“I hate mags that make you feel that if you don't have the right haircut or eat at the right restaurant or don't know the right people, your life is shit,” says Youngblut
Photography by Heather Saitz
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.
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
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
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.
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
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.
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
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
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.”
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.”
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
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
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
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.