Death in the Community
Thirty-four-year-old Stephen Shaw excelled in capturing the heartbeat of local life. Then without warning, his heart stopped minutes after he won his second Reporter of the Year Award
When Stephen Shaw died on March 6, 2004, it wasn’t national news. It didn’t make The Globe and Mail, and was buried in the GTA section of The Toronto Star. But on March 10, the front-page headline of Oshawa This Week read, “We’ll miss you Stephen.” For weeks, Shaw’s newspaper was flooded with condolences and tributes, making it clear that, as one article stated, “Stephen Shaw left at the top of his game.”
In a big city, you’re likely to see your name in the paper three times – your birth, your marriage, and your death – and you’ll probably pay for it each time. Community news is different. It doesn’t report on dangers on the other side of the world; it reports on dangers on the other side of the street. And it was here that Shaw excelled. He cared about the stories he wrote because he cared about the community in which he lived. He was a big-time reporter working for a small-town newspaper, and by age 34, he’d already made a name for himself covering the crime beat in Durham Region, just east of Toronto.
In short, Shaw embodied everything good about community journalism; he was persistent, reliable, and committed. In a medium where reporters often blow through a small-town paper on their way to the big dailies with higher salaries and larger circulations, Shaw became a staple. While his considerable reputation – which was well-earned, with numerous award-winning stories to show for it – could have secured him a position in any of Toronto’s four major papers, he chose to stay in community news, where he approached each story with passion and determination. “It’s rare you see someone that carries that excitement in his job,” says Chris Bovie, the managing editor of This Week. “Whenever someone loves their work that much, it really shows.”
Perkins wanted to congratulate Shaw on his first national win the year before, and to wish him well that night. She was especially proud of his achievements, having given him his first job out of Humber College’s journalism school in 1993. Haliburton was the closest job to Toronto Shaw could find, more than three-and-a-half hours north of the city. The Echo is a small paper, even by community news standards, boasting a staff of three: an editor, a reporter, and a photographer, who is shared with the Minden Times. While the Echo gave Shaw the opportunity to take on a lot of responsibility, the community didn’t offer much in the way of big news. According to Shaw, in Haliburton, “If it moves, you write about it.”
Shaw did have the opportunity to cover one major story – the shooting death of a police officer in nearby Lindsay, Ontario. It was on this case he met lawyer Bernie O’Brien, who remembers Shaw as a different breed of reporter. “You get conditioned to being asked a certain set of questions,” says O’Brien. “Stephen had a way of looking at cases from a different perspective. He never dwelt on just, for instance, money issues, like most reporters. He would be more interested in the effect the judgement would have on police services.”
But big news, like murder and crime, doesn’t often occur in cottage country, and Shaw soon grew restless. While some reporters might have been content in the Keillor-esque paradise, Shaw was not. He had grown up in the Greater Toronto Area, and the slow-moving town had little to offer him and his wife, May, in the way of entertainment. They were also wary of understaffed small-town hospitals. When May became pregnant with their first child, Shaw started looking for another job. Specifically, he wanted something that would let him raise his family in a safe neighbourhood with a short commute to work. So, when an offer came through from This Week, a Metroland paper covering Oshawa and Whitby, he jumped at it.
While still a community newspaper, This Week afforded Shaw the chance to develop a beat and pursue tougher stories than he had in cottage country, thanks to the resources of Metroland, a Torstar subsidiary that produces dozens of papers in southern Ontario. While he lived in Whitby and worked out of the Oshawa office, the Metroland setup offered Shaw the opportunity to write copy for one or all of the region’s eight papers, potentially reaching an audience of 700,000. Shaw excelled at his new job, and soon earned a reputation of being a diligent, if sometimes stubborn, reporter. Coworkers remember many heated arguments over a word or sentence in one of his pieces. “Steve would hover over the shoulder of the editor and make him qualify each and every change that he would suggest – even the movement of a comma or the questioning of a semicolon,” says Steve Houston, a former managing editor at the paper. “He was passionate about each and every word he wrote.”
