Shelley Youngblut had a problem. How can I get people like me to feel they can do home improvement? She was working on art ideas for a cover story titled “What’s the Worst That Can Happen?” So, when the Swerve editor-in-chief saw someone dressed as Mike Holmes at a Halloween party, she thought, Wouldn’t it be funny to put him on the cover? She found a local impersonator. Perfect! But she didn’t stop there. What if Mike Holmes had a terrible disaster? What if he ended up with a nail in his head?
When the art came in, she got really excited. But after seeing the cover photo, her staff was shocked and laughed hysterically. They thought she’d gone too far, but she was too carried away by the wit of the idea to pay attention. The cover showed the Holmes look-alike with a nail sticking out of an oozing hole in his head, blood dripping down his face onto his white T-shirt and orange overalls, his eyes rolled up and arms crossed in annoyance. Small children all over Calgary, including her own, ran screaming from the magazine. She looks at it now and thinks, What the hell was I thinking? Of course this was a terrible idea!
Youngblut isn’t afraid to take risks and can admit when she’s made a mistake. She learned two things from the “nail-in-the-head” incident—now a common reference the Swerve team uses to rein her in. Lesson number one: She has to create an environment where her staff feel comfortable enough to tell her when she’s crazy. Lesson number two: If they tell her she’s crazy, she has to listen.
Her ability to learn from experience has helped her create one of the most successful magazines in Canada. Youngblut won the Lifetime Achievement Award at the Western Magazine Awards in 2009, and her Calgary Herald insert was one of the top five winners at the 2010 National Magazine Awards. “Swerve really feels like the side of Calgary that I know,” says Chris Turner, who’s won five gold National Magazine Awards and used to contribute to the magazine regularly. “It’s smart, witty, culturally sophisticated and interesting.” Youngblut hasn’t just given local writers an outlet to do some of their best work; she’s created a city magazine that could serve as a model for editors and publishers in other urban centres.
Youngblut was a dreamy child. At nine, while camping with her family, she wandered deep into the woods. The trees were green and lush. The air was cool and warm at the same time. It was both scary and comforting. Maybe even magical. She lay down and placed her cheek against the grass. She heard her mother calling. Maybe I’ll never go back, she thought. She changed her mind, but decided to take a little piece of that place with her. Whenever she has moments of confusion or self-doubt, she puts herself back there and feels in tune. That’s where her inspiration comes from. Even at a young age, she could see beneath the surface. In magazines, it helps to be able to see the hidden side of people and stories.
A tall, skinny, bespectacled, brace-faced keener, she sat on her hands in class so she wouldn’t put them up constantly. As a teenager, she read Playboy (her dad’s) and Cosmopolitan (her mom’s) and dreamed of working in New York City. In 1983, while studying English at the University of Calgary, she created Vox, an alternative music magazine. After graduation, she headed east and worked as the production editor at Toronto, then managing editor of T.O., both of which are now defunct. In 1989, she left for Vancouver to work as senior editor, and later managing editor, at West.
After attending the Stanford Publishing Course for Professionals in 1991, she co-created a magazine called Jane for women in their 20s and 30s. It never launched—though, later, another magazine of the same name did—but Youngblut made contacts in New York. She won a green card in the lottery and sent Gary Hoenig, editor of a proposed ESPN magazine, an e-mail with the top 10 reasons he should hire her. He did. Hearst Corporation executives weren’t ready to spend $75 million to launch the magazine, but they also didn’t want to let it go, so they just kept the team in limbo making test magazines—for four years.
In the very first year, an executive told Hoenig, “You’re dead. Send them all home.” It’s a passing thing, he thought. When they escort them out of the building, that’s when I’ll tell them. He let everyone keep working until Hearst changed its mind. In Swerve’s earliest days, when most people thought it would fail, Youngblut remembered her mentor and kept fighting.
