Calgary Herald: Swerve Ahead

Shelley Youngblut created a vibrant, compelling magazine for the Calgary Herald that can serve as a model for other cities. Find out the secrets behind her editorial and financial success. This week, we feature Marlee Kostiner‘s feature from the winter issue of The Ryerson Review of Journalism.

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. Read the rest.