Illustration by Matt Allen. View more of Matt Allen's work at MattAllen.com.

Illustration by Matt Allen. View more of Matt Allen's work at MattAllen.com.


The Inertia

To travel the world, surf, and write about those experiences is a dream. It’s an unthinkable profession – nearly sinful in its indulgence and hedonism, and when compared with alternative (but much likelier) careers, it represents the ultimate vocation. At least it did to me. The concept of lifestyle as livelihood, where no ideological compromises were necessary to earn a paycheck, was a revolutionary, yet risky aspiration.

It wasn’t a hard sell, mind you. After all, that’s what careers that revolve around surfing purport to be. That’s what 25 years of surf magazines and surf trips and surfboards meant to me: Travel. Surf. Think. Share. If ever there existed a way to earn a wage honorably and enjoy time on the clock in your twenties (without spending an extra quarter million dollars on medical school or becoming a teacher or pursuing any number of occupations where the labor is extremely gratifying but getting barreled isn’t part of the job description), working at a surf magazine (“The Bible of the Sport,” no less) was it.

And just a few days out of college with my English degree still crisp in its frame and my eyes glowing wide with pride and gratitude, I shuffled into the office at SURFER Magazine ready to embrace that dream. I relished the opportunity to forward the storied periodical’s legacy…to be part of something I perceived to be true.

Maybe that was naïve. I suppose it was, because the slow unraveling of that ideal was a devastating process. I resisted it, because as a relative newcomer to the surf industry, I didn’t quite understand it. Surely, writing about the ocean and its most accomplished enthusiasts was an honest exercise. I was happy to justify my paltry salary with free surf trips and a healthy relationship with the ocean, and my colleagues appeared to feel the same way. Sporadic and unexpected travel kept everyone at the office in relative lock step, and the grumpiness associated with poor pay and systemic disorganization temporarily vanished when we found out that one of us was headed to Bali…except, of course, when you weren’t headed to Bali. (“Why the fuck does HE get to go to Bali?”)

Eventually, if you hung around long enough, you got to go to Bali. (It was awesome.)

But over the years, it became apparent that those free surf trips were not actually free. They came at a cost shouldered largely by surf writers and editors, because in order for writing to have value and for a writer or editor to respect himself and his work (and earn the respect of others), it must be honest. And, honesty, I discovered, is not a high priority in the surf biz.

At times, honesty fails to perpetuate the surf industry’s dreamscape. Honesty has the potential to threaten a well-fortified narrative characterized by carefree attitudes, and the industry’s stewards are willing to preserve that ideal by any means necessary…which doesn’t require as much effort as one might think. It seems to happen in one of two ways: surf brands either ask publications not to report on an issue by voicing polite, but loaded disapproval or they threaten to withdraw their advertising budget. (Although I’ve heard a great deal about the latter tactic, I’m not sure I’ve ever seen it put into practice.)

Admittedly, surf journalism is not a logical destination for writers craving nuance and tension (that certainly was not my initial attraction to the trade), but every beat has its complexities, and occasions arise where communication is invaluable – even within the surf world. Those rare moments where writing, as a profession, actually matters, are focal points that provide us with an opportunity to learn and mature. They’re often unpleasant, but they’re character-building processes that can ultimately come to define us. Time and again, when these precious opportunities for growth would bubble to the surface, the collective surf media would arrest, paralyzed in fear: “Are we reporters? What do we do? Will Company X allow us to write this? How will our patrons react? We’re not sure if we can handle this…so we’ll ignore it.

That’s certainly a convenient approach. It’s actually a mixture of the Dog Whisperer’s second and third solutions when characterizing canines’ responses to confronting trauma: fight, flight, avoidance, and acceptance. If surf media were a dog, it’s somewhere between flight and avoidance when it comes to addressing difficult issues, which is not bad for a dog, but unacceptable when it comes to “media.”

