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.
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
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