The former Surfer editor and fixture of the Coastside surf scene discusses the iconic magazine’s 60 year run (and the void it will now leave behind).
Steve Hawk began his editorial tenure as the “token surfer” in each of the newsrooms he frequented.
And rightfully so. Though his day job was writing copy, Hawk still spent much of his off-hours paddling out into the swells off beaches in Southern California. Soon enough, he was offered a dream job that merged his interests: the position as editor-in-chief at Surfer magazine.
It was an offer Hawk could not turn down. Having first stumbled upon the magazine as a preteen in the early seventies, he had grown up reading each subsequent edition cover to cover — most oftentucked away in a corner of his local surf shop. Surfer was for Hawk what social media platforms — Facebook, Instagram, YouTube — are now for the youngest generation of surfers: a way to reach a broader community. Many times an issue of Surfer was the only portal Hawk had to drop in on a wider view of surf culture — what waves people were riding, where they were finding them and on what boards.
Ultimately, Hawk was the longest serving editor of the publication, having chaired Surfer officially from 1991 until 1998 (and remaining for a period of time on retainer after his departure). He returned to the publication as a contributing editor in 2004.
Last week, owner A360 Media announced it would be permanently furloughing all of Surfer’s staff, snuffing out the magazine’s brand amid its 60th year in publication. Though it’s been decades since his time at the helm of the publication, the news of Surfer’s loss hit Hawk hard. It’s a loss for surfers everywhere, he said, and representative of the troubled state of professional news outlets nationwide.
Still, Hawk says: the Surfer brand is unlike anything else. During his time there, the magazine blazed the trail for the surf scene in Alaska, wrote the first article about Mavericks (Half Moon Bay’s legendary big wave surf break) and hit home for legions of young surfers who felt just as drawn to the magazine as a teenaged Hawk had in the seventies. It was surfing — and the pursuit of writing about surfing — that ultimately brought Hawk to Half Moon Bay, where he’s been a fixture of the local scene for the better part of the last two decades.
It’s that legacy that’s made him confident it will in some form live again. There’s too much of what Hawk calls “good will” behind the magazine — but, hey, we’ll let him do all the talking below.
I read that Surfer was one of your first journalistic pursuits and your first stint as an editor. What drew you to it?
I was a newspaper reporter for ten years before (joining Surfer) in Orange County, which is where the magazine was based. I was with the Orange County Register. Everywhere I worked, I was the token surfer on staff at the newspaper. I was freelancing for Surfer and Surfing in the late eighties, and then the guy who was the editor at Surfer, Matt Warshaw — who went on to write The Encyclopedia of Surfing, he was really this premiere sports historian — he announced he was leaving. So they hired me.
From a very early age, I wanted to do two things — surf, and write. So it was kind of obvious. When I got the job, and it never occurred to me that I would get it, I called a couple of friends. I was like, ‘Duuuude, I just got the dream job.’ And one of them said, ‘Like, what? Editor of Surfer or something?’
So there was no question I was going to take it, even though my wife was like — ‘really?’ I had a semi-serious journalism career going. And it felt like I was on a trajectory to go some place bigger, but I don’t regret it at all. It was fantastic.
For someone unfamiliar — can you speak a little about the content Surfer ran?
It was by surfers, about surfers, for surfers, first and foremost. The surf world in general has a ‘cooler than thou’ aspect to its thinking, which is unfortunate. And so if you weren’t a surfer — if you hadn’t grown up in that world — it’s really easy to reveal your uncoolness by misstating language. By saying something like, ‘How tall are the waves?’ instead of ‘How big are the waves?’ There’s jargon that we all use, so everyone’s got really sensitive bullshit detectors.
And it is all by surfers. You don’t get that job if you didn’t at some point in your life consider yourself a surfer first and foremost—it’s not like baseball writers or football writers. You don’t have to be a great surfer — I certainly was not. But I was good enough; I can ride pretty dangerous waves, but not, like, extraordinarily dangerous. You’re speaking to the tribe when you edit Surfer. But also an important thing that I had to bear in mind was that I came out of the newspaper world, I’d done a lot of kind of watchdog journalism: investigative stuff, uncovering crime. That was not what we were there for at Surfer, it was all about keeping people stoked about the sport.