As an example, in March of 2010, advertisers exerted enough pressure on SURFER to censor an article I wrote that examined issues of diversity in surfing. In my opinion, the article, which was inspired by an encounter between Stab writer Chas Smith and Mick Fanning that resulted in Fanning calling Smith a “fucking Jew,” (for which, Fanning publicly apologized, and the Stab issue featuring the article was removed from newsstands, and no major American surf publication reported on the event) served not to shame anyone, but rather to address an unpleasant event in a constructive manner. “It’s time we take a step back and consider this intersection in the dialog of diversity and surfing…before surf culture stumbles in a direction it will later regret,” the piece stated clearly.

The article was promptly deleted from SurferMag.com when advertisers submitted complaints.

By contrast, I also received a nice email from Fanning’s mother the day the article was published: “Thank you. The article was great and I hope something positive will come out of this, as you say.’” If Fanning’s mother (and manager) can recognize the value of addressing an unflattering topic that involves her own flesh and blood, I think the surf industry can stand to entertain a small story that respectfully points out the need to address racial, religious, and sexual tensions in surf culture.

In a phone interview for an unrelated article about brands like Target entering the surf industry, Quiksilver CEO Bob McKnight explained to me his company’s influence over surf magazines:  “It’s just all the notoriety of being able to go to SURFER Magazine and help the Photo Editor pick out some photos that go in…where we have clout like that. We have people. We have our ways, as you know.”

Unfortunately, like most surf writers, I do know. As does Lewis Samuels, who in 2009 refused to acquiesce to the industry’s friction-free journalistic standards and lost his checks from Surfline as a result. Samuels’ dismissal was precipitated by a controversial article he penned on his personal blog, PostSurf, that pointed out Billabong’s insensitive spending during the recession. Samuels then devoted nine months of unfiltered commentary about surf culture and attracted a cult following as well as the ire of surf industry moguls for his incendiary writing. Although some posts expressed inflammatory ideas and language as a provocative measure, others provided poignant, well-developed critiques of the surf industry’s stranglehold on surf media and what that compromise means for writers, surfers, and surf culture as a whole.

“There’s a lot of moral compromise involved with making money off of surfing…period.” Samuels told me over the phone in February of 2010. “And I’m not immune from that either. There are definitely times where I wonder. I have my little code I live by in terms of writing about surfing and surf spots and what I will and won’t write, but at the same time there is something kind of opportunistic; it’s kind of a vulture thing. It’s like the spirit of Miki Dora in one way, whatever keeps us surfing or allows us to surf more that’s justifiable.  A lot of people looked at his life and felt bad for the guy. The things he did to keep surfing weren’t necessarily things that a normal person would be proud of.”

“You come face to face with reality at a certain point,” continues Samuels. “The only people who are getting filthy rich off of surfing are management at clothing companies. I think it’d be really hard to find people who have gone a different path and really made good money…In terms of surf writers, even the best struggle to make a living, and most have to compromise to do it. Maybe Matt Warshaw comes closest to doing it the honest way. There’s a lot of integrity in the path he’s taken. He’s not hustling for a magazine article and writing about how Julian Wilson is so hot right now. He’s documenting [surfing] from a fairly historical perspective and still being erudite in a compelling way, but I see the path he has to go on and it’s not an easier career. The guy has written the Encyclopedia of Surfing and the History of Surfing and then what? What do you do next?”

It’s a great question. What next? What do you do when the moral quandary of your trade outweighs the satisfaction provided by its opportunism? Even Matt Warshaw, who writes semi-regularly for The New York Times and has written the two definitive reference books on surfing, said that after finishing The History of Surfing, he has nothing left to say.