Not that she’s never failed. Youngblut has been fired twice. At T.O., she was still green and didn’t understand that the managing editor’s job was to support the editor, not be the editor. Then, as Seventeen’s executive editor in 1994, she and editor-in-chief Caroline Miller didn’t see eye-to-eye. Youngblut had a strong vision for the magazine, and it clashed with what her boss had in mind. After a year, Miller sat her down and said, “This isn’t working.” Youngblut knew it was true. She couldn’t stand being number two, and she couldn’t be herself. Before her departure, she led Seventeen’s 50th anniversary edition, which meant rummaging through 50 years worth of issues. For the girl who once sat in the Toronto Reference Library, poring over magazines for hours and memorizing bylines, it was a dream job. After that, she went back to ESPN The Magazine, which eventually launched in 1998.
Two years later, when Youngblut was 38, she thought, I’m never going to have children. I’m never going to find love. I will be a workaholic for the rest of my life. Then she met Michael Kelly, associate controller for Fairchild Publications and eight years her junior, at a party. Five months later she was pregnant—with identical twins. But at 16 weeks they weren’t growing. The doctors at Mount Sinai Medical Center thought it was twin-to-twin transfusion, a syndrome with an extremely high mortality rate, and they wanted her to abort both babies. But when Youngblut hears no, she figures out a way to get to yes. She started researching at Barnes & Noble. Then she called different doctors across the country until she realized she might not have twin-to-twin transfusion after all. She took her findings back to the hospital and promised she wouldn’t sue the doctors. A month after marrying Kelly, she had an emergency C-section: the baby girls were tiny, but alive.
Youngblut had stopped working when she found out there were problems with the pregnancy. She stayed home with the babies for two years. Then Kelly lost his job, so Youngblut called Hoenig. “I need to come back to work,” she said. “Whatever you want,” he replied. “How much money do you need?” He agreed to let her work part-time from home. One day, she had a photographer on the phone, discussing a recent photoshoot with Lance Armstrong. She was breastfeeding both babies at the same time and thinking, Oh, if only you knew what I’m doing right now.
She was in over her head. The job was too much to handle and she decided to move back to Calgary to be near her family. While preparing to move, she started writing an arts and culture column for the Herald. Soon after, Malcolm Kirk, then the paper’s editor-in-chief, asked Youngblut to develop a prototype of a dynamic, thought-provoking events guide. She had brainstormed ideas with him, but she decided to add her own spin—not exactly what Kirk asked for but something she was driven to see work. Kirk went for it. Swerve began publishing in November 2004, in part with the money the paper would have spent on a travel budget for hockey reporters if the NHL hadn’t locked out its players.
Youngblut never thought Kirk would make her the editor-in-chief. And even if he did, she wasn’t sure she’d want it. She had two small babies and was burnt out from ESPN. But she really wanted to be part of the conversation about Calgary, making it a better city and creating a relevant magazine. She’s also not very good at saying no.
Square-shaped like an old rotogravure, Swerve has elements of the past. Rotogravures (also called supplements or rotos, the name comes from the printing process) were newspaper inserts that emerged in the Canadian market in 1905 with The Montreal Standard. The original rotos were aesthetically pleasing for their time (they were about 18 pages, printed on newsprint, with an emphasis on photographs). Weekend Picture Magazine, which launched in 1951, combined components from rotogravures and magazines. It had a cleaner layout and a new emphasis on feature stories, in addition to high-quality colour photography and black-and-white illustrations, though the paper quality remained low. By the 1960s, Weekend’s national circulation had reached two million through 41 dailies.
The 1965 launch of The Canadian Magazine (which later became The Canadian), a collaboration between the Toronto Star and the Southam newspaper chain, initiated a feisty editorial roto war with Weekend. The new journalism movement was underway in the U.S. and Canada, and writers and editors broke conventions, focusing on narrative techniques. Don Obe took over as editor-in-chief of The Canadian in 1974 and had staff writers such as Roy MacGregor, Earl McRae and Tom Alderman. He encouraged them to write with a voice and point of view.
Swerve’s imaginative long-form journalism and top visual quality on so-so stock is a throwback to the rotos. The magazine’s layout is clean and mostly uncluttered. Readers can expect an in-depth cover story, typically around six to ten pages long (though its longest, “The Unbelievable Story of the Most Famous Indian in the World,” ran 14 pages). One week, the cover is jolly and service-friendly: “32 Ways to Solve Your Gift-Giving Dilemmas,” beside an illustration of an animated Christmas tree. Two weeks later, the cover—dark and controversial, with a female hand holding an old picture of a young boy—sells a story about a transgendered woman. The sans-serif body font keeps it fresh, yet there are sporadic dabs of Santa Fe LET, a swirly type that hints at Swerve’s (and Youngblut’s) positive energy.
