December 8, 2010

In Defence of What?

An image from Surfing magazine’s incredible tribute slideshow to Andy Irons. Which, although it apparently wasn’t made by journalists, still manages to be the best online celebration of Andy’s surfing that we’ve seen.

Andy Irons’ death last month has given surfers a lot to feel, think, and talk about. For the folks in surf media, his passing brings into sharp relief the discussion about the responsibility we have to readers. What events should we be reporting on? What stories should we be telling?

The latest round of chatter on this subject was ignited late last week by this post on the site of one of America’s big two surf mags, titled ‘In Defense of Cowardice.’

“Now, the public’s interest in — not to mention sense of entitlement to — the dirty laundry of a kid from Kauai who could ride waves pretty well is puzzling. But that’s not the issue. Some readers feel we owe them ruthless, unbiased reporting and that all this kowtowing to corporate interests is spinelessness on our part.
So here’s the juicy, unvarnished truth: We’re not journalists. We don’t really chase leads or hound sources … We try to entertain; we try to inspire fellow surfers and get you to feel all surfy inside.”

So. Stuart Cornuelle, an assistant editor at Surfing, one of the world’s most respected surf mags makes his contribution to the completely reasonable discussion mentioned above by, in effect, throwing up his hands and saying ‘Yeah, you got us. Us surf mag guys don’t actually know what we’re doing making magazines. We just want to get people all stoked about surfing and shit. We never meant for this to get serious, and we kinda wish all the stuff raised by Andy’s death would just go away.’

I’m speaking as someone who devoted years to making surf mags so maybe I’m too close to the issue, but still, I’m surprised by what I see as Cornuelle just, well, completely giving up and caving in. And writing it like that’s somehow honorable.

Making readers stoked about surfing is – and should always be – the main goal of any self-respecting surf mag. That part is fine. It’s the excuse Cornuelle gives for not covering the less savoury details of Andy Irons’ life that left me rolling my eyes.

Announcing it like it’s some great revelation, Cornuelle says the people who make surf magazines aren’t journalists.

Maybe he isn’t. Maybe he doesn’t believe any of his colleagues are either. But Jimmy O’Keefe, the editor before me at Australia’s Surfing Life, is. And he hired me because I am. So are the people we got to work with, writers like Nick Carroll and Tim Baker and Sean Doherty and many others. We chased leads and hounded sources and sat at our desks until the wee hours for no pay.

The problem I have with Cornuelle’s faux-worldweary “revelation” is that when he says we aren’t journalists, he gives everyone who thinks surf magazines are worthless an actual reason to believe it.

If a guy who works at Surfing says he’s not a journalist, why bother picking up his mag? Or any of the others?

It’s no secret that surf media is full of self-censorship. Yes, editors bend over backwards to juggle the marketing concerns of their major advertisers with the wants and needs of their readers. But if not doing that is what it takes to be a journalist, the number of TV news producers and newspaper editors who could claim to be one would be pretty bloody small.

Working on a surf mag is an incredible privilege, but what’s weirdest about Cornuelle’s piece is that selling surf journalists short to make a flimsy point, or to stir the pot and generate a few more site visits, seems like the complete opposite of what he claims his real job is anyway.

I don’t know about you, but reading that post didn’t make me want to go surfing.

by Tim