That same attention to detail was what made him an outstanding crime reporter, and he quickly developed a long list of connections. Having earned their trust, these contacts would often go out on a limb for him. When O’Brien came across Shaw again in Oshawa, the two developed a close relationship. “When he was covering a story, it wouldn’t be uncommon for me to find him at the doorstep of my office at 8:15 in the morning, before anyone else arrived, wanting to know if he could get some sort of lead or document,” says O’Brien. “He knew he shouldn’t be there, but he’d say, ‘Oh, can you help me with this,’ and you would. You could tell him things that really should not find their place on the front page of the newspaper, but he needed it to know the entire perspective.”
In Oshawa, Shaw broke many front-page stories, some of which were picked up by one or all of Toronto’s dailies. One that garnered a lot of attention was the Bryan Davies fraud scandal. Davies, a former assistant Crown attorney, had been a reliable contact of Shaw’s. When tipped off that Davies was accused of fraud, Shaw was reluctant to write the story and begged that it be reassigned, worrying that it would hurt his relationship with Davies as well as with other inside sources at the courthouse. After being ordered to report on the story anyway, Shaw followed the case and filed the piece almost a year later, when the official charges were laid. In the end, Shaw’s professionalism shone through a fair and accurate story that won him his first Canadian Community Newspaper Association (CCNA) award for Best News Story of 2002.
In his eight years of working at This Week, Shaw won five OCNA awards, three CCNA awards, and showed no signs of slowing down. His February 2004 piece on the Blackstock child abuse case – the story of two teenagers found locked in cages in their grandparents’ farmhouse – was raising talk of a guaranteed nomination for next year’s awards. He was making a name for himself, not only in Durham Region, but across the country.
Back at the 2004 Better Newspapers awards night in Toronto, anticipation was high among This Week staffers. It was time for the Reporter of the Year to be announced.
“Reporter of the Year… Stephen Shaw.”
When Shaw heard his name, he smiled and made his way up to the platform to accept his prize. It wasn’t customary for winners to give a speech, and in Shaw’s case, that was a good thing – he wasn’t a speech sort of guy. Instead, he returned to his seat, beaming. It was his second award of the night, having already picked up Best Investigative Story. That story concerned a man named George Vancurenko, who police thought had killed a woman, but had been found not criminally responsible and put into the care of the Whitby Mental Health Centre. He was later released to live on his own in the Oshawa area, until nine years later when his outpatient status was revoked. When Shaw had first heard about a review board hearing for Vancurenko, he’d been denied entry into the boardroom. Intrigued, he began digging and discovered that not only had Vancurenko been the prime suspect in a homicide investigation, but since being released from the Mental Health Centre 10 years earlier, he had been involved in other criminal activity. Because of a lack of communication, the Whitby Mental Health Centre had not known about these arrests.
Shaw was outraged that such negligence had occurred in his own community and felt compelled to write about it. Lawyer Tony Wong was assigned to work with Shaw on overturning the publication ban on the Vancurenko case – a process that took 18 months. At times, Wong didn’t see the point in pursuing the case; by the time the ban was overturned, the story would be well out of date, and Vancurenko had already been returned to custody. But Shaw never lost his drive, insisting the public needed to know what had happened, despite the time lapse. In the end, the ban was overturned. Shaw wrote his story, and the public responded, resulting in the Durham Regional Police devising a system of direct communication with the Mental Health Centre to prevent such a case from happening again. One day, he asked Shaw why, since he had such an interest in the law, he had become a journalist and not a lawyer. “Because,” Shaw replied, “this is much more fun.”
After the awards were handed out, the winners lined up to get their photos taken. Shaw beamed as he joined his colleagues in line. Just as they were getting ready for their turn in the photography room, Shaw made a noise, grabbed for the wall, and collapsed.