The front of book, which takes up half the magazine, is a light and service-focused events guide. Staying In discusses TV shows and movies; Going Out details arts and culture events, such as theatre productions, comedy shows and concerts; and Living and Eats + Drinks appear on alternate weeks. The last page, called Our Town, emphasizes Swerve’s role as a city magazine. It features a colourful image and a short description of a random and sometimes obscure person, place or event—a hockey puck–marked garage door in suburban Evergreen, the elevator at the Epcor Centre or Calgary’s first automobile accident in 1912.
Swerve’s cover stories are heavily researched and commonly relay a specific point of view. The departments are often about the personal experiences of the writers. Cynthia Cushing related the trials and tribulations of a trip to Paris with her three sisters. Bretton Davie wrote a blunt piece about unemployment and how, instead of finding herself, as many people claimed she would, she lost herself. Each story features the strong voice of the writer rather than the omniscient voice of the magazine. Writers never pretend to be objective. They’re honest. They’re quirky. But all the different voices flow together like a conversation. While other Calgary publications may feel the need to defend the city’s honour, Swerve treats the city like a modern, cosmopolitan place, not some parochial cow town that needs boosterism or coddling.
The magazine is a chip off the old block: like Youngblut, it’s funny, smart, colourful, unpredictable and open.“I hate magazines that make you feel that if you don’t have the right haircut or eat at the right restaurant or you don’t know the right people, your life is shit,” she says. “We can appeal to the best in people by celebrating everybody.
That’s also how she treats her contributors. Maybe it’s the fact that she thinks she’s a bad writer, or that she considers writing the hardest thing to do, but contributors see Youngblut as a writer’s editor.
With just $4,000 to dole out to freelancers each issue, Swerve can’t pay much. Rather than shell out on a per-word basis, as most magazines do, Youngblut comes up with a number based on how much work will be involved. And there’s no special treatment. Marc Rimmer, a recent Alberta College of Art and Design graduate, gets the same for his photos as George Webber, winner of numerous National Magazine Awards, including gold in 2010. A 20-year-old writer gets the same as a veteran: usually $1,400 for a cover story. Youngblut wishes she could give more, but tries to make up for it by letting contributors work on what they want—even things that may not be published elsewhere.
It’s a simple strategy: seek out great writers, photographers and illustrators, and let them pursue their interests.
One of the things I believe in strongly is the get-out-of-jail-free idea,” says Youngblut. “Everybody I work with is allowed one idea, even if I hate it, even if everybody else hates it. If you feel passionately about this one idea, you should have it published.
Tyee Bridge wrote a piece, “The End Is Here,” about the apocalypse and Antarctica, and he had trouble selling it to other publications, including The Walrus. The article was a perfect fit for Swerve. Youngblut valued the quality of writing and Bridge’s passion for the subject, and she thought her readers were capable of appreciating a meaty story. Though Swerve’s readership is primarily women, after the piece ran, she received an unexpected number of calls and e-mails from men in their 40s to 60s who loved it. “Swerve is the place that publishes the stories that nobody else will publish,” she says. “And it’s not because the stories are bad, it’s because everybody else’s definition of a magazine is too narrow.”
An orchestra conductor doesn’t teach musicians how to play their instruments, and Youngblut takes the same approach with her contributors—she merely leads them in the right direction. Trust is an important part of that relationship. A hard-copy query isn’t necessary; she prefers a five-minute phone conversation. When frequent writers have trouble articulating a story idea, she often stops them and says, “The answer is yes.”
She also stands behind her contributors. Two years ago, Canwest told all of its editors to have freelancers sign a contract that waived their copyrights, including moral rights. Youngblut couldn’t do this. She feels her writers and photographers should have a sense of ownership over their contributions; she thinks that’s an integral part of what makes her magazine unique within Postmedia Network Inc., formerly Canwest. Her bosses let it go.
