In the last few months, I’ve read several self-reflexive articles detailing the hostile relationship between New York Times Executive Editor Bill Keller and Huffington Post Co-Founder Arianna Huffington; it appears that since The Huffington Post was acquired by AOL in February and The Times began a digital subscription service, the market has grown so competitive that the two are unable to (publicly) respect each other for what they are: very different entities that offer very different value propositions. I take great inspiration from both leaders and their respective publications, and I’ve found their back-and-forth fascinating. It’s a window into their psyche and insecurities (which is endearing) as well as a glimpse into the current state of journalism (which is informative): an established titan of reporting lashing out against an innovative, but flawed culture of citizen journalism. Their situation isn’t exactly a replica of what’s going on in surf media at the moment, but I think there are some significant parallels.
On Friday, Stab Magazine published a polemic by Chas Smith detailing his disgust for The Inertia – maybe more accurately his contempt for the slogan: “The Planet’s Largest Network of Thinking Surfers,” and, to an extent, I can relate. I’ve rarely met a catchphrase I’ve liked, and, depending on your vantage, a “Network of Thinking Surfers” can be as pretentious or as inclusive as you’d like it to be. That said, I believe Chas Smith is wrong! “So totally wrong!”
Among the many claims he made about thinking surfers (some pretty funny; some nonsensical), these two, which I think were the basis of his rant, are wholly antithetical to The Inertia’s mission:
“Thinking surfers don’t like you, if you make money and/or disagree…They are the exact sorts of people that flourish when nobody, except for people exactly like them, is listening.”
By contrast, my concept of “thinking surfers” relishes contentious, logical debate. It craves a myriad of perspectives, and this diversity is essentially The Inertia’s greatest strength. Please, disagree! If anything, that’s the problem it aims to resolve in surf media. Instead of relying on the editorial discretion of four white guys sitting in an office in Sydney or San Clemente encumbered by the interests of a small group of advertisers, The Inertia provides a platform for surfers of extremely diverse backgrounds to share their opinions, photography, and art in any way they’d like so long as it’s well-articulated and respectful. In less than six months, we’ve attracted over 100 contributors who have authored an extremely compelling surf web site. I’m really proud of that network of talented folks, and I love their work. I love the fact that none of our content is obligatory, that we have absolutely no conflicting commercial interests, and that an equal platform exists for both the disenfranchised and the adored.
I love that a homosexual surfer was able to address the unspoken realities of homophobia in surf culture in his own words (a feat that Stab admittedly once tackled years ago). I love that we broke a story about a three-time world champion’s decision to boycott the ASP World Tour (that the New York Times deemed worthy of coverage). I love that we’ve addressed issues of misogyny in surf culture. I love that we’ve approached the transformation of the surf industry as objectively as possible. I love that we’ve got a Comedy section that features a video of a kitten jumping in a box.
I also love hearing from legendary surf ambassadors like Gerry Lopez and Shaun Tomson. I love hearing from Pulitzer-nominated and New York Times best-selling authors like Steven Kotler and Susan Casey. I love reading insightful, deadpan commentary from folks like Ted Endo, Mary Mills, and Johnny Blades. I love hearing from surf stars like Tanner Gudauskas, Keala Kennelly, and Rochelle Ballard. I love admiring the work of amazing photographers like Art Brewer, Anthony Ghiglia, and Patrick Ruddy. I love hearing from well-respected surf writers like Kimball Taylor, Steve Barilotti, and Fred Pawle (Yes, Stab’s Fred Pawle), and I love hearing from visionaries like Jim Moriarty and Tom Wegener (just to name a few).
And I love hearing from Chas Smith. In a strange way, I think the feeling is mutual. Read his piece again, he’s not just talking about other people…and I seriously doubt he takes issue with all of our talented contributors. It’s possible that he might prefer to throw an expensive cocktail in my face instead of clinking glasses with me, but I’d love for him to join this collective. Really, he already has.
And I owe him many thanks. Over the past few months, he’s taken it upon himself to do a bang-up job of global marketing for The Inertia. In December, he wrote a piece for Surfing Magazine lambasting Tim Baker and us, and last week he followed up in Stab’s online and print editions. Do you know how much a full-page ad costs in Stab and Surfing Magazine? Me neither, but if he were on the payroll (if we had a payroll), he’d be getting a raise. So, again, Chas, if you’re out there (and you must be), thank you. And think about my offer (sorry, no Fascist Issue or swastikas, though).
But Chas isn’t the only one who’s voiced discontent about our existence. Just a few months after we launched in September, SURFER informed me in a rather unpleasant phone conversation about our status as a “direct competitor.” Since then, they’ve erased my name from the masthead, threatened to fire folks for contributing to The Inertia, and even encouraged a contributor to sue us, which hints at many of the misunderstandings present in the Keller/Huffington tiff.
I can understand how The Inertia’s elastic, bottom-up structure and lack of conflicting commercial interests might be disruptive, but essentially, we’re providing very different services than anyone currently competing in this market. Surf magazines create a product for their readers, but here, readers create a product for themselves. Hence, they can never provide what we provide (and vice versa), because here the conversation is lateral – not vertical. That’s an astonishingly important distinction, and anyone who feels threatened by that should be able to recognize the difference and understand that there’s space for both in our tiny water world.
It’s an imperfect metaphor, but there is a place for The New York Times and a place for The Huffington Post. And, Chas Smith, there is even a place for you here in this humble community of (thinking) surfers. As we said from day one, our door is always open.