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Ex-editor Nick Carroll remembers Surfing magazine—on the occasion of its recent death.
By Nick Carroll
Light / Dark
In the end, it died quietly. Not with a bang but a whimper. Ironically enough, the mag’s death was outed on social media—by an obscure website, whose scion had tried to renew a subscription, only to be told by an automated reply window that the last issue had already left the building.
But from the actual publishers, until that outing and the subsequent flood of brief but passionate Facebookery forced the issue, there was nothing. No comment. Fifty-three years of continuous publication finished in silence.
What will the doctor scrawl on the death certificate? People have diagnosed it according to lay convention, or “the Internet,” or “the industry’s dying,” or whatever. But those are proximate causes. Nay, this was not the Death of Print, but the drip-drip-drip of demographics. During Surfing magazine’s lifespan, hundreds of surf magazine titles were spawned in the U.S., and around the globe. Some are still going strong. But in 1964, when Surfing was first published, around 30 percent of the USA’s coastal population (and Australia’s, by the way) was under 21 years of age. Today, pretty much the same percentage is over 55. The youthful energy that launched and drove surfing’s modern incarnation is done, and kids are now just a fraction of surfing’s global cohort.
Thus the particular style of print mag publishing pioneered by Surfing—the “hot,” “young,” “progressive” surf magazine—finds itself hugely diminished. Few members of the species currently exist, and they tend to be web-centered.
And with it goes not just a business model, but a way of thinking about surfing born out of the driven youth surf cultures of the 1970s and 80s, a tangled and dangerous explosion of young energy that, for all its heedlessness, had the great advantage of pushing its adherents to try shit nobody had before. As far as they knew, anyway.
That was my culture. Surfing was my magazine. I was as tangled up in it as you could possibly get. And I’m not letting it go without some sort of fight, or at least, an account.
All magazines—all media, really—exist in the tension between ownership and readership. Everyone else involved is responding to, or at the mercy of, that tension. What will the readers do? What will the owner do?
In 1978, the Surfing magazine staff was trying to talk their owner, the New York publisher Adrian Lopez, into going next level. They, including Richard Dowdy, Bob Mignogna, David Gilovich, Barry Berg, and Larry “Flame” Moore, felt the time was right to boost the mag’s frequency from six issues a year to 12. They felt the readers were ready. Adrian Lopez was not.
Mignogna decided to see if he could change the owner. He called the printer, a huge organization named World Color Press, and asked if they knew of anyone who might want to buy a surf mag. Incredibly they did—a wealthy Australian named Clyde Packer, from a publishing family, who’d recently moved to California and had his eye out for businesses.
Clyde and his wife Kate came down to visit, and according to Mignogna, ended a long and slightly boozy dinner with the words, “Let’s do it!” And after an appropriate amount of bickering between Clyde and Adrian, they did.
About a year later, not knowing a thing about any of it, I hitched a ride down from Huntington Beach to San Clemente to meet the crew. I was 19 years old and captain of the Australian amateur surf team. We were in California for nearly a month, and Gilovich had asked me to write about our visit.
Captain, huh? I was barefoot, with scraggly hair, grimy bell-bottomed jeans, and a long-sleeved Wave Crest Hawaii t-shirt, which I’d stolen from my brother before embarking. With my mate George Wales, I stuck a thumb out on PCH and found a ride in the back of a Kombi down the freeway to Capistrano Beach.
The Kombi driver was a classic late 70s Californian, with hair even longer and scragglier than mine. He had an immense bong with which he somewhat goofily plied us. The van filled with smoke and I gazed out at the hills of Mission Viejo, gold under the blue, mid-morning-December sky. Where the fuck was I?
“You guys wanna go to Camino Capistrano?” the dude asked.
Umm, yeah, I guess.
He dropped us near Doheny and we wandered south down PCH’s dusty verge, squinting through the glare, following a combination of instructions from Gilovich and the stoner.