Was that still a pseudo-qualification to work there even recently? That you had to have had some experiential knowledge of surfing?
Yeah, and it would be if it were still in existence. Certainty to work there on the editorial side (you had to have that experience), absolutely. (Former Editor-in-Chief) Todd (Prodanovich), his surf roots run deeper than mine. His dad was a really well-known surfboard shaper back in the day.
What was Surfer best at doing, do you think?
I do think that one thing Surfer did to sort of set it apart from other magazines was we tried really hard to cover the cutting edge of surfers, the cutting edge performances. And innovations, both in terms of surfboard shaping and the way waves were being ridden, the kind of boards, where people were surfing. We wanted to keep an eye on the tip of the spear. But we also — because it had been around since 1960 — we had this deep archive of photos, especially articles that we owned the rights to, and so we always kept one eye looking back at the past. To sort of make the connection between what was going on now, and what was going on back then. Because the sport has always fancied itself as this sort of cutting-edge, rebellious pastime. And a lot of the past was these guys who were just pioneers — not just sporting pioneers, but cultural pioneers, really. So I think that’s one thing that sets it apart. Some of the magazines we competed with were only about the here and now, and some were only about the past. We tried to do both.
Is there any particular story or issue that continues to stand out to you when you think about your time as editor or the years since?
Well, I grew up with it. I saw my first issue of Surfer when I was 13 or 14, and it was life changing. Back then, and this was in the late sixties and early seventies, it was the only access we had to any form of media with surfing in it. There were no videos. Surfing would be on television once a year during the Wide World of Sports. If you wanted to see movies, you had to go to high school auditoriums where filmmakers would come through and show their movies on a real reel — on an old fashioned projector. Sometimes they would actually narrate the footage live, and that was it. So other than Surfer, you didn’t have access to it. When it came in the mail, or landed in the surf shop, people would just read them cover to cover. I know I did.
So I had a couple of photos burnt in my memory, both covers and stories, from back in the early seventies. But in my time there, there’s a couple of pieces that we did that I was pretty proud of that I think still stand the test of time. One would be… we organized the first legitimate, full fledged surf trip to Alaska. We sent a crew — a really good photographer, a really good writer and surfers up there — specifically to find good waves, and they did. It blazed a trail, and now there’s a full-on surf scene up in Alaska.
And then we did a couple of profiles I was really proud of. Bruce Jenkins, the sports columnist for the San Francisco Chronicle, wrote a really amazing profile of a legendary surfer named Pat Curren, whose son Tom Curren was the first Californian to win the professional world title. And Tom is often regarded as kind of many people’s favorite surfer of all time. But yeah, Bruce went down to Baja (California) and tracked him down. Pat was living in a shack, pretty much, and didn’t want to talk to him. But Bruce showed up with beer, he ended up writing this really beautiful piece about this father and son relationship. I actually recently revisited that piece, and it’s really great.
The time period you were there would have been right when the internet was starting to change newspapers and magazines, right? Did you have a role in the magazine’s digitization? Do you feel Surfer was able to adapt to the rush of digital journalism that began right around the end of the 1990s?
Yeah, actually — I was there when it first started, and we had a web editor. But this was really kind of before the internet really took off. And I feel a little guilty, because … when I left Surfer …I went off to help launch Swell.comand Surfline.com. I was executive editor at Surfline, which is now the big premiere surfing website, if you will. I was editorial director there. So in a way, doing that — I hired away some really good people from Surfer, because it was the first dot-com boom, and there was a lot of money around. So in a way, I feel like I sort of contributed to its demise, because they ended up… well, Surfer did a pretty good job of jumping onto the internet, but they were a little late to the game, and just never quite got the traction they needed to make that a really viable money making enterprise. They were still depending on the print, and as we all know — print is in serious trouble.
