A man who ain't afraid to have a swing.
OG Surf Journo Sean Doherty Buys Surfing World Magazine
"If you don’t support this stuff, you’ll be left with your Instagram feed."
If you have insight into the surfing culture at all, you’ll be familiar with the name Sean Doherty. Sean is the former editor of Tracks magazine, used to commentate for the WSL, is the man behind the best words at Surfer. He’s the author of a tonne of books and is good friends with Mick Fanning and Joel Parkinson. In those world title years, Sean’s proximity to these guys and their candid way around him resulted in some of the most fascinating insights into these pinnacle moments.
Recently, he’s turned more activist than surf writer and is on the books writing for Patagonia. He was the leading force behind Fight for the Bight campaign and many have called for his next move to be into politics.
I’ve known Seano for 20 years and he’s one of those great storytellers, a man of the people characters. He’s a hard worker, insanely smart, well-read, and at times a purist.
His next move was an unexpected one: buying Surfing World magazine.
A little background. My business partner Tom Bird and I sold Stab to SurfStitch back in 2015—an acquisition that happened in line with the acquisition of the European surf forecasting site, Magic Seaweed. Twelve months in, the SurfStitch CEO changed hands, and inevitably so did the strategy. New management wanted to unload the assets they’d acquired. At that point, Stab was being bundled up with Magic Seaweed and the most likely suitor was looking like being Surfline.
As it turns out, however, Surfline had purchased surf media before when they acquired Water magazine in 2007. It was buried soon after, their appetite for surf media perhaps directly correlated to what shitty businesses they are to own.
SurfStitch did sell Magic Seaweed to Surfline but we got out alive. Tom and I were able to get Stab back.
Last year there was talk that Australian surf forecaster Coastalwatch and their print product (Surfing World) were on the market. Mirroring their previous play, Surfline wanted to buy the surf forecasting site but not the media, and we can assume that’s how Sean Doherty fell into ownership of SW.
Seano is a busy guy who speaks and writes in equally thoughtful measures so we emailed some questions to get a handle on his plan for his new business.
Stab: You’ve obviously been a long-time contributor and most recently editor, what was your desire to buy Surfing World? There isn’t a long queue of people lined down the street trying to buy surf media right now.
Sean Doherty: True… we got it for five magic beans but the idea to buy it was a slow burn. At first, it was a sense of duty; I was the last man standing at a masthead that’s got almost 60 years of history. I didn’t want to be the kook who let that die. The ghosts of a thousand issues would haunt me every night. But the more I thought about it the more I saw it as an opportunity. At the time I was watching what was happening in the water around the first corona lockdown. People were totally lost in their surfing. It was wild. Everybody was surfing. Surfboards walked out the door. It was a generally shitty time, but if you were a surfer there was never a better time to be alive. I felt it recorrected a lot of things. It made surfing a lot simpler but at the same time a lot more important in people’s lives. Surfing World suddenly made a lot more sense.
What’s the plan? What are you excited about?
For now, make good mags. Publish independently. See where it goes. SW has had a few golden eras – most notably the Hugh McLeod and Bruce Channon era of the ‘80s, then the Blakey days more recently – and we’re hoping we can create something that taps the surfing zeitgeist in the same way. It comes with a bit of weight. I spoke to a surfing elder about SW once we’d bought it and his advice was, “Make something beautiful that really says something… and don’t fuck it up.”
What’s the frequency?
Quarterly for now. I’ve got my day job with Patagonia, but that frequency seems about right for print anyway. We’re going quarterly but making big mags, 164 pages.
The Surfer’s Journal model would have to be of inspiration, right? Limited advertising spots increasing demand coupled with a strong subscription base?
TSJ seems about right in terms of a business model. I’m no ad salesman, and I’d much rather be spending time working on the mag. I think fundamentally a subs model creates a deeper connection to the title. We’re a bit different from the Journal though which is a classic mag with an older readership. SW has always been a little wilder and more contemporary.
How do you feed the digital platforms like Youtube, Instagram, your dot com, and keep up the quality for print?
I think from our point of view, the tail doesn’t wag the dog. We’re not going to kill ourselves trying to shovel content into platforms simply because they exist. If your stories and ideas are strong they’ll transcend the medium. We’ll start with the idea of premium content in print, and then let’s see where it goes. We’ll migrate stories across to our site, archive classic SW stuff online, and once we’re set up look at setting up a wider creative platform. Between Frank and designer Shane Thomson you’ve got guys with strong visual chops who can work in photo and film as well. We wanna get into big creative projects.
Your stories have always been world-class with international appeal, and the cost of shipping to an international audience being prohibitively expensive, how do you reach that international customer?
Haven’t really thought about that yet. Global domination might be some way off. It might take the shape of a premium online subscription.
What’s the number of subscribers required to make this thing work?
More than we currently have.
What do you think is the future of surf media?
It felt for a while there that the whole thing was circling the drain, but I’ve been far more bullish recently. Like I said before, there’s punters surfing everywhere, it’s just a matter of finding your crew and keeping a realistic view of your place in the world. SW has gone full circle back to a cottage industry again like it was in the ‘70s and I couldn’t be happier. I’m doing it from my back room in Jan Juc, one-minute from the surf. Frank’s still stuck over in Spain, but even once he’s back we won’t have an office. It’ll be a backyard operation again and that’s the secret to it I reckon… Surfing World is a 60-year-old start-up.
Are there any business models beyond the realm of surf you’re modeling this off?
Yeah, we’re going to position the mag a little differently. We’ve re-engineered our thinking and expectations around the mag. No one’s getting rich off it, so we figured why not run it more like a social enterprise than a bloodless business? On top of their own ad, we’re giving our partners a free ad page each to donate to a small surf shop, backyard shaper or community, enviro, or cultural group. Surf media has followed the money for a long time… but we want this to track closer to the culture and give something back to it.
That’s an inspired initiative. What else have we missed, Seano?
Just on that matter of surf culture generally… it needs to be supported or it just won’t be there. These days pretty much everyone who works in and around surf culture does so independently and are on the bones of their ass most of the time. Whether that’s a legacy title like SW, the Warshaw archives or the guy asking a few bucks to see their film or buy their book, surf punters and the surf industry need to throw down a few coins and support this stuff or it simply won’t be there. You’ll be left with your Instagram feed… which you might be perfectly happy with.