Forty strange minutes later we stumbled in the door of 2720 Camino Capistrano…and there they were, Surfing magazine’s A-team. Bob Mignogna, publisher, with his fantastic, spring-wired hair and New York accent. Gilovich himself, also with fantastic hair, a restless mind, and a sharp eye, which he cast across these two grubby little Australians, without judgment, but with a certain dry amusement. “Come and meet Flame,” he said, and walked us back to the photo room, where a hyper-energetic man greeted us among piles of color slides and assorted photo gear.
Flame? I wondered, as he showed us image after image of the last swell at Rincon. Flame? Why Flame? I was too stoned to notice the red hair.
After a couple of hours, we all shook hands and George and I stumbled back out onto PCH. We were clear-headed by then, but my mind was fizzing with possibility. I couldn’t see the actual future—I didn’t know, for example, that Mig and I would end up surfing Lowers about a thousand times together, 20 years later, or that DG would still be giving me writing assignments in 2017. But I do remember thinking that something big had just happened. Not much had changed, but my life just had.
Magazines, damn magazines. I come from a family saturated in printer’s ink. Perhaps that’s why I was seduced by magazines from the outset, within surf culture and beyond it for that matter. On the brink of adolescence, I was infatuated with the grubby newsprint of Tracks, with its Captain Goodvibes and its scurrilous letters pages. Equally I fell victim to the great Americans in their pomp, Esquire and Vanity Fair and the like, with their impossibly glossy photography and exotic smells and extraordinary writing. Magazines were another world, dirtier, cleaner, smarter, and altogether better than my cheesy, suburban, surf-hoodlum home.
When Mignogna started at Surfing in 1974, the mag was bi-monthly, with a circulation of about 10,000 and an advertising revenue of around $20,000 an issue. The mag sold almost as much product—t-shirts, posters, and other stuff—as it did ads. At one point, Jim Kempton, future Surfer editor, was hired to distribute product in Europe. The whole operation generated about $350,000 a year. Staff wages varied from $600 to $1,200 per month. Mignogna got $400, plus 25 percent of all the ads he could sell (which at the beginning weren’t many, since head ad salesman Paul Gillane had all the good accounts).
In 1975, editor Richard “Slick” Dowdy hired Santa Cruz surfer David Gilovich as associate editor. I’m biased for sure, but I think Gilovich was the best and most energetic surf mag editor of all time. His instincts were entirely different than those of Surfer’s legendary editor/publisher Steve Pezman. Pez’s mags were deep in thought and wary of the future, while Gilovich was on board with modernity. Witty and highly intelligent, he would occasionally take the mickey out of Surfer’s enigmatic cover-lines. “‘The Secret Thrill!’” he would chortle. “What ‘secret?’ Who’s keeping the secret?”
He also instantly saw the need for Surfing to differentiate itself, and when the Free Ride era came along and the pro scene began to blossom, he saw the opportunity.
Gilovich recruited, and he knew exactly what he was doing with each person, and they all seemed preternaturally gifted: Chris Carter, of later X-Files fame, as his associate editor; Michael Tomson and later Sam George as writers; Bob Barbour and Dan Merkel; then young Aaron Chang and Don King; then Hornbaker and Mike Balzer and more as photographers. He and production manager Berg cut a deal with L.A.’s commercial design guru of the hour, Mike Salisbury, to re-work the mag’s logo and Salisbury ended up designing the whole book. They hired cool-as portrait lensman Norman Seeff to shoot cover photos of Shaun Tomson and Mark Richards. Their special, end-of-the-decade cover, “The 70s,” said it all: instead of being all brown earth tones and retroussé Fish designs and see-through cheesecloth blouses (the way people like to picture the period now) it was “THE 70S!” Neon! Fluorescent light strips! Disco! Punk! Fun! Fuck the hippies! LET’S DO IT!
