Joey Smallwood was born in Gambo, Newfoundland and Labrador and grew up in St. John's. As a teenager he worked as an apprentice at a newspaper and moved to New York City in 1920. In New York he worked for a socialist newspaper and met his wife, Clara in 1925. Back in Newfoundland in 1926 he founded a newspaper of his own in Corner Brook.
In 1928 he acted as campaign manager for the Prime Minister of the dominion, Sir Richard Squires. He also ran as a Liberal candidate in Bonavista in 1932, but lost the election. He continued to work for various newspapers and hosted a radio program beginning in 1937 that talked about Newfoundland's history and culture.
In 1946 he became a delegate at the National Convention, which was organized to debate the merits of joining Canadian Confederation. Smallwood supported joining Canada, believing that Britain no longer had any use for Newfoundland as a self-governing dominion, and that Canada would bring economic prosperity. He was a member of the delegation that travelled to Ottawa to discuss union, and introduced to the Convention the prospect of holding a referendum to decide the question. He created yet another newspaper, The Confederate, to promote Confederation. The referendum was successful, and in 1949 Smallwood was elected Premier of the new province. He ran Newfoundland virtually unchallenged for 22 years and won 6 elections. The seventh resulted in a tie in 1971.
He remained premier until 1972, and remained a member of the House of Assembly until 1977. After resigning from politics he wrote the Encyclopedia of Newfoundland and Labrador, publishing the first two volumes in 1981 and 1984. He died in 1991, before the entire Encyclopedia was published.