From the corner of the room, Carol McNair saw Shaw go down. A nurse practitioner at Toronto’s Hospital for Sick Children, she ran to help. When she got there, Shaw was still conscious and gasping for breath. Then he passed out. McNair did a quick assessment of Shaw: an intermittent heartbeat. Immediately, she and This Week photographer Jason Leibregts began CPR. Shaw’s colleagues and friends could do nothing but stand and watch.
This Week’s editor-in-chief Joanne Burghardt used her cell phone to call Shaw’s wife, who was home with the kids in Whitby, a half-hour drive into Toronto. As the paramedics arrived on the scene, Burghardt arranged for her own mother to drive May to meet the ambulance at the hospital. By the time they took Shaw from the room, it had been over an hour since he had collapsed. McNair exchanged a glance with the paramedics. They knew it was over.
Shaw died of genetically inherited cardiomyopathy, a disease that weakens the heart muscle. Shaw did not have life insurance, leaving May, a stay-at-home mom, and their two children, Justin, 8, and Sydney, 4, emotionally and financially devastated. The paper and the community rallied to get them back on their feet. The staff of the paper donated their OCNA and CCNA award bonuses to Shaw’s family, and Metroland doubled that sum. Within a week of Shaw’s death, both the OCNA and CCNA announced that they were each renaming an award in Shaw’s honour. Newspapers across Metroland held fundraisers, and Burghardt established the Friends of Stephen Shaw Fund, where people could donate to the family, and many from the community did. For weeks, cheques crossed Burghardt’s desk from Shaw’s sources, including the lawyers and police who knew him well. But they also came from people who knew Shaw only from his byline, such as members of the local Jewish community, who were touched by a recent piece he had written condemning anti-Semitic graffiti.
Staff writer Carly Foster took the job of clearing out Shaw’s desk, throwing out the half-eaten bag of Sweet Tarts and sealing his notes for storage because of the sensitive nature of the court cases he had been working on. As she was clearing out his drawers, she came across a file containing letters from lawyers, police officers, and even one from the mayor, praising Shaw for his professionalism. No one had ever seen these letters – Shaw wouldn’t have shown them to anyone. He just filed them away quietly.
Shaw didn’t write for praise, nor did he aim for awards, though he certainly got both. He wrote because he loved his job. And whether he realized it or not, he made a difference. “Community journalism gives you the opportunity to touch the lives of people and see the impact directly,” says Terri Arnott, one of Shaw’s instructors at Humber. “You get the immediate feedback that you normally wouldn’t get in a big paper. You can see your story making a difference.”
Of course, community journalism is not the first choice of many budding journalists. Many renowned journalists have started at weeklies, but few have ever stayed. Martin Derbyshire is a crime and justice reporter for the York Region of Metroland, and he understands why a reporter would want to move up to a bigger and better paper. The reality is that community news comes from smaller papers, and as important as the angle might be, they can’t compete with the allure of the dailies. “Community newspapers are not the big papers. They don’t make that kind of money, so they can’t pay that kind of money,” he says. “And it’s not just about money, it’s the big stories and the big exposure. It takes a certain type of journalist to not care about that type of thing. Most people that get into the business want to be Woodward and Bernstein, and you’re not going to be Woodward and Bernstein at the local community rag.”
Derbyshire began his reporting career at This Week, where he sat next to Shaw. He remembers joking with him about being the only two Jewish men in Whitby, and about the fact that Shaw, not a sportsman at all, had joined the Crown attorney’s ball hockey league in order to make contacts. “So many people see community newspapers as a stepping stone. Shaw was the exact opposite of that. Community newspapers weren’t a means to an end for him – they were an end. He was content to be where he was and wanted to do the best work in the place that he was at. He was the guy that every reporter wanted to be.”
Stephanie Girardi was a Spring 2015 departments editor of the RRJ.