Chris Schwarz's Blog

On Steve Shanesy’s Last Day

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All woodworking stories are – by definition – somewhat sappy. This one is even more so.

The day I met Steve Shanesy I was a burned-out writer, designer and editor. I was managing a newspaper that was swirling around the rim of the toilet bowl. I was writing about politics – something I didn’t care about. The only thing keeping me sane was building butt-ugly furniture on my back porch.

But this story isn’t about me. It’s about the guy you never read about.

Steve was always a behind-the-scenes worker at Popular Woodworking. When we both started working there in the 1990s, the magazine catered to the crafty set. We’d been commanded to publish at least 15 projects in every issue, and many of them had to be explained in only a page or two of the magazine.

It was an exhausting and stupid strategy that had been cooked up by the management of our parent company. Steve went along with their plan – it kept the lights on – until he could make the case that a better magazine would make better money.

And after a few years of agonizing battles, Steve began to turn the ship around. When we published the September 1999 issue, it was like the entire staff had been granted a new lease on life. We redesigned the magazine (farewell hot pink and lime green) with what we called “man colors” – dark reds and blues and greens. Steve twisted the arm of every designer in the process to get what we needed.

Sept1999And, horror of horrors, we put a handplane on the cover of that issue.

Thanks to Steve, this watershed issue was the beginning of a landslide of changes to the magazine that snowballed into the magazine that now is the only woodworking magazine I read cover to cover.

From 1999 until I became editor, Steve and all of us on the staff made major changes to the magazine and our business while our parent company was in flux – like every other media company out there. We opened the company’s first online store. We launched a woodworking conference. We started the company’s first blog.

For these critical changes, Steve never asked permission from the people above him. Cautiously, he told us to move forward and vowed to protect our backs.

And unlike every other boss I’ve ever worked for, Steve did. Despite our regular insubordination, none of us was fired. That might not sound like a big deal to most people. But in publishing, firings are as common as potato salad at a picnic.

So when Steve announced he was retiring this month, I wasn’t surprised. But I was a little sad. He had vowed to retire many times during our 15 years together, but he always found some new threat or challenge to the magazine that kept him in “the chair” – the Herman Miller Aeron he had earned as an executive at our company.

Now that he’s leaving, I have only one thing to say, and it is a challenge to the people who run the magazine today and in the future: Good magazines aren’t about the writers or the photography or the thickness of the paper stock. They are about the integrity of whole business, which needs to be nurtured, considered carefully and – above all – protected from short-sighted business decisions.

I don’t know if anyone can do as good a job as Steve did. But I hope they will try.

— Christopher Schwarz

16 thoughts on “On Steve Shanesy’s Last Day

  1. BobGroh

    I am just a lowly wood hacker and have been a subscriber for several years. I can certainly say that Popular Woodworking has become my wood working magazine of choice (even better than (heresy!!!) Fine Woodworking which I also subscribe to). I save all the back issues, I read and re-read them from cover to cover, I buy many of the books, read the blogs by all the editors and authors – well, let’s just say I really, really like Popular Woodworking. I appreciate all the effort that everyone puts in and wish everyone the very best in keeping things going. I have a lot of woodworking to do and I would like to have PW along with me.

  2. B Jackson

    Here’s a question (Don Williams will probably scorch my a$$ for this; after all, this is the real world and all): What would it take to make PWW a truly “subscriber-owned” magazine, rather than a subsidiary of a corporation?

    I pose this question because I, for one, am not really hidebound to the traditional corporate-subsidiary model.

    1. B Jackson

      Just so you know, the larger goal is to maintain the integrity of the publication. If we can free it from the larger corporate subsidiary structure where all the suits care about is the bottom line, this might actually preserve PWW’s independence and staying power. Having customers as investors would also increase the accountability to the goal of integrity.

      Just my two cents’ worth …

    2. knothole

      Am sorry to see Steve retiring, but he deserves it! I don’t normally subscribe to magazines owned by big publishers. The mags I do subscribe to besides PWW are Backwoodsman, Muzzleloader, and On The Trail; all independently owned and all bi-monthly. Thanks to the actions of Mr. Shanesy, PWW is more like an independently owned mag than any other I know of. Thanks to all those who were insubordinate to him also!
      If PWW could become independent, it would be free to publish whatever is needed without having to answer to anyone but the readers.

