Looking Back on the Dawn of SurferMag.com
Surfer Magazine Embraces The Digital Age
Back in October of 1994, I somehow managed to convince the powers that were at SURFER that a hungry freelancer from a rosy-necked Bible Belt backwater along the South Carolina coast was somehow qualified to move out to California to launch a website for “The Bible of the Sport.”
I loaded my battered surfboards and a sizeable collection of SURFER magazines (why I carried my collection out there still baffles me) into a U-Haul trailer and left my family’s 60-year-old cottage in Surfside Beach forever. A week later, I marveled as a solid west swell brought Shaun Tomson and several guys I had only read about in SURFER to a dreamy right called Upper Trestles.
After the surf, Senior Editor Ben Marcus invited me over to his apartment above San Clemente State Beach to watch a videotape called Wake Up Call that Laird Hamilton and a few buddies had just sent in. Marcus toggled the rewind key as The Chosen One towed into a mammoth cerulean avalanche. “You realize this changes everything,” Marcus said. “And not necessarily for the better.”
I had a similar sense with this dawning digital age. I was to shepherd a publication—that once railed against the invention of the surf leash—onto the Matrix. There were no surf cams, no Google maps, no YouTube, no Twitter, and very few possessed the scratch, patience, or ego to live with a shoebox-sized cell phone. Hard drives and RAM were measured in megabytes and SURFER and sister pubs Snowboarder, Powder, and Bike shared a single 19,200 kilobyte-per-second modem (a modern cable modem is 100 times faster). Very few of us had e-mail, and the most common method for stories to reach editors was via fax or floppy disk, and every single photo was shot on film. Hell, the maps for the Surf Report travel guides were still being hand drawn with tracing paper.
Very few of us had e-mail, and the most common method for stories to reach editors was via fax or floppy disk.
My presence interrupted a workflow that had evolved over a generation, and the questions Surfermag.com raised were myriad. How to pay photographers and writers for publishing their work online—particularly when we had no budget? How much of the mag should go online? Should I break stories or wait until three months after the fact for them to appear in print? Should we compete with Sean Collins’ soon-to-appear Surfline.com or partner with it? How could we make money when most of the magazine’s advertisers didn’t even have websites, and junior ad reps like Ricky Irons didn’t even have web-enabled computers? And what about this bulletin board thing? Could we be sued for defamation, or lose an advertiser if an inflammatory remark was posted?
It should be seared into my memory banks, but I’m not exactly sure what day in early 1995 we actually launched Surfermag.com. I was stoked out of my gourd. The site carried what I thought to be a solid mix of magazine content—both vintage and present, low-bandwidth Quicktime videos, a Headlines section that carried homegrown and lifted content, and the earliest incarnation of the SURFER Mag Message Boards. Traffic grew daily, and about a year after we launched, the number of monthly unique visits surpassed SURFER magazine’s monthly circulation.
I surfed Trestles on my lunch break and helped Surfermag.com evolve for four years. In early 1999, I handed the reigns to an eager young cadet named Scott Bass.
A few months after I left SURFER, a cabal of gullible venture capitalists with more dollars than sense began pouring tens of millions into monster websites with funny names like Hardcloud, Bluetorch, and Swell—each promising “the rapidly evolving online action sports adventure lifestyle” to advertisers and retailers. In a stunning coup led by SURFER’s then-Publisher Doug Palladini, Swell bought out Sean Collins and hired away Steve Hawk, Evan Slater, and several other wonderstruck surf editors into a new media wonderland where money was no object. Heck, they paid writers like me a dollar per word.
That brave nerd-world imploded with the dot-com crash, but like its namesake paper publication, Surfermag.com has evolved and endured. The site is nearly 15 years old and I still log on every day from my little office near Folly Beach, South Carolina, to gawk at what passes for informed dialogue on the Message Boards. I take it as a source of immense pride that one day I’ll be able to tell my son and daughter that it was their very own daddy who flipped the switch on the whole damn thing.