“We’ve gotta do something or it might circle the drain and then one day disappear.”
Do you remember when the Australian reporter Sean Doherty would spike each day of surf competition with a very sharp onsite analysis for Surfer magazine?
Even at the time, nine years ago or thereabouts, boots on the ground at a contest seemed excessive and so I asked Sean Doherty, then, why he was the only person that actually reported from surf events.
“No one else seems stupid enough,” he said through gritted and slightly beige teeth. “The great conundrum in writing surf online for chicken feed is that when you’re being paid $150 for a story you fall into the trap of writing $150 worth of pure mediocrity. The problem then comes when the Internet keeps your horseshit contest report alive for eternity with your byline stuck to it in 40-point type. The trick is to write like your story is going to hang around and either help you or haunt you forever. It’s the same principle you should apply to all the menial jobs in your life… lavish the detail on the small things and the big things take care of themselves.”
Very wise words.
It was Sean Doherty’s commitment to his craft that led him and pal, the photographer Jon Frank, to scoop up the remains of Surfing World magazine in a fire sale three years ago and resurrect that old treasure, working for free to keep surfing culture not just alive but thriving.
If you haven’t seen, met, or sighted a photograph of Sean Doherty, you must let me describe. He’s a little under the old six-foot measure (more than a little, but let’s be kind!), he has the strong torso of a lifelong surfer (which is surprising because he likes to drink), his crown is relieved of the burden of hair, and as for his surfing ability… yes. He surfs!
And he’s good enough to combo a wave from barbe au cul, as the French like to say, and enter and exit a tube. On his passport are enough stamps for Hawaii to guarantee his bone fides when it’s over four foot.
Anyway, Surfing World just had its sixtieth anniversary, making it the oldest still-running surfing magazine in the world.
And, Doherty, each year, rattles the can, as he calls it, to plump subscriber numbers to keep it all afloat.
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You see, Doherty and Frank, who lives in Mallorca, off the coast of Spain there for reasons too complicated to examine here, don’t make a cent off the magazine.
All ad revenue, all subs, all newsstand sales go back into making a surfing magazine whose only rival is the magnificent Surfers Journal, which is made out of San Clemente, California.
On a recent warm Torquay afternoon, I find Doherty, now fifty two, and about to bring his fourth kid into the world, readying to move the entire squadron twelve hundred miles north to Yamba, and a stone’s throw from Angourie.
We talk for a while about print, the apparent death of pro surfing and why he keeps doing this thing.
Doherty, who works full-time for Patagonia, tells me that when he and Frankie got the mag, the sale and its subsequent handover consisted of two hard-drives with “scattered folders, bits of stuff everywhere…super incomplete but with a lot of interesting stuff from the (Swellian lord Vaughan) Blakey era.”
Recently, they released their sixtieth anniversary issue and, if you want a sign that there’s still some life in surf culture, the magazine completely sold out.
“I’ve never sold out a magazine in my life, sold the whole print run,” says Doherty. “It was 260 pages, fucking just about killed us doing it.”
And, advertisers, he says, were lining up to be in it.
“Advertisers know that if someone is committed enough to pay twenty bucks for a magazine, they’re committed enough to look at what they’re selling. It breaks that online conditioning where everything is free.”
The revival of Surfing World among surfers, says Doherty, is due to what he calls “digital exhaustion. Surfing World is the opposite of everything on the internet. We don’t cover pro surfing. There’s a lot of long-form profile pieces, 20,000 words, 10,000, 12,000. I think it’s a correction back. People are more open to long-form stuff like that occasionally in a world where they’re bombarded by small stuff every minute of every day. It’s just a big grassroots, long-form celebration of surfing. There’s a lot of energy on that side of the idealogical divide.”
Still, it don’t come cheap.
So Doherty and Frank would be thrilled if you could find a way to subscribe or buy a copy here and there (Dave Scales of Surf Splendor distributes in the US).
“Every year we rattle the can, get the violins out. We don’t pay ourselves anything and we need to remind people that it’s still there and needs a bit of love. The only thing stopping it from getting bigger is energy and money.”
Doherty knows nothing lasts forever, magazines or surf culture, but says, how about we keep it going as long as we can.
“We gotta do something with this,” says Doherty. “We gotta evolve or it might just gradually go into decline, circle the drain and then one day disappear.”