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Who: Sierra Shafer, Editor-in-Chief of Powder Magazine
Recorded on: December 9, 2020
Why I interviewed her: Because over the half past century, no single entity has better defined how we ski, what we ski, and the way that we think and talk about skiing than Powder Magazine. It is a guidebook and a glossary and a portal to untold ski Narnias beyond our limited worlds. Without it, we are all standing in that gondola line at Vail last year, amazed at the glimmer and expense of it all but confused about what to do. Some of us have our helmets on backwards and we’re ready to shred the groomers in these newfangled parabolic skis and it’s gonna be great man because no winter is complete without our three-day annual ski vacation. Powder defined the possible beyond that staid and stampeding and limited resort experience. And what was possible, it turned out, was almost anything. This world is filled with mountains and it’s filled with snow and Powder was our printed Hollywood, teleporting us into places so surreal and spectacular that they would make Pandora sneak out the back door in embarrassment. There are people who ski and there are skiers, man, and if you don’t know what the difference is you will by the time you hit the Shooting Gallery in any issue of Powder. It’s our compass. Or it was. Because shit someone just turned off the magnetic field and now we have no idea which way to go, and excuse me Sir but exactly how does the Earth just stop having a north? Oh I see. So I just follow the signs to Lionshead and everything will be cool? OK thanks so much for that Epic tip. Skiing really is just swell.
What we talked about: How the American Media acquisition went down and how the Powder crew reacted; the immediate staffing and institutional changes that followed and how those impacted morale; becoming Powder’s first female editor-in-chief; honoring the magazine’s legacy while evolving it for the current world; the challenges and opportunities of creating a more inclusive magazine; killing “top women’s X or Y” lists; how Powder plans its season slate; the challenge of balancing a rad print magazine and with a rad social media operation; what happened when American Media sliced the 2019-20 production run from six to four issues; why the magazine lost its internship and fellowship programs; which subscriber demographic had been growing in recent years; Powder’s reaction to this summer’s Black Lives Matter protests; how we got the Naked Guy cover on this season’s first issue; the backstory behind that photo; whether the snippet on the first issue’s spine was a warning of the shutdown to come; when American Media delivered the news that they were furloughing the Powder staff, the reasons they gave, and how the team reacted; remaking the final issue in just two weeks; planning the cover for the final issue once they realized it would be the final issue; measuring the magazine’s impact via the testimonials that tumbled in after The Terrible News broke; Easter eggs in the final issue; what American Media is offering Powder subscribers in place of future issues and what it revealed about how well they know their own magazine; whether the magazine is for sale and how much interest there is in purchasing it; what future hypothetical owners would need to do to make Powder sustainable; the appeal of paper in the digital wormhole of 2020; and optimism for the future of ski magazines.
Questions I wish I’d asked: I wasn’t entirely clear why changes in California labor laws led to the loss of Powder’s internship programs, and I should have asked Shafer to elaborate on that a bit. I also wanted to ask what the alternative to the Naked Guy cover was that the team had prepared in case the A360 execs rejected it.
Why I thought that now was a good time for this interview: Because well you see I looked around for the complaint department at A360 Media, the skier-hating corporate overlords who decided that the best way to end 2020 was to shut down the greatest ski magazine of all time, but I couldn’t find the gosh-darn thing and so here we are. I wanted to hear the full story of A360’s tenure, which has been defined by abrupt then steady cuts that ended with the biggest cut of all: everything. Powder Magazine is no more(-ish), and we need answers, damn it, and Shafer was the best positioned person to give us the broadest possible context about what happened, why it happened, and what may come next.
Former Powder editor and current Adventure Journal editor Steve Casimiro wrote a pair of reactions to the shutdown news.
My own thoughts on Powder
The shuttering of Powder comes just a few years after Skiing closed after a nearly 70-year run. While not as beloved by the hardcore, Skiing was a hell of a good magazine. This tribute by Mike Peruzzi is the best statement of the magazine’s mission and legacy that I’m aware of.
Let’s not let this happen again
Here are some ski mags you can still subscribe to:
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