When I started writing for surf magazines in the 1990s, the internet was an obscure hobby for geeks, and the Holy Trinity of surf media went like this: Surfer’s Journal was the new, upscale quarterly full of serious think-pieces and rosy-hued nostalgia trips for older longboarders; Surfing Magazine, which was founded in 1964 and died this week, targeted teenagers through contest coverage and loud graphics and minuscule blocks of irreverent text; and Surfer Magazine acted as the clear Bible of the Sport and is still its most recognizable brand.
I wrote earnestly brainy stuff for The Surfer’s Journal, and I joined packs of pro surfers on trips to Iceland and the Galapagos Islands for Surfer, but Surfing Magazine was the one I picked up every time I saw a new issue in the grocery store. I read it cover to cover in those pre-Facebook, pre-Snapchat, pre-YouTube days, when splashy pictures and words in a monthly magazine were a surfer’s only source of news about the giant waves ridden at Waimea Bay three months ago and the secret to the so-called “pig dog” stance for backside tube-riding. There were years when I burned with envy over Surfing’s surprisingly long articles by giants like the iconoclastic surfer/monk Dave Parmenter, the insanely loquacious historian/prophet Sam George, and the plain-old-brilliant Chris Carter, who went on to create the X-Files TV series. For a while, Surfing Magazine struck an excellent balance between eye-catching design, unabashed obsession with young guns and big airs, and smart commentary.
Over the years, though, as Web-delivered content became the freight train roaring down the tracks that every print magazine was trapped on — and as we all learned to expect YouTube videos of epic Pipeline barrels within hours of their happening — every member of the old Holy Trinity appeared to double down on their target demographics. Surfing Magazine, in other words, seemed to become ever-more tailored to the under-16 ADHD set, ever-less relevant to anyone inclined to sit still for more than 60 seconds. “Surfing did launch a half-assed website called surfing.com back in 1998,” says Matt Warshaw, caretaker of encyclopediaofsurfing.com and a former editor-in-chief of Surfer, “but all they did to change the print magazine was remove things. They took out contest coverage, they took out letters to the editor, and they ended up with a magazine that felt thin and pointless.”
If you’re wondering how such an iconic publication could die after so many successful years in such a popular and youth-driven sport, consider the following question: If you were a surf-trunks manufacturer looking to reach the eyeballs of surf-crazed 14-year-old boys, would you spend a fortune on print advertisements in a magazine that came out only once a month, filled its pages with frame-grab photos of barrel rides everybody watched on Surfline.com ages ago, and required kids to read actual words on a page? Or would you spend a fraction of that money on bikini-chick web ads that popped up every time those boys tried to watch a 30-second wipe-out video on their mobile phones?
That’s another way of saying that Surfing Magazine died for the same reason lots of print magazines are in trouble, but sooner than most because it was uniquely ill-positioned to survive the impact of the Internet freight train. “All that’s really happened here,” says Matt Warshaw, “is that a magazine that’s long been on life support has been mercifully put down.” Still, it’s a damn shame because videos of wipe-outs and barrels and tubes and monster waves — fun as they are — do nothing to connect a surf-stoked grommet with the broader culture and traditions of the coolest sport on earth. But maybe the surfer’s education and the sense of identity it can bring will happen later now, after kids grow up and subscribe to Surfer’s Journal and discover the joy of putting down that smart phone and sacking out on the couch with a long and thoughtful article about the glory days of surf magazines, and how there used to be this kind of Holy Trinity, and, well, you get the idea.