Me? I was in hog heaven. I got $250 a month as a retainer and 10 cents a word, and as the whole overblown hopeful craziness of the 1980s unfurled, I wrote and wrote. Everything I could: Hawaii trips; surfer profiles; hectic analysis of the rivalries between all these legends to be; the shy boy Curren and bellowing Kong; young space cadet Occy in his tricolor wetsuit; Jimmy Hogan and the lost-boy Pottz; Vince Klyn and Bird Mahelona; Richard Schmidt and Ronnie Burns; Wes Laine and Willy Morris; Chris Frohoff and Gentleman Ted Robinson; Parsons and Gerlach and Marty Thomas; Cheyne Horan gone and coming back; Vetea David and exotic Tahiti; Sunny Garcia and Todd Holland on tour together for the first time at 17, for Chrissake. I smashed away at the typewriter through cigarette and bong smoke in the apartment I was renting with Gary Green above Newport Beach in Australia, the apartment where the door was never locked because we couldn’t give a shit who walked through it, paying little attention to whichever poor bastard pro surfer had decided to crash on the floor that week.
Communications were farcical. Sometimes I had to read major articles line by line over the phone to Gilovich, who would record them and have his delightful secretary type them up. Eventually I would get the magazine, a month ahead of its appearance on Australian newsstands, and marvel at its slickness—the bright colors, the pop arrangements, the studio front-lighting of California in the morning, not so much a “Secret Thrill” as a dazzling modern ideal, a showcase.
Clyde Packer pulled owner’s rank occasionally—like when he told Mignogna to let Gilovich run more of the show (Mignogna quickly agreed), or when he pushed the team toward the computer age. Other than that, and keeping an eye on the P&L, he barely raised a finger. He didn’t need to. The A-team was charging. Gilovich, the eternal editorial magpie, plucked sharp commercial ideas from other publications and spun them in ways that must have appalled Pez as much as they delighted the readers: Bikini Issues; Special Collector’s Editions; “Twenty Who Rip” features. PT came on board to sell ads. Slammin’ Sam and I were the writing double act from Hell. Flame teamed up with Sean Collins, who was then selling a phone-in surf report and forecast service, and they warily collaborated on south-swell Natividad missions. Carter departed and Gilovich hired that dry-martini of a human, Bill Sharp, to take his place.
Everything just kept expanding. We thought it was all our doing. We thought we were brilliant.
In fact, like everyone else in what you might loosely have called the surf culture of the time, we were being played by that great force in post-war Western social affairs—the baby boom. By 1979, when Surfing magazine went monthly, those 21-year-olds from 1964 were 35 and having their third kids. This secondary wave, the Echo Boomers, became the surf mag readership of the 80s, the kids who drove not just mag sales but an entire goddam industry. Everybody rode that wave: OP and Ian Cairns and the held-together-by-tape ASP, the Bud Tour and Prime Ticket, Quiksilver, Gotcha, Body Glove, Maui and Sons, Catchit!, the NSSA, Bob Hurley’s Billabong, Danny Kwock and Preston Murray and polka-dotted boardshorts. Echo Boomer, Echo Beach.
Like riding any wave, it wasn’t genius—it was just timing. But we were brilliant! We must have been! We had the evidence. In 1989, its 25th year of existence, Surfing published three special anniversary editions, each focusing on one of the three great pillars of the sport: surfboards, waves, and surfers. The second one of those specials, “Waves,” is the most successful single-issue of a surf mag ever published. It sold over 70,000 copies straight off the newsstand. Coupled with the 50,000-odd subscriptions and the hundred-plus pages of fully paid advertising, it generated more money than the entire annual income of the business back in the 1970s.
By this time, the mag had moved up to the business park above San Clemente, next door to Herbie Fletcher. There were 35 fulltime employees and maybe a dozen field people on retainers, some for thousands of dollars a month. Flame’s office, photo library, and darkroom took up half a floor. Sharp did a fashion shoot with Chang, David Lee Roth, and a red Ferrari. Gilovich would fly me in from Sydney just to brainstorm article ideas.