After just four years of writing about a sport and lifestyle I love in exchange for money in that particular publishing climate, I learned that, at least for me, the two were nearly incompatible. Which is tragic, because editorial staffs are capable of establishing new precedents at any time they choose. The surf world houses some great writers who are perfectly capable and willing to cover nuanced topics with the delicacy and respect they deserve. I’d love to see one each month (or day) written by Brad Melekian (it seems we just did in Outside Magazine) or Steve Barilotti or Kimball Taylor or Matt Pruett or Matt Walker or Nick Carroll, etc… We all would, and on rare occasions we do. But it’s not their fault. It’s a relatively common dilemma in the world of publishing, but surf publishing suffers exceptionally from this curse and has no interest in altering course. After all, it is a business. I just wish this business were more sincere about how it presents itself.

While the surf industry has enabled some amazing feats that I recognize, appreciate, and endorse, surfing is not as inclusive and free flowing as the purveyors of surf culture claim it is. There are clearly defined limitations that must not be trespassed in order to preserve the dreamscape. But the industry can only insulate itself from the pains of growing up for so long. And usually the longer the doors are locked, the more violent the recoil.

Maybe we should crack open the doors before they get busted down (again).

Some say that working for a surf magazine and getting paid to surf, travel, and write about those experiences is living the dream. It is, and it can be. But when a culture forces its enthusiasts to compromise their integrity to preserve a suffocated ideal, I guess technically they’re still right; it’s definitely a dream. That dream is just a tragic distortion when compared with the one we all imagined. But instead of eulogizing a fallen ideal, I welcome its revival…one honest voice at a time.

  • Little Lotus

    Nothing new in what you say. Strangely enough you say nothing about the power the surf industry has on websites (except for Lewis Samuel’s issue at Surfline). But dear Zach, as your colleague Ted Endo will attest, not all surf magazines are the same and plenty of them welcome truth, honest surf writing. If Surfer didn’t do it for you, maybe you should have looked somewhere else before before writing off all surf mags…

    F

    • Smity

      if you think it’s weird in world of surf media, come take a look at skate…
      your head will explode…
      but there are pockets of joy…and I am trying to create something different…as are a few others

  • Alex Leonard

    great article, zach. but i can’t believe bob mcknight told you, ‘we have people.’ did he really say that?

  • RyanStruck

    Damn! Speak on it!

  • stuu

    You should have consulted with Chris Cote at the start of your Surfer gig. I’m sure he could have given you some tips on how to handle bending over for the brands and their surfers.

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  • al

    Gah. So good. The time is ripe for a mutiny! TheInertia is the future!

  • JSC

    Very well stated, Zach – some people buy into the falsehoods and omissions, happy to work in the industry and get a paycheck indefinitely. Others don’t and choose a more honest path.

    For Surfer to censor your reporting of the “fucking Jew” incident for whatever reason was just wrong.

  • Matt Pruett

    Thanks for the name drop, Zach, I really enjoyed reading this (after some prodding from Walker). Never really worked for “The Bible” but helming the East Coast version for 8-plus years still stands as my professional zenith. Surf publishing dictates my life, for better or for worse. And all those advertisers, they’re just people. Every one of them has a boss, too. We [writers/editors] don’t necessarily have to tell them to ‘suck it’ when they try to exert influence (though that might set an attractive precedent), we just have to get creative about doing what we were gonna do in the first place. There are ways of doing that if you’re smarter than the bullies. And seriously, how many times can someone threaten you with “you’ll be fired” or “you won’t be able to return to Hawaii…” Oh, I’m just so terrified. -mp

