The Deep dive: how advertising dollars spoiled Australia's smartest surf mag
In the 1990s Australian surfing was suffering a midlife crisis.
After decades of dominance on the international stage, the arrival of Kelly Slater and the New School had seemingly relegated the Aussie dynasty to a second class power.
Slater had a firm grasp on the title, and was propped up on both sides by a coterie of tail sliding, air popping contest machines.
“Australians were feeling wounded by the idea we’re not tops anymore,” says Nick Carroll. “Wah! Seems funny now but back then it was real.”
Australian surfing was in a state of performance shock, and hadn’t yet figured out a response. Much soul searching was to take place.
But the inevitable retort was splintered. While some fought fire with fire and Lick My Balls aggression, others chose a different path.
Australia’s own new school emerged. Ideas on the direction of surfing, independent of the mainstream narrative, that were as much planted in the movement’s roots as they were in the modern day.
It might not have registered at the time, but the 1996 release of Andrew Kidman, Jon Frank, and Mark Sutherland's Litmus captured a maturation of surfing’s psyche. The seeds had always been there, sure, but Litmus gave them a new form.
“Litmus showed a hankering for something else other than that juvenile, fun approach to surf,” says Carroll.
“All sorts of things were going on at that time. There was just a feeling that the demographic of surfers was beginning to fracture, in the way that we really see now, and Litmus was the starting point for that”.
This was about promoting respect for what had come before - design, approach, style, icons - and showing how the past could instruct surfing moving forward.
But that narrative wasn’t being reflected in the pages of the mainstream magazines.
“Australia’s Surfing Life (ASL) and Waves were super funny but also still very juvenile,” says Carroll of Australian surf media at that time.
“Tracks had become a bitter kind of magazine in that period of Kelly’s reign too. It had become a bit nasty for a while there, at least until Sean Doherty got a hold of it again.”
Carroll himself had just moved back from a stint in the States editing Surfing magazine (“a stringent professional experience”) and in 1997 was ready to launch back into the Aussie scene.
But despite some forays with ASL, the Old Man On The Point needed a permanent home.
Along came Deep.
Deep was the brainchild of publisher Peter Morrison and then ASL-editor Tim Baker. It was already a couple of years old at this point: a core, grassroots broadsheet edited by Reggae Ellis emulating what Tracks once had been.
It targeted older surfers who had once been mag consumers, but had lost interest in mainstream surf media’s teen slant.
“They didn't care about what’s hot and what’s not or Taj Burrows playlist,” says Ellis.
Deep was different: newsprint, and text-heavy. Credible content for the discerning surfer.
“The surf industry in the ‘90s was definitely caught up in the ‘cult of the grommet’ as Nick called it. With Deep we wanted it to be authoritative, but still fun with a variety of voices and opinions. The ethos was to talk about surfing with a bit more substance. Surfers were still active into their 30s and 40s, guys like Simon, MR, and Rabbit were still interesting, still involved in surfing and there was room for longform 2-3000 words stories and interviews.”
Carroll immediately found himself contributing.
“I wrote one article about the resurgence of grommet culture in Australian surfing,” says Carroll.
“It was interesting to write a long story about grommets. Nobody wanted you to do that then! But Reggae had a very relaxed, laissez faire attitude as an editor. Not one of those bare bones, Ockham’s Razor-type editors. He’d just give you an idea and let you go with it.”
Carroll was then in the hot seat when publisher Peter Morrison saw the opportunity to convert Deep from a broadsheet throwback to something that was ahead of its time.
It could still be a reflective magazine for older surfers, carrying the longform tradition, but in a more refined medium.
“Morrison thought well fuck, Nick’s here, I’ve got [Morrison Media stablemate ASL’s designer] Gra Murdoch here, they are able to do a magazine like that. Let’s see how it goes.”
Deep mark 2 was born in the first quarter of 1998.
First up was creating a new visual identity for the mag.
“For Deep, we thought let’s just really pare it right down, get rid of anything unnecessary,” said Carroll. “So we ripped away all the colours and let them come through the photos instead.”
With its minimalist design and book-like spine, Deep was a mix between Tracks of old and The Surfer’s Journal, all with a distinctly Australian bent. Taking the old and making it new again.
The mag was split into two sections: Windswell, which was short bites, and Groundswell, home to the longform pieces.
“The editorial process was quite different to any of the surf mags I’ve worked on before,” says Carroll.
“I guess because it was so pared down you had to focus quite hard on quality and make sure the stories were selected carefully so they sat next to each other really well.”
It also eschewed gossip and current events.
“We weren’t really interested in being newsy in any way. Deep was meant to sit back from the news and have a look at stuff people weren’t paying much attention to.”
With a team of writers like DC Green, Mike Perry, Tim Baker, Fred Pawle, Derek Rielly and Steve Shearer, Deep further solidified its reputation for getting, well… deep.
There were stories on the clubby wars. Historical analysis of climate change and how it was affecting swell patterns. Features on the northern beaches, gonzo travel in Indo, why surfing could never puncture the mainstream (sound familiar?).
It also rediscovered some chapters from history that are now part of our folklore. One article that stood out was surf doyen Mick Mock’s piece on the famous Peter Crawford and Michael Peterson Dee Why session in 1980.
Says Carroll, there were a couple of beautiful photos of MP unearthed for that story no one had ever seen published.
“There was one of MP where he was doing this cutback at Dee Why, and fuck it was such a great photo. It was like woah! Like a core underpinning Australian-style move. Crawford and MP just by themselves out Dee Why Point, making history.”
As recounted in the story, during that session in 1980 Simon appeared on the Point with one of his first ever thrusters.
“MP just took one look at it and thought oh fuck, this is it, it’s all over. And just bailed.”
This was the type of story that defined Deep. A lesson from one of the greats - about reading the writing on the wall and finishing on top - that provided clear instructions for any that would listen.
But Deep eventually became a victim of its own success.
“We had a really strong and loyal core of readers who would buy every mag we made,” says Carroll, “but readership alone couldn’t keep it functioning.”
The mag deliberately had a limited advertising page count, focusing on quality over quantity. But some companies cottoned on to the unique predicament this put its buyers in. They deliberately began playing Deep off against ASL, its Morrison Media stablemate.
“At the time the people running surf advertising in Australia were… well they had a pretty crude idea of what they were doing,” says Carroll. “They didn’t understand market segments, that type of thing. Ads weren’t cheap in Deep. Part of the idea was you keep the ad count down you can charge more for them.”
But the vision wasn’t shared. The fear that advertisers would pit the magazines against each other instead of supporting both of them in different ways - recognising the different audiences they were speaking to - was soon realised.
Advertisers grew more demanding in their concessions. Ultimately, the publisher was faced with a difficult decision. ASL or Deep.
Everybody knows how that went.
It’s a familiar tale, and not just in surfing. Market forces always correct, and often it’s the consumer left losing out in the end.
But the spark Deep lit is still burning today, more needed than ever.
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