Surfing magazines and the slow march into oblivion
This morning I conducted an interview on the sands of Manly Beach. The name of the fellow I interviewed isn't important - you wouldn't have heard of him anyway. But I absolutely guarantee that you'd be interested in what he's doing. Which is, just quickly: creating a self sufficient farm on a windswept Southern Ocean isle that houses a wild lefthander which he mostly surfs solo.
At the end of our conversation I explained why I was interviewing him – a surfer without a sponsor or famous name.
I related to him that, at Swellnet, we found early on that not many companies or their riders would talk to us. We'd tried striking up Swellnet-style articles with surf companies to no avail. The magazines and our competitors would dance to their tune and our groove just wasn't what they were looking for. Fortunately the solution was as simple as it was beautiful: give voice to the everyday surfers that other everyday surfers – read: you and me - find interesting.
And so we did. In our Wave of the Day's we ran hot locals, unknown beyond their postcode. In Swellnet Sessions whoever got the best waves, even if they rode a sticker-free stick, made the cut. In photos and text across the site we gave voice to surfers everywhere. And the best thing of all? Everyone dug it, and our traffic stats shows that you still do.
At the completion of the interview I made my way to the office and sat down at my desk. There to the side and stacked in a small pile was the latest delivery of surf magazines. Each of them wrapped in plastic with an Australian title sitting on top, the headline of which caught my eye: 'The 50 Most Intriguing People In Surfing Today.'
Who can deny such tabloid-style lists? I ripped off the plastic, dived right in, and was immediately appalled.
Here were 50 separate opportunities to give voice to people outside of the tiny bubble of the surf industry. But who, I hear you ask, makes the list? Kelly Slater, Mick Fanning, Joel Parkinson, Dane Reynolds...
And the worst part was that in his opening spiel the editor spoke fondly of a surfer at his local, someone who'd caught the ed's attention as he represented a special aspect of the surfing life. That intro made me race to the article yet he doesn't even make the list! And to spoil the story for you, nor does any personality not already represented in the pro surfing milieu - Tony Abbott and Nathan Oldfield notwithstanding. Yes, there were a few genuinely intriguing people: Oldfield, Dr Rex Campbell, Cyrus Sutton.
Reading this magazine gave me the isolating feeling of looking at the world through a magnifying glass. It's a fabrication, surfing in 2013 is so much bigger and richer than what the magazines would have you believe. There's a vast array of people, theories, designs and concepts – some of them very intriguing indeed - flowing through the surfing world but you'll rarely read about any of them in print. I don't know if that's due to commercial restrictions, fear of change, or a flat lack of imagination. Perhaps it's a combination of all three.
What I do know is this: as with the wider world, the internet is slowly democratising the surfing world, uncovering fresh elements that add depth and breadth and colour to the surfing life, and yet the magazines blindly continue with their insular fiefdoms of sponsor and celebrity. I'm tempted to say that unless something changes it will be the death of them. But that ain't necessarily so, at this pace irrelevance will creep up faster.
Of course in surfing magazines we want to see good surfing and Kelly Slater, Joel Parkinson and Mick Fanning can provide that visually, but it's an indictment upon those involved to include those people as the most intriguing in all of the surfing world. Like, really?
The example I gave is simply the latest step in magazines slow march from obduracy to oblivion. Here they had a chance to break free of the boys club cycle that, with few exceptions, makes surfing magazines the idyll of teenagers and objects of derision for most everyone else. In this there was nothing intriguing, it was standard magazine fodder only formatted into fifty dot points.