  • Nick Carroll

    Ha ha Zachy hasn’t actually experienced a surf corpo using an ad budget to horsewhip a surf mag? Dude, you haven’t lived. I’ve experienced some doozies. One time I recall a company pulling sixty grands worth of advertising out of a mag I was editing, because we ran something uncomplimentary that one of their team guys wrote about their product. $60,000!! Holy shit. That was more than my salary! But you know what was interesting about it? It didn’t make an ounce of difference. I didn’t get sacked, we didn’t withdraw or apologize for publishing the comment, and a year down the track, the same advertiser was kicking down for a contract twice the size. Shit like that comes and goes; a far greater threat (if we can use such a hefty word to describe such a minor problem) is the tendency to self-censorship among surf journalists. Few have any training in reporting, or any strong mentors among the surf publishing fraternity; they stumble on a story and while their curiosity may momentarily be piqued, it’s swiftly nullified by the awful thoughts which then ensue. “oh shit if I pursue this, won’t my publisher/ad client/ad sales guy/whatever be really Pissed at me?” or worse: “what if my pro surfer hero won’t speak to me anymore??” there’s a lot of slagging off at surf mags etc these days but I think blaming the Surf Industrial Complex is a bit of a red herring…far more at issue is the encouragement of that Erigeron curiosity.

  • Mattpruett74

    Every time I read Nick, or even hear the bloke’s commentary at an ASP comp, I feel like a bitch-ass little hack…. but in a good way. On point as always, mate. Thanks for sharing that experience about the ad-bro-toughguy. Peaks and valleys, right? Peaks and valleys… -mp

  • Jack Mahagoff

    I think Barry Gibb put it best when he said:

    Islands in the stream
    That is what we are
    No one in between
    How can we be wrong?
    Sail away with me to another world
    And we rely on each other, ah-ah
    From one lover [writer?]to another, ah-ah

  • Shelby Stanger

    Love it! Right on Zach.

  • Tryan

    Zach,

    Kind of like the golf media and Tiger… they knew that he was getting blow jobs in parking lots… but no one wanted to cross the king and lose access, ad dollars etc. When the medium only exists because of a narrow group of advertisers… this will result… that is why the Target / Red Bull entries into surf sponsorship may actually increase transparency… Not that I give a F***. I just surf.

    Anyway Zach, as usual… well written.

  • Blasphemy Rottmouth

    Nick Carroll never fails to perpetuate the status quo through a wordy diatribe laden with rice-cake deep logic. It’s nice you and the Matt Pruett’s of the world still worship at the hamster-powered wheel of mediocratic Industry fellatio…

  • Mattpruett74

    Whoa, them’s big words, like really big… too much looking through the dictionary for me, but thanks for the killer props! “Rad, new, and it’s good. I wish I could be young again… surf ten years old and start learning that shit again.” -Sons Of Fun, 1994

  • Chris Cote

    You forgot to mention all the free clothes we (surf magazine editors) get. But yes, those free clothes come at a cost as well, mainly in the form of three hour meetings about nothing. Do you have any idea of how many meetings I’ve had to sit through just to get a few shirts and a wetsuit? It’s mind boggling, and it makes your butt fall to sleep sitting in those terrible conference room chairs. the surf industry is not for the weak of heart.

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  • Matty V

    Zach thanks for the piece and speaking up on this issue, I was recently let go from my position as Associate Editor from Snowboard Magazine because I wrote a controversial web article. The piece was about a pro snowboarder who made the choice to ride a Rockstar Energy snowboard as opposed to riding for an actual snowboard company, as soon as I spoke up about this issue and the negative affect it could have on snowboarding, shit hit the fan. Within three days of the article being post, Rockstar was calling our Editor and Chief claiming that they would never spend another dollar with our magazine, later that day i was fired.
    In the short amount of time I was there I witnessed so many things that felt wrong from a journalistic standpoint, like the separation between advertising and editorial, I feel like snow, skate, and surf mags are becoming catalogues. They are boring and are regurgitating content to keep companies advertising, it’s a sad state of affairs if you have spent your whole life dreaming about working for a mag. It’s a bit like when you meet your favorite surfer and he’s a dick.
    There was a time when this was all supposed to be radical and revolutionary, but now companies, media sources, and the athletes themselves are terrified to try something new. Look at short boards getting smaller and adding volume, no one thought it would work and companies never thought it would sell then Dane and Kelly made them popular and now every board manufacturer has at least one in their line. This could be a great time for some media sources to grab back some of that dignity they have lost and collectively say no to some of the advertisers. It may take a minute or two for the companies to come around, but once they realize there is actually a benefit to honesty and integrity they will come back and become supportive again. I say make them sweat.

