Shaw died at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles of complications from a brain tumor that was discovered in late May, said his wife, Lucy.
Since 2002, Shaw had been writing about two of his passions, food and wine, for the paper's weekly Food section. He also continued to reflect on the media in a column that appeared in Sunday Calendar.
But for most of his 37 years at The Times, Shaw used his energies to dissect trends and issues in the print and electronic media.
"He became a kind of educator for the general public who could come away from his many articles with a greater understanding of the news," said Ben Bagdikian, a media critic himself and former dean of the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism. "His detail and clarity of writing was an enormous contribution to journalism."
Among Shaw's targets were movie criticism, best-seller lists, editorial cartooning, the use and abuse of political polls, the perceived influence of editorial endorsements in politics, coverage of the abortion issue, restaurant criticism, the Pulitzer Prize selection process, coverage of the pope and obituary writing.
"He had real clout in the craft," said Jim Naughton, former president of the Poynter Institute for Media Studies and former executive editor of the Philadelphia Inquirer. "If the White House criticized your work, you looked for the political motive. If David Shaw criticized your work, you looked for ways to improve your work."
"We are in the age of transparency in journalism," said Tom Rosenstiel, director of the Project for Excellence in Journalism and a former colleague of Shaw's at The Times. "David was the first guy outside washing the windows."
Shaw was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for criticism in 1991 for his four-part series examining coverage of the McMartin molestation case. The case, which gained national attention, involved allegations that more than 60 children had been subject to sexual abuse and satanic rites while in the care of the McMartin Pre-School in Manhattan Beach. The legal proceedings dragged on for seven years, and ultimately no one was convicted of a crime.
Shaw's series began a day after the not-guilty verdicts were announced in January 1990. Among other conclusions, he found that most of the reporting was reactive rather than investigative. He also discerned a failure to carefully examine how the prosecution's case was developed and filed.
"Such reporting," Shaw said, "might have raised questions about what [then]-Dist. Atty. Ira Reiner later conceded was 'incredibly weak' evidence in the case."
The Times' coverage was included in Shaw's criticism.
Although his beat was not unique in American journalism, his work was. An exhaustive and tenacious reporter, he would take months to investigate a story, talking to hundreds of sources, some of them several times. His pieces usually consumed at least two full inside pages after beginning on Page 1.
Shaw's beat was created in 1974 by William F. Thomas, then editor of The Times. In Thomas' view, the subject that the news media — including The Times — covered most abysmally was itself. Thomas, Shaw later wrote, thought that the inability of the press to explain how it worked and quickly admit its errors was a key reason for declining circulation and a loss in credibility.
Thomas "wanted me to write about the press as I had written about other subjects — to provide long, thoughtful overviews on broad issues confronting the press today, to analyze, criticize and make value judgments, to treat my own newspaper as I would any other, to write as if my stories were to appear in some other publication (say Harper's or the New Yorker)," Shaw wrote in New York magazine some years ago. The article ran under the headline "Newspapers Can Dish It Out but Can They Take It?"
In 1999 Shaw most notably fulfilled the mission conceived by Thomas, when he filed a tough-minded, 37,000-word analysis of the factors that led to what became known as the Staples Center scandal.
The newspaper and the sports and entertainment center had agreed that year to split profits on the sale of ads in a special issue of the Los Angeles Times Magazine devoted entirely to the new arena. The agreement was signed during the tenure of Publisher Mark Willes and carried out by his successor, Kathryn Downing, both novices in the newspaper business.
The deal violated a primary tenet of journalism: that papers should not enter into business deals with those they cover.