When Westchester Family editor Jean Sheff took over the helm of the magazine in 2006, the print media industry was on the brink of its most tumultuous period in generations. Publications and newspapers across the country were folding or laying off staff, as the financial downtown hit a sector already facing challenges to its business model.
“Everyone was afraid print would die. Print is not dead, but you have to do multiple things,” says Sheff, who is also the magazine’s co-publisher. “People need their information in a different format.”
Sheff has certainly overseen significant changes during her decade as editor of the monthly publication geared towards parents across the county; it now has a dynamic website, a presence on social media, and increasingly finds ways to engage readers. Articles are geared as much towards parents checking their smartphone on the go as those reading the print edition at the kitchen table.
“You write smaller bits. People don’t have as much time,” Sheff notes. “You have to meet the parent where they are.”
Westchester Family was launched in 1989 by Susan Ross and Felice Shapiro, and this past year, was purchased by Brooklyn-based CNG publishing. This has had little impact editorially, Sheff says, as the new owners stayed the course in taking over a successful product whcih aims to provide support to area parents with columns from experts, features on family-friendly activities and a calendar of events. “You don’t get a degree to be a parent. You’re kind of thrown into it,” Sheff explains. “You need somebody on your side, you need a little coaching, and you need a little support.”
After 18 years in New York City, Sheff moved here “kicking and screaming” in 1992; she was pregnant, and saw Westchester County as a natural middle ground between Manhattan and the country. “I wasn’t a big nature girl,” Sheff admits. “I was coming from the city, and I did not want to be on a dirt road with no lights.” Sheff first moved to White Plains, but then settled in Chappaqua two years later. When looking for a home, Sheff remembers that the first thing she did in each prospective community was visit the local library. “If I liked the library it had a chance,” she recalls. “I went into the Chappaqua Library, and I fell in love. And then I got really serious about looking into Chappaqua.”
Sheff had been working for UNICEF, but left in 1997 to work as a freelance writer for several publications (including Inside Chappaqua!). In 2004, she began freelancing for Westchester Family and two years later she became the magazine’s editor. “All my life, I’ve always been interested in children and families,” says Sheff. “It was just what I was passionate about, right to this day.”
Sheff lived in Chappaqua for two decades, moving to neighboring Briarcliff Manor in 2013. Her daughter, Juliana, now an account manager for the clothing company PVH, went through the Chappaqua school district, graduating from Horace Greeley High School in 2010.
At Westchester Family, Sheff and a small team of two sales managers, editors and mostly freelance writers have built on the magazine’s initial success, staying true to what made the magazine successful. But along with incorporating changes to the medium, the coverage has also evolved. While many of the articles feature local activities or destinations–one of its most popular stories, Sheff notes, tells readers where to go for the best apple picking–the magazine doesn’t shy away from topics like domestic violence.
“It is a good combination of information for parents and features and articles that parents want to read and know about,” says Susan Goldberg, a Chappaqua resident who has worked for the magazine as the calendar editor since 2011. “My kids are adults now, but I think when I was a young mother I would have loved this kind of resource.”
Sheff’s coverage has allowed her to meet and interview some notable sources, from then-Yankees manager Joe Torre to, most recently, Dateline NBC correspondent Andrea Canning. For a profile on Sesame Street, Sheff toured the show’s studios in Astoria, Queens.
But just as important to Sheff are her conversations with the magazine’s readers, which she uses as an “informal focus group” to gauge the publication’s impact.
“Even people who don’t have kids anymore will say, ‘I used to read that all the time. I raised my kids with that magazine,’” she says. “It’s very endearing. They’re very appreciative.”
And it hasn’t just been local parents who have recognized the magazine’s contributions. The publication has won a number of awards, including several from the Parenting Publications of America and the Parenting Media Association. When it comes to finding activities to write about, Sheff says, there is never a shortage. With everything from the Westchester Children’s Museum in Rye to the Jacob Burns Film Center in Pleasantville and with New York City a short drive away, neither parents nor the magazine risk running out of ideas.
“Westchester is just a great place to grow up,” Sheff says.