We were brilliant! No, we weren’t. We were deluded, drunk on adrenaline from the wave we’d caught. To realize that vague vision of the future I’d had in 1979, I moved to San Clemente in September 1990, family in tow. By early 1991 I’d been given Sharp’s job as senior editor, just in time for it all to fall apart.
Magazines, Christ, they’ll kill you. My father, who among other things ran one of Australia’s biggest magazine publishers for several years, once told me: “Every issue you do, you die a little.” I half got it at Tracks, but only really learned it at Surfing.
Mignogna used to have each year’s mags bound up into big, hardcover tomes for key staff members. I still have 1990 and 1992, but 1991? Nowhere. Maybe we did one, but I doubt it. Nineteen ninety-one was the big bust, the year all the stuffing came out of the 80s boom days. The ad base collapsed, OP filed for Chapter 11, and Quiksilver dropped maybe 30 percent of its sales. The Echo Boomers turned twenty-something and all their skepticism rose to the surface, and none of the magic tricks of just two years earlier—the neon mastheads, the enthusiastic exclamation points, the front-lit vision, the Bikinis! Bikinis! Bikinis!—worked any more. On the contrary, darkness was cool. The readership declined by roughly the same percentage as Quiksilver’s sales. Within 12 months the mag had shriveled to 96 pages, and the layoffs began. Retainers vanished, and with them photographers. One Friday, PT had to sack half of his ad staff.
Surfing’s other senior editor, Steve Hawk, had taken the job at Surfer. I dunno how Hawk was coping. (I knew I was insanely jealous of the look being conjured by his new designer, David Carson. Fuck you, Carson! You were at the wrong mag!) But for me and most of the crew at Surfing, this was a period of intense anxiety, possibly even terror. We published some highlight stuff—Pottz’s epic board test from redwood to modern, Mark Foo pulling into a 20-foot barrel at Todos Santos, Allan Weisbecker’s incredible story about Jock Sutherland surfing 30-foot Waimea Bay at night on a serious hit of acid.
In a fit of black-comic frustration we did an entire magazine entitled “Is Pro Surfing Dead?” which pissed a lot of people off and seemed to briefly amuse the readers. But nothing we did seemed to halt the downward trend. I’d never felt so out of my depth. I went for runs along PCH, along the same stretch of road I’d once walked in a stoned haze, and now it felt like completely foreign soil. I didn’t know the readership, the territory. What the hell was I doing here? We shrank into fearful conservatism, picking dull cover shots and writing committee cover-lines—reacting, not creating. This was not Surfing Magazine’s game at all. Everything felt wrong.
It had to crack, this long period of anxiety, and it did one very bad and ugly morning when Gilovich vanished into Big Mig’s office. An air of portent hung over the building. I figured I was on the chopping block, but no, it was my editorial mentor. “I’ll help you any way I can,” Dave muttered to me as he headed off to clear out his office. I don’t think Sam George even came back to do that.
But then the sky seemed to clear. The ’92/93 winter was great. Rivers broke and the California coast was deluged with swell. Good waves do wonders for everyone, especially surf mag editors filled with self-doubt. I had a couple of beautiful boards from the shaper Hamish Graham, and they along with the waves, just cleaned all the crap out of my head. We started trying stuff again—a new masthead, a swimsuit spread with girls who actually surfed, untouched cover shots, non-neon covers—and it worked. We recruited from the small surf magazines who’d sprung up with the first green shoots of the economic recovery, and got Skip Snead, who was more California Kid than I’d ever be, and Jamie Brisick, and Steve Sherman the magical creator of the “Happy Accident Image,” and Steve Zeldin the arch prankster, who would later pull the finest single trick in our long and hilariously hostile battle with Surfer, the infamous Donut Delivery of 1997.
Most of all, we regained our purpose. Magazines, all magazines, are conduits of some kind or other. At their best, they carry precious cargo—ideas, images, stories, even dreams—from one small group of people to other, much larger groups of people. And in return, they gain a kind of cultural permission to exist and thrive.