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  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Casey-Hales/1307986 Casey Hales

    Zach, I never thought about it that way. I enjoyed the article. It’s troubling to realize the control advertising companies and their dollars have on the media (in all industries). Maybe I was naive too, thinking Surfing was as an industry was different. Why would you want to censor story lines? It is the responsibility of the writer, journalist, documentary film maker, to show all perspectives, to expand the depth of our knowledge. We have to share these experience and perspectives truthfully or they don’t provide any value in the context of history. I respect your article and point of view.

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  • chadweenuh

     Awesome piece. Only thing missing: the honest voices of women. ‘Cause we surf, write and intellectualize, too, you know.

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  • Gibbons

    So funny to see Lewis Samuels quoted here now that he’s toothless suckling the surfer teet..tricking them into one of the most boring series ever published…but hey, whatever for a free trip right?

  • Tim Hamby

    So beautifully written and well-developed, Zach. The very reasons that make sites like The Inertia so compelling and what drew my own attention to it. There are so many great voices in surfing– old school and new… And the very best, including several you’ve named, WELL understand that honesty and the willingness to stand on their words is what enables great writing to transcend the ordinary and become truly memorable. 
    Publishing, for all of the reasons you’ve stated can be such a murky business and the Surf Mags are up to their necks in it. Are they entertainment? Advertising? Journalism? Advertorial? A little of all, no? So to what standard can we (should we) hold them? If the standard is “journalism”, then clearly, they’ve fu#&$ up (symptomatic of most “journalistic” media today as they alternately fight for profit, politics and/or survival). If it is something else, then we must also acknowledge that.Unfortunately, in our capitalistic society, there will always be a need to balance business needs with ethics. But I tell you this– in any area of life, from standing around BS-ing with friends at a party, to your place of employment (even if it’s a freaking dream job at the world’s most renowned surf-pub), if you’re being asked to compromise your own personal code of ethics- values and beliefs you hold dear in your heart, then I believe it is always best to do exactly what you did. Walk away. 9 times out of 10, you leave and end up creating a better model (the appealing flip side of capitalism). Oh, and then you come to know those ever-present challenges and temptations all the more personally. Then it’s up to you to hold your line. I hope you continue to do so.

    • Anonymous

      Thanks, Tim. We really appreciate your insight and are thrilled to have you contribute to this community.

  • http://www.ameliaheaton.com/ Mela

    I found this article to be exceptionally insightful.  As an aspiring journalist, and a surfer, I naturally dream of the day that my work will be published in Surfer, the Journal, Transworld, and the like.  My hope is an idealist one- one of uncensored articles addressing the “unspoken tough issues in surfing”… but maybe that won’t happen.  No big deal, right?  Really, it’s all about that free (not free) trip to Bali.  
    I think no matter what industry or focus area we choose to write for, there will always be compromise and there will always be advertisers who limit what we can say.  Hallelujah for digital media and publications like the Inertia, n’est pas?  This forum is the future for authentic voice, provided it doesn’t get too sticky with advertising dolla dolla billz, yo.  
    Bottom line?  I made it through the article with the majority of my hopes and dreams intact.  I’m not giving up on surf journalism, so thanks for that.  You managed to cover this “nuanced topic with the delicacy and respect it deserves”– Bravo.  Perhaps one day I’ll scrap with you for a byline.  Until then, keep piping up that one honest voice: in time it will become a chorus of voices, swelling up to a vibrating crescendo, increasing ever more to a deafening roar of like minded idealists in pursuit of journalistic justice and freedom.  :)  Maybe.  Either way, keep piping up.  You have a very nice voice.