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INTERVIEW: Joe Shaw Talks Local Journalism And How It Has Evolved, The Impact Of The Internet On Print Publications, And More

T.J. Clemente

Joe Shaw. (Photo: Michael Heller)

Joe Shaw has been at the forefront of the best journalism on the East End for the last 23 years. He and the newspaper that he has edited these last two decades, Southampton Press, have won many prestigious awards. Shaw was kind enough to share his insights on both East End journalism and his career.

After nothing that some folks may believe he is now one of, if not the leading influential journalist on the East End of Long Island, I asked how has both his role and responsibilities changed over the decades and what is the biggest difference in his opinion between Joe Shaw 2000 and Joe Shaw 2021? Shaw answered, "That's kind, but it's very far from the truth. The East End has a wealth of journalistic greatness. I've just been blessed with a tremendous staff and organization, and I think learning how to deploy such a skilled team has been the biggest change in my 23 years as editor here. I came from a small paper in Western Pennsylvania where I did most of the writing, photography, layout, etc. What prompted me to take this job was the chance to lead a team - I did that during a crisis (a historic flood) back in PA, with a team of freelancers, staffers and volunteers, and it was exhilarating. That's what I do every week now, and I love it. The challenge of assuming the responsibility of guiding the direction of publications, both digital and print, that have such an amazing connection to their readers, and a history dating back more than a century keeps me on my toes. Any influence comes from that close tie to the community, and the quality of the work my staff does every single week."

Shaw has witnessed the emergence of online news and the expansion of the power of the internet. When asked how has the internet changed the product printed every Thursday at the paper, his response was, "I always say, my career fell during the biggest period of evolution in our industry, since Gutenberg and the printing press. Learning how the internet fits into what we do - all journalists, certainly, but local journalists in particular - is ongoing. We're still in the churn of the introduction of the internet, and still trying, as a society, to adjust to it. (Look at social media and the impact it's having.) Our newsroom has gone, since my arrival in 1998, to something akin to a daily operation - Bill Sutton, our managing editor and director of digital media, has to 'feed the beast' on a daily basis, via the website and social media, to keep readers engaged. They demand that. That's new. We really did think on a weekly schedule for the early part of my career, and I still fall back into that thinking from time to time, because of print deadlines. But the truth is that we're now a 24/7 operation, like every other news outlet."

He continued, "There are other interesting ways the internet has impacted journalism. It's had an effect on ethics and quality - getting it first has started to become more important, in some corners, than getting it right. We've tried very hard not to let that happen to us. There's also the money side: Do you charge for stories online? Will our digital presence eventually overcome our print presence? Probably not in my career, but it could be only a decade or so till print newspapers become quaint artifacts of the past. I hope that doesn't happen, but ... progress marches on."

As for stories that have stuck with Shaw over the years, he shared, "The one story that jumped to mind was the first story we did about the Shinnecock Nation and its plans for a gaming facility - the first time, more than a decade ago, when they had a groundbreaking ceremony at Westwoods in Hampton Bays. That one was a proud moment, because we broke the story before anyone, and we learned about it roughly an hour after our print deadline at the time. So we made a conscious effort to plan the entire week's coverage right then, and the goal was a 'scorched earth' set of stories that answered all the questions. I think we did that, and it was a complete team effort."

"Beyond that, it might seem trite, but I really don't think back that much - the next story is always the most important one. Nobody remembers scoops about a month after!" he added.

Zeroing in on his own experience, Shaw was asked: You have interviewed and met many people over the years, not to make you pick an all-time favorite, but please name a few that influenced your thought process and truly enlightened you. He responded, "I have always liked the people who are generous with their time and thoughts. Robert Chaloner, now the Chief Administrative Officer at Stony Brook Southampton Hospital, is always a great conversation, because, unlike so many of his peers, he doesn't hold back - he is straightforward and honest. That was just essential during the pandemic. Assemblyman Fred Thiele is always a fun interview, because he, too, just doesn't have a filter - he speaks his mind, and he's always honest. They're both regular interviews, so they probably are at the top of my list."

"My favorite interview, personally, probably was of George Clinton, before he was to appear at a Westhampton Beach Performing Arts Center show - just because it was a dream interview for me. I got to ask him about the song Maggot Brain, which is one of my favorites, and I'll never forget that conversation!" he added.

When discussing the role of journalists and journalism on the East End today and how it has evolved, Shaw was very forthcoming. He stressed, "I say this all the time, and I hope people hear it: The East End of Long Island is a treasure trove for community journalism. People who live here, I think, may not realize just how good they have it. Not just our organization - all the newspapers, websites, WLIW-FM. They're all top-notch, they all focus on what's happening here, what people here need to know, and what people here have to say. They're watchdogs, and they're interesting to read and listen to, and they keep everyone ultra-informed. I truly believe there isn't another region in the United States to compare. All of us are supportive (even while being competitive!), and it makes it a joy to do the job here. I mean that."

"I just hope people realize how tenuous it all can be - these are not high-profit organizations, any of them. They all need the support of readers and listeners, and advertisers, to keep doing what they do. And we need all of them - it's so healthy for this community to have such a strong journalism presence."

So, what has been Shaw's finest moment on the job? He shared, "I'm really pleased with The Press being named the Newspaper of the Year this month by the New York Press Association. After the year we've been through, and the challenges we faced, and the importance of the coverage we provided, it was a real morale-booster, believe me. I know how good our papers are, but it's nice to hear it from your peers sometimes. And, I have to say, our merger in 2019, which brought The Sag Harbor Express together with the Press organization, was a terrific moment - I've always been a huge fan of The Express, so to be able to work on that paper, with that staff, really was a wonderful surprise, and a gift."

Moving to him being a Long Islander these last 23 years, Shaw spoke to what his favorite characteristic of Long Islanders is. He said, "They care. They really do. Even if I don't always agree with them, I love the passion. I will never object to someone writing a letter to the editor criticizing our newspaper - because if someone takes the time to write, it shows they care, and it shows that they feel like the paper belongs to them, which it does. It's such a perfect place to do journalism, because people are so engaged, they want to know, they have opinions, they want to talk about local issues. That's just a joy."

Finally, we touched upon his role as Executive Editor of the Press Newspaper Group, and I asked him to share some words about his wife, Dana, and what she has meant to him and his success. Shaw said, "As executive editor, I try to stay out of the way and let the talented folks under me do their jobs. I try my best to think big picture as much as possible, which can be done when you have so many great colleagues. It's like juggling: I'm better when I'm not thinking about what I'm doing! Because there are a lot of moving parts, and you just have to trust that it all comes together, and it always does."

He continued, "My wife, Dana, who is my photo editor (after years of working at different publications in PA), will celebrate our 30th anniversary this fall. She will kill me for saying anything at all about her - but I'll just say that Dana is an even better ambassador for our newspapers in the community than I am, since she's out there every day representing us, and her talent drives the success we have as an organization: The photos are regular cited as a key feature of what we do well, and NYPA did honor us with a Photographic Excellence award this year once again. Some couples can't imagine working together; Dana and I thrive on it. I won't get mushy, except to say that I wouldn't be anything without her. We are a team, always have been and always will be, in work and in life. She's my favorite photographer, too. (Sorry, Michael Heller.) "

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