The New School talent explosion did that for us, the last real “young moment” in surf culture, before everything slowly began to splinter into the demographic fragments we see around us in the lineups of 2017. Kelly and company made Surfing magazine necessary again and we went with it, along with all the new-blood surfers and surf companies and the reanimated readership.
The only person who remained truly unscathed by it all was Flame. We all loved and were terrified of the red-headed high priest of the surfing image, enthralled and secretly amused by Larry’s approach to things—his insistence on quality, his hopes for the crew in the field, and his absolute conviction that our only real job was to show the reader who was ripping. “Nobody cares!” he would yell, when someone dared suggest a lineup cover or a backlit image. “Nobody cares! They just want to see the cryp!”
Flame inculcated me into the culture of vicious competition with our rivals. Gilovich had understood the need to be a different type of magazine than Surfer, but it was Flame and Mignogna who took the battle to heart. They were combative people to their cores, and while Mig could drive ad sales and new means of circulation, Flame immersed himself in trying to scoop the competition at every possible juncture. One of the first things he did when I showed up in 1990 was drag me over to the light table and show me a selection of photographs—Cortes Bank during the 1990 Eddie swell.
“Nobody can know,” he said to me. “Nobody!”
“Did he show you?” Sharp asked me later. “He’s only ever shown Brock [Little].” I realized I was now part of Flame’s secret society. We dug the photos out every now and then, gazing at these images of waves I now know to be well in excess of 80 feet, and wondered about the day on which we’d see them ridden. Cortes for Larry represented the ultimate ace in the hole, the weapon he would one day use against the opposition, and the day he used Cortes would be the day when all such opposition would crumble, when Surfer would finally suffer its most humiliating defeat at his hands.
Meanwhile he would torment all the Salt Creek kids, and demand they not allow themselves to be photographed by any of Surfer’s staff. It was hilarious, this competition between the magazines, super hostile, yet also like a kind of sitcom that nobody else could be bothered watching, playing out just between us. Every now and then Flame would be incensed by something. Every now and then one of the Surfer crew would be incensed by something else. I dunno if it ever mattered much. Later, the surfers I met out in the real world seemed to think the magazines were pretty much alike, that we were basically doing the same thing, and they were probably right. Maybe all that competition was a sort of delusion.
But magazines thrive on competing with each other. It gives them a vitality, a lust for life, it drives the performance of everyone on staff, and for Larry, it was essentially his lifeblood.
I think more than anyone, though, Larry was in touch with the original and best thing about the mag, the thing instilled in its DNA by co-founder Leroy Grannis—a pure interest in the act of riding the wave. Granny’s whole modus was to “get the shot,” preferably the shot nobody else would try to get, and if that meant paddling out at 15-foot-west-swell Sunset with a camera in a wooden box, so be it. Thus was Chris Van Lennep swimming at Off-The-Wall, or Hank on his ski at Outer Logs, or Pete Frieden endlessly on the road, or Hornbaker in the (then-still-unnamed) Mentawais with Kelly and a mohawked Pottz and Tom. They burned endless rolls of Fujichrome Velvia trying to capture the surfer, sure, but trying harder to capture “surfing.”
But even Flame had to surrender a portion of his beloved Larry Light philosophy to the reborn 90s-style mag. When Hornbaker’s first Mentawais submission came in, from an August ’93 Indies Trader trip with Tommy Curren and Brock Little, we fought for a whole day over a single image—a shot of Tom from eerily green-lit Telescopes, only his face and a sliver of his board catching the last-minute setting sun. Perilously close to art.
“It’s not in focus!” Flame growled. “It’ll print like mud! You’re fooling yourselves!”
We ran the shot, and a little piece of our little piece of the culture changed.