While she prides herself on using budding local talent, Youngblut still sometimes seeks outside help. This irks Kevin Brooker, a Herald columnist and regular Swerve contributor. “When I see Steve Burgess getting Calgary dollars, I’m not too crazy about it—because that guy lives in Vancouver. He doesn’t really know how we live,” he says, adding that each time an out-of-town writer gets a prime listen-to-me article, there’s one fewer Calgarian learning the genre and becoming an important voice in the community. Youngblut responds,
If there’s a writer in Calgary who’s great for Swerve, I would use them over a writer in Vancouver or Toronto.” But she’s picky. “I want the best writers,” she says. “If they come from the States, but their stories resonate in Calgary, then that’s great.” The stories aren’t necessarily geographical, but rather about social trends or a particular point of view. “We’re not going to limit the talent pool based on location,” she says. “A generic story isn’t going to fly. Our standards are higher.
The office is anything but glamorous. “I’m somewhat embarrassed by the Swerve offices. Just be kind when you walk in (some freelancers are horrified),” Youngblut admitted in an e-mail. The turf-like grey carpet spans approximately 2,000 square feet of space, which is way too big for the five full-time employees who work in the back left corner. Youngblut’s desk, separated from the rest in the front of the room, is twice the size of her colleagues’ and covered with papers and past issues. The magazine’s archives are an organized disaster of back issues piled in chronological order on tables and in bookcases. The drop ceiling has a crack where the staff hung a disco ball last year. A scantily clad mannequin wearing a silver Santa hat stands in the middle of the room. Named Zelda, she was naked until passersby, who could see her through the window, complained.
Though the staff like to laugh, the financial side of the magazine is no joke. An upside to inserts is the built-in readership, but Swerve actually helped keep the Herald’s Friday numbers above 110,000. TVtimes, the previous insert, had been a circulation and advertising gold mine, but soon there were too many channels for listings, and the information was available on the internet and TV screens anyway. Like other papers, the Herald dropped its television guide and Friday readership fell. The paper hoped that Swerve would help solve the problem. And it did.
But not even Youngblut could anticipate how big the impact would be. This year, the magazine sold more than $2 million in ads—20 percent higher than the year before. “Our advertising revenue has consistently gone up at a time when all other newspaper revenue has gone down,” Youngblut says. Starting in October 2009, 5,000 free copies of Swerve went rogue from the paper each week and became available around the city. The pickup rate at stands located in high-traffic areas is always above 80 percent and reached a high of 94 percent last September. Fears that this would cause the Herald’s Friday circulation to go down have proved unfounded, she says. “People who wouldn’t otherwise read the paper, but would read Swerve, now have an opportunity to do that.”
Like Youngblut, Kirk believes Swerve is a model that could work in other cities.
It certainly has been on the radar as one of the possibilities,” says Kirk, who is currently executive vice president of digital media at Postmedia. “There are elements of the magazine that could travel quite nicely between markets,” he says. “But you would also need to make sure that you have the same kind of resource commitment that we currently have here in Calgary.
Profitability takes a while, but he notes that Swerve actually helped the Herald through tough times by securing advertisers for a younger market.
If a magazine supplement seems too financially daunting, Swerve’s new website might offer an alternative model. The magazine’s old site consisted of a list of links to the week’s articles, without a photo or format of any kind in sight. Just text. It was more like a digital archive of the articles than a website. But Guy Huntingford green lit the new venture not even two weeks after joining the Herald as publisher in August. It was scheduled to launch in December—six years after Swerve’s inaugural issue. “Unlike other media that have had to pull back and give people less, somehow, every year, we have tried to give people more,” says Youngblut. “And I think the website is, in some ways, even more groundbreaking than Swerve the magazine.”
Two months before the launch, though, Youngblut wondered whether she could do it. She had known what it would take to launch a magazine, but a website was a scary new experience. “For the first time in a long while, I’m flying blind,” she said. “It’s like I’ve been trying to get pregnant for six years, and then all of a sudden, somebody comes up to me and says, ‘You’re seven months pregnant. And you’re having octuplets.’” Not to worry, though. She’s overcome so much in the past that a little fear mixed with some unknown territory should be easy.
–with thanks to Marlee Kostiner from the Ryerson Review of Journalism, December 2010
You can check out Swerve’s new website at swervecalgary.com.