peter is involved in the trust that owns the paper and is on its editorial board. And (son) Ben continues to be very much engaged in the business through the World Association of Newspapers.

And this transition (to a new CEO) has been meticulously planned over the past four years with (new CEO) John Rung as president.

Q. What are the business elements of Shaw’s business model?

A. We understand that our legacy business is challenged and diminishing—but we certainly don’t believe it’s going away. We must manage the legacy business for optimal results in terms of retention of revenue, audience and profit, while understanding that it’s diminishing.

As you say, we’ve been fairly active in acquisitions. We’ve decided to double down and expand our footprint to give more opportunities—especially on the digital side.

We just have to structure the business differently to support these other realities. So expansion may take the form of outsourcing of printing and operations that other can do more efficiently than us. Even now we’re continuing to look at technology to reduce our investment in some of our editorial functions, such as putting pages together.

But whatever cost savings we achieve we will reinvest in reporters. We recognize that to be able to continue to get information the community wants, we need to have feet on the street. Even though we’ve cut in the past, we are not cutting in that arena any more.

Q. Shaw has noticeably diversified its revenue streams in recent years

A. It’s kind of hamster cage of diversifying revenue sources and reallocating so we can pursue new opportunities, such as niche publication, notably (Pro Football Weekly magazine), and we have other products we’re excited about.

This business brings pressure, but sometimes being under pressure is not bad. Someone once asked Golda Meir why there was so much innovation in Israel. And she said, it’s not so hard to be innovative when your back is against the wall.

Q. Final question: Looking forward to retirement?

A. My wife and I have been practicing for it with bike rides for the past few weeks. We’ve got summer vacations planned with family groups. But it takes some time getting used to after so many years in this business.