My first ever viral story began when a sports reporter approached me about a firefighter he’d interviewed.
The fireman, Todd Gailey, of San Luis Obispo, CA, had just finished a triathlon when the reporter asked him about the competition. Near the end of the interview, Gailey off-handedly asked, “Do you guys ever do stories about families?”
He then talked about his son, Triston, who was supposedly surfing at age three. While the reporter is a pretty good basketball player — his size advantage doesn’t hurt — he doesn’t surf. But he knew which two newsroom comrades did: photographer Joe Johnston and myself.
“I don’t know,” he told us, shrugging. “It could be a story. You know — if you have time or whatever.”
Time. In this era of diminished budgets and gutted staffs, time is always an issue at a daily newspaper. But if I have an excuse to get in the ocean during work hours, I’m all over it.
Skeptically, I figured the kid’s dad would prop him up on a board in the whitewater, and the runt would giggle wildly as he fell into three inches of miniscule shorebreak. But, what the heck — the photos would be fun, and I could make the story sound cute.
Readers love, love, LOVE stories about cute kids. It’s the easy answer to the complaint, “All I ever read about is bad news.”
So I set up a time to meet the kid and showed up with a recorder, Johnston and my GoPro. Because while readers generally ignore our videos, this time I knew they’d want to see if this kid really can surf.
And the thing is — he really can.
His dad took him out to the line-up — it helped that it was small and glassy — and then pushed him into a couple as he stood up. Then the kid actually popped up on one all by himself and rode the thing clear to shore.
As I shot the video, I figured our subscribers would eat it up. But I didn’t expect to get an email from London’s Daily Mail asking if they could use my video. Nor did I expect, within in the hour, to hear that Good Morning America wanted to air it on TV. ABC World News with Diane Sawyer, too.
I was a little disappointed to learn that The Today Show wanted to film their own piece, but it helped make one thing clear: People really do crave happy stories.
There were a few grumpy online comments, as always. Heck, that’s nothing — in Hawaii there are BABIES hanging ten. Whatever. The video and story went worldwide with people writing about it in French, Spanish and what I believe to be Japanese. In my 18 years of journalism, I’ve covered sensational murder trials, interviewed scores of famous rock stars and had several features get picked up by major newspapers nationwide. But this story about a surfing toddler easily had the biggest impact.
I was stoked for Triston and his dad. But, in the end, nothing changed for me. I don’t get royalties (to answer your question, Mom). In fact, I’d just finished serving a week furlough.
But it got me thinking: Could I purposely make a viral video that would get worldwide attention, like my surfing toddler video and story? And selfishly, I wondered, can this one help me instead of a bunch of my employer’s stockholders?
So I set out to make a viral video with a surfing sasquatch.
I previously had this idea with a friend of mine (nicknamed Sasquatch, after his gangly surf stance) to create cool shirts, mugs, posters and so on for the Sasquatch Surf Shop, a surf shop that didn’t really exist — like a certain hairy cryptid — using artwork we created.
We wouldn’t be the first to try to make money off Bigfoot or the bazillion-dollar surf industry, but we figured a surfing Satch was a novel idea.
People have gone nuts over vampires — shouldn’t Bigfoot have a shot? Shouldn’t we? To promote our site, we figured we’d shoot some irreverent videos with an ugly Bigfoot costume and hope the cosmos — and a lot of SEO crap I don’t get — would send our site through the stratosphere. Granted, the videos aren’t cute like Triston Gailey. But people do want to get away from the “bad news.” And if a guy in a cheap-looking costume makes them smile, then we’ve done our job.
Assuming The Today Show calls afterward.