By mid-1996, things were relaxed enough that Skip and I could wander out the back with the ad crew after work and smoke a joint, watch the sunlight fade over the San Clemente hills, and if we were lucky, have a life discussion with Herbie Fletcher. I’d had a lot of surfs with Herb in that sanity-preserving winter of ’93. “It’s all about the kids!” he would tell us, dragging around the trashcans full of Astrodek offcuts. I thought of all the shit Herb must have survived, realized the mag had finally given up trying to kill me, and I thought, Enough of this, I wanna go surfing.
About then Clyde Packer got sick. He had scared the shit out of Mignogna and Berg a few times during the bad years. Once, he got them up to his home in Santa Barbara, sat them down, and said, “Ok gentlemen, let’s play a game. You’re all fired.” But he was never anything but cool with me and Flame. He let the tension between ownership and readership play out with no agenda other than his share of the cake, and left all the rest of it to us. We knew he was there, but in ten years I reckon we saw him three times.
Big Mig found himself in the same place as he’d been back in 1979—brokering the magazine’s sale. Again, he called World Color Press, and spoke to their top sales rep, Craig Nickerson. Again a buyer was found, this time an ambitious and very well funded new publishing outfit called K-111 Communications, set up by the wealthy and somewhat scary New York takeover kings, Kohlberg Kravis Roberts.
The tension was broken, then swiftly reestablished in a new and diffuse form. A weird cycle commenced, in which slowly, through the mechanisms of various giant publishing houses, the biggest surf mags in the world, once so independent and so hilariously hostile toward each other, were dragged into the same room. K-111 became Primedia, “The Authoritative Source,” as its unintentionally silly tagline read. Primedia bought McMullen Argus in Los Angeles, Emap sold Surfer, Primedia bought Surfer, McMullen Argus became Source Interlink, Times Mirror sold Transworld, Primedia bought Transworld. An Enthusiast Network replaced The Authoritative Source. Around and around and around. Or something like that.
Over time, the tension became hopelessly diffused—to the point where all three mags, TWS, Surfer, and Surfing were being sold to advertisers by the same ad staff, coached in their pitches: Surfer the Bible, Surfing the Young Progressives, TWS the Even Younger Cartoon Kiddies.
It was amazing they lasted as long as they did. But for a long time, longer than a decade, Surfing soldiered on, and even did brilliantly. There was a dot-com boom, during which huge amounts of money briefly poured into surf media, the kind of money no surf journalist will see again. The money erected two or three powerful-looking websites, including Swell.com, which poached in swift succession Doug Palladini, Evan Slater, Flame, me, Matt Walker, and pretty much every hotshot photographer of the time. Suddenly, we were all being paid by everybody! It was really strange. The boom and its offspring were supposed to destroy the mags, but as it turned out, websites weren’t what would kill magazines. In 2001, websites were tedious places. Unless you had something you absolutely had to go there for, like, say, surf forecasts, you might not bother. The photos looked better in print.
Swell’s boom times remind me today of the current state of professional surfing—somebody throwing huge amounts of money at something, hoping one day it will pay off. But Swell was under the eye of venture capitalism, so it had to start making money. And when it didn’t, the house of cards simply fell over, and we all found ourselves back at the magazines, grinding away.
Surfing magazine did the best out of all this, because it ended up with Evan as editor, and Evan almost pulled off the most unlikely trick in the mag’s history—he almost evolved it. Evan’s Surfing began to resemble the magazine Surfing could have become, if it’d had the time and space to outgrow its obsession with youth: strong-featured; well written; sleek yet spiky; intelligent and energetic. He brought along Matt, Steve Sherman, Marcus Sanders, the talented designer Andre Aganza, and Nathan Myers, master of the short sentence. He let us write large amounts of words on subjects that were bigger than they seemed: localism; the Brazilian push; the hard edge of big wave surfing; and the great new generation of top gun pros, led by their incredible king, Andy Irons, in his unseating of Kelly and his triumphant embrace of a new century.