  3. Steve ShanesySteve Shanesy

    Thanks for your post, Chris. You nailed those things that were always of greatest importance to me. As editor, then publisher, I saw my responsibility as navigating the magazine and the business through stormy and fair weather alike so the editorial team could do their/our best work protected from the elements as much as possible.

    Looking back, with the help of many people and not just the editors and authors, we accomplished more than I ever thought possible. I don’t think we ever set the goal to be the best woodworking magazine in the business. It was more realistic; to produce the best woodworking magazine we could. Along the way, I believe we did produce the best magazine among many fine competitors. I’ll always be proud of our body or work.

    I also want to thank all you loyal readers and followers. Over the years, almost decades now, you’ve hung in there with us when we took risks. Your support often provided the courage we needed keep going. You likely don’t realize how thoughtful letters, phone calls and emails brightened our days when times we tough.

    But this isn’t goodbye. As Megan posted, I’ll be contributing from time to time. Let’s just say “Until we meet again.”

    Steve

    1. Katoom

      Steve, you may not have aspired to be the best woodworking magazine in the industry, but I feel that you have accomplished that. In my opinion, Popular Woodworking is the best! When I started woodworking ten years ago I subscribed to all of them. Over time I’ve eliminated all but three and Popular Woodworking is my favorite by far. Your editors are the best. Good luck and don’t fade away.

  4. DonP

    Dylan (Bob) gave us the warning “he not busy being born is busy dying” it is true for people, art, music, and even woodworking magazines.
    There is a natural though imperfect replacement for Mr Shanesy’s guardian role – we the readers. No matter our tool preference we need to keep PW the thinking woodworkers magazine.
    Thanks Don

  5. esincox

    Steve,

    Thank you for all of your years of dedication and hard work. Thank you for helping to bring us Woodworking Magazine; I still hold it high as the best woodworking publication I’ve had the pleasure of reading. Thank you for being such a big part in the only woodworking magazine I read, as well.

    I hope you have a relaxing and productive retirement.

    Best Wishes,

    Ethan

  6. Megan Fitzpatrick

    Note: I’m delighted to report that Steve is continuing his association w/us as a contributing editor, and will be blogging from time to time to let us know what’s going on in his shop. I, for one, am excited to see the work he’ll do and where his creativity will take him once he’s free from work responsibilities.

  7. Michael Kratky

    You can take the man out of the saw dust but not the saw dust out of the man, Steve isn’t going far, at 64 I’m just retiring myself so I can now finally go full time into woodworking and I do what I always wanted to.

  8. russkay42

    As a retired writer editor dealing with technical issues (computer hardware and software in my case) I can only echo the importance of an informed editor-in-0chief who will drive his magazine and protect his staff. My 30+ year experience had little in common with the reign of Steve Shanesy — instead I had publishers and editors who didn’t know what they wanted (except short-term revenue) or what our magazine was all about. Mainly, I admire Steve’s determination, his drive, and his products. But most of all, his legacy lies in the continuing string of terrific writers, editors, and personalities that make up the PW masthead. My introduction to woodworking came with a craft-center course and Fine Woodworking magazine, but like Chris, Popular Woodworking is the only one I now read. I’ve had to give up most of my own woodworking due to health reasons and mobility problems, but I still read PW cover to cover. Kudos to all involved!

  9. Sawduster

    WOW! A very well written farewll to a SUPER ediyor/manager of the single finest woodworking magazine on the news stand racks or is delivered to my mail box. The only thing you failed to mention was combinding “Woodworking” and “Poplar Woodworking” magazines which I believe pole vaulted both rags into a single outstanding publication; along with ensuring the bests authors, contributors, and editors are on the payrole.

  10. gumpbelly

    Steve and the changes he brought to a struggling woodworking rag are already in the history books. He will be missed. I just fear the Ireland run magazine will quickly bring us back to the same struggling rag, it is already changing. I wish Steve good health, and much success in his new ventures.

  11. JackRich

    “above all – protected from short-sighted business decisions”

    I can’t tell you how, oh so true, that is for nearly every institution today.

    You’d sometimes think that we’re all working for suicidal moths…..

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