Surf Media: Living the Dream?
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.