All these big, strong subjects were accompanied by wonderful photography, only some of which Flame got to oversee. Because through this juncture, Flame became ill, and Flame’s illness became the greatest test of any magazine’s staff I’ve ever seen. As he grew sicker, and the radiation was applied, and the four resections of the right side of his brain came and went, it was impossible to describe the mood in the mag’s offices. If Evan hadn’t been such a calm character, things might have turned out much worse than they did.
Flame died in October 2005, and it took me a long time to re-organize my mind and heart around it. I knew he loved surf trips, even though he hardly ever went on any, and so I went to Candace, his widow, and asked her if I could take one of his surfboards—a 6’8″ Timmy Patterson squash-tail with a nose guard on the tip. I thought to myself that I would take it on a trip somewhere remote, get an epic wave on it, and then give it to some local grommet. It hasn’t happened. I don’t know if it will. The board is in my garage, the nose guard half rotted off. I don’t know if I can bear to part with it.
Anyway, once I’d come to some kind of terms with it, I couldn’t escape the thought that some part of the magazine had died with Larry. Something that couldn’t be replaced, no matter what a great job Evan or Sherm or Travis Ferre did, or Pete Taras, or Sam Olson or Jimmicane. Flame was irreplaceable, just as the Echo Boomers were irreplaceable as a readership, just as Gilovich had been irreplaceable as an editor…just as now the mag is done, and everyone who ever worked there or whose photo ever appeared in it is irreplaceable. Part of its internal mythology, part of a story that’s come to an end. The page is printed and is turned.
Magazines can exist, even if almost nobody gives a shit about them. Go to any newsstand and you’ll see evidence of that. But once a magazine is actually called into being by the culture it serves, once it’s truly filled with blood and spirit the way Surfing magazine was in the late 70s and 80s, and then again in the 90s and in the 2000s, it’s then forever at the mercy of its culture. That’s the pact you make: you gain life from people giving a shit about you, but once people stop giving a shit about you, you’re done.
That’s what I suspect really happened to Surfing. The diffused interests of the ownership, the uncertainty around the future of print, the GFC and the crumbling ad base, all might have been withstood and even turned around over time. The splintered demographic and erosion of a youth market is another thing. You can’t do much about that arc of events, other than perhaps ignore it, or pretend it isn’t happening, the way some surf brands are busy doing. But social media and the smartphone undid the magazine’s essential pact—the promise of connection between magazine and readership and star—and both star and reader slowly turned their backs, if not completely, then just enough to make it all begin to seem unnecessary. You could get the same thing quicker from the actual source, or what looked like the source, and in moving pictures, too. Even the advertisers decided they could do a better job on their own. Fundamentally, people stopped giving a shit.
The mag went from 12 issues a year to ten, then nine, then eight. The circulation declined in lockstep. When it came down to the crunch, an in-house offer of just over $3 million was made for the title. The publishers knocked back the offer. They’d have thought it was worth that and more to avoid creating an opposition.
Surfer is still going, I guess the putative victor in the hilarious mag wars. This might be a pyrrhic victory. It’s currently publishing eight per year, just as Surfing was in the year before it died.
In the end, magazines, all magazines, are just paper. My hard-bound copies of Surfing now sit in a bookcase. I flicked through most of them while writing this piece. It seems funny now, looking back, to think how much we cared and worried about the damn thing. I guess we were all deluded at one time or another. You’d never work on a magazine, or a movie, or anything at all, if you couldn’t delude yourself from time to time that it matters. Hell, you probably wouldn’t even surf.
But I know what Richard Dowdy meant when he wrote a brief note on one of those Facebook obituaries late last year. It was a kind of unintended coda to the mag’s old let’s-do-it philosophy. “Let it go,” he wrote. “It’s in the past.”
[Feature image: Death Montage: Visuals from the eras of Surfing magazine, composed by ex-ING art director, Mike Salisbury. With a portfolio that included album design work with Michael Jackson, a redesign of Rolling Stone with Jan Wenner, and collaborations with the likes of Francis Ford Coppola, Salisbury’s work elevated the photo and text components, providing the icing on a staff already loaded with talent.]