My First Day

PrintIllustration by Noa Emberson

May IssueThis is headed for a page in SURFING magazine. (It's probably the best magazine in the world. There used to be a T-shirt that said so.)

About two weeks after it gets printed they'll send me a check for a little bit of money, which means right now I'm getting paid to write for a surf magazine.

Some of you might aspire to this.

If you do, here's what I can offer based on how it started for me about six years ago. This is only my experience, but maybe you'll get something out of it. Maybe a check.

First of all, by virtue of reading this, you're now as qualified as I was to start writing professionally. More, probably. I was just a 19-year-old reader. I had no training or experience or contacts in the industry. No degree or relevant coursework. I was studying economics and math, which is effectively the opposite of this thing you're holding now. But I sent SURFING a letter to the editor on Christmas break to win a free surfboard, and won a free surfboard, and ended up with an internship by accident.

The takeaway is that you may imagine a glass wall between yourself and the vaunted surf media. I don't think the wall is really there. Actually, I think the wall is even less there than it was when I fell through it, because now you can get on editors' radars much more easily, with little more than a well-formed tweet.

So I had this internship, at a surf magazine, which had never occurred to me as something a person might have. My previous internship had been in "private client asset management." So this was ridiculous.

Back then SURFING was housed in the former Astrodeck factory in San Clemente. We were upstairs. Skateboarder Magazine, which is dead now because of the economics I mentioned, was downstairs. On my first day I was nervous. These people -- I guessed there were dozens making the magazine; there were seven -- were important. In my mind they ran surfing, with a lowercase S as well as the capital one. I'd read and mostly memorized every issue they'd issued since around 2000. Plus Surfer, plus Transworld, plus all their respective websites. They ghostwrote my youth.

This is actually another takeaway: If you want to make surf media, study surf media. Really study. Know what's been done so you can steal or avoid or make fun of it. Read everything. Read the press releases. Learn about about every pro, semi-pro, quasi-pro, former pro, future pro, former future pro, etc. Watch contests and videos. Just huff all things surf until you have this arcane mental library that no one else was silly enough to invest their time in. That is the way.

(An alternative approach, much less common, is to have real talent.)

Anyway, internship. Day one. Nervous.

The first person I met was Nathan Myers, then the managing editor. Nathan knows more about putting a good issue together than anyone on the planet. That'd be a kind of terrible epitaph but he really is the master. On my first day he had me transcribe a 45-minute interview with Dave Rastovich. He also told me not to write lofty sentences because the reader was a 15-year-old American male of unreliable literacy. I gnashed teeth at that for a long time but Nathan was usually right.

The second person I met was Travis Ferré, associate editor. He was the young guy -- about my age now -- but already a veteran, having interned and then been hired while still in school. In terms of talent and general cool factor, Travis could have been a pro surfer, and as a result real pro surfers have always loved him. This made and makes him a great editor. (Another takeaway: Surf skills, people skills and party skills are keys to this kingdom. Don't fight that inviolable truth.) Travis later started and now runs What Youth.

Jimmy Wilson is a SURFING photo editor. I met him next. Today there aren't many people I admire more but he taught me a harsh lesson then. A few weeks in, in a fit of blistering cleverness, I wrote a piece referencing NASCAR fans as "hill people." Jimmy, who's from Florida, failed to see the comedic genius in that. "Us hill people will f–k you up," he wrote me in an email, very sincerely. I felt pretty bad. I think I nearly quit.

The point is that, as unlikely as it seems when you're in some coffee shop hacking out bad copy, people really will read what you write. They don't know you're stupid and 19. They take what you say seriously because you're not really saying it -- SURFING magazine is. And you're responsible for that. So don't just go around calling half the country "hill people."

Interning involved a few key duties. The most tedious of these was transcription -- listening to a recorded audio interview, usually with a pro surfer, and typing it up word for word so the editors could manipulate it into something approaching coherence. This was a shock to younger me. I'd never have guessed how much verbal Photoshopping goes into a given printed interview. If you see a bunch of pithy, grammatically correct statements attributed to pros in this issue, consider the practice alive and well.

Mostly what I did was sit in on meetings and listen as the team formed future issues from scratch. They were always looking one month, two months, six months down the line, debating, conceiving stories, planning trips, picking photos and people to profile. Pro surf careers would rise or crumble over a casual brainstorm. "Nah, he's boring. Surfer did it. Never leaves Newport. No. No. Maybe four years ago. Too Transworld. Lame. Can't go right. Wrong season." Etc. It was pure, calculated tastemaking by the best in the business. Quite a thing to see.

My arrival at SURFING coincided with the editor-in-chief-ship of Evan Slater. This is a bit like saying I was the White House dishwasher during the Lincoln administration. Evan was legendary as an editor, but also as a surfer and just an adult male, period. I think he would wake up around five, surf Blacks or Oceanside, come to work, surf or swim laps at lunch, then attend requisite industry functions at night. He rode bigger waves than the guys featured in his magazine and during free time he raised a lovely family.

One of the things he told me on my first day was that a magazine job was the best springboard into a career in the surf industry. Any career, basically. To prove it he left SURFING about a year later to become a key guy at Hurley. Another takeaway, c/o Evan: If you want to work in the surf business, and aren't a former future pro, the media might just be your way in.

This has run long. A few final things you should know and then I'll cut it off:

It's easier than you think. You won't make much money. You will get free surf product. You'll travel a lot, and if you're a writer you'll get to surf on those trips, whereas photographers don't really. Southern California is much scarier than the North Shore. And Chas Smith is a lot smarter than you probably realize.