Tell me about Surfer’s connection to Northern California. I know in recent years there’d been a lot of coverage on Mavericks, for example — were there any other local surfing strongholds?
Well… Santa Cruz back then was a hotbed. It still is. We wrote an article about the silly feud between Santa Cruz and Huntington Beach, over which could call itself Surf City, USA. Actually, in response to your earlier question about articles, we did the first story about Mavericks. And the guy who wrote that, Ben Marcus, who was one of the assistant editors there, was from Santa Cruz, and his father lived in Half Moon Bay. He spent a lot of time up here, he’d seen it break before anyone surfed it. We were lucky to have Ben on staff; he’d grown up in Santa Cruz and spent a lot of time in Half Moon Bay. He was our connection. He knew everybody. Whenever we did a story out of this part of the world, he was the guy to do it, because he knew the history and the people.
How did you end up moving from Southern California to Half Moon Bay?
I grew up in San Diego, went to college in Santa Barbara, and worked mostly in Orange County. When I left Surfer and got hired by Surfline.com, they moved me up here, because this was where they were going to be based. My wife and I were done with Southern California at that point, so she actually quit a really good job to move up here. When we got here… within about two years, the dot-com thing crashed, and I lost the job at Surfline. We just looked around and said, okay, we’ll figure it out. So we figured out how to stay. We were both working for Southern California companies while living up here for a while. There’s no place — or very few — where you can have really immediate access to truly wild coastline, while also immediate access to a great metropolitan culture in San Francisco.
What kind of role did Surfer play in the surfing community? What void does it leave to be filled in its absence?
It was a place for us all to come together back in the day, when there were no other options. Like I said, it was the only access we had to see what other surfers were doing. I’ve had reason to read through every issue of the magazine at one point or another, and in the early decades, they really devoted so many column inches to Letters to the Editor, because people were speaking to each other. There was no Facebook. There was no Instagram. And so it felt like a touchstone. It was a way that the community came together.
I remember when I first got the job at Surfer, I was giddy, but I was also scared shitless, because I felt like I had been given this responsibility that was just gigantic. That magazine had meant so much to me when I was young, and since then I’ve had many people who were young when I was editing talk about how they still remember some of the coverage we did, the articles we wrote. It felt like a tremendous responsibility, because it was such an important part of the culture, and culture was such an important part of my life, and still is.
Do you think social media platforms like Facebook and Instagram will fill that role?
They are certainly in that role already — [we see discourse in] the comments below articles on Facebook, and the way people can connect through Instagram. I can see John John Florence surf the waves at Pipeline an hour after he rides them. So a lot of it has been replaced by [social media].
The problem, though, is that the discourse is not curated. It’s just a free-for-all. And just as with everything wrong with Facebook, it’s the ugly stuff that incites an emotional reaction that then bubbles to the surface. So I think the sense of community in the surf world… it’s there, but there’s also clearly some conflict. The last issue of Surfer, to Todd [Prodanovich]’s credit, he made it very political.
I understand that was the first endorsement of a political candidate the magazine had ever given.
It was the first official one. We had always leaned left, largely because of environmental issues. A lot of people say surfers are sort of canaries in the coal mine when it comes to environmental issues. In my mind, you can’t really call yourself a surfer if you’re not also an ocean environmentalist. Obviously, predictably, through history, it’s been the more progressive, left wing candidates who supported environmental regulations. So that was the first overt endorsement of a presidential candidate. But we gave Reagan a lot of shit back in the day. And same with Bush. So anyway, but I thought what he did was really bold. And spot on. The Black Lives Matter protests… that also spilled over into the beach. There were some big, powerful demonstrations on the sand with paddle outs. And that was.. I think a lot of surfers were grateful to see that, because it’s been such a traditionally white culture. That will only benefit from opening up. And it has been getting increasingly colorful, if you will. There have been more people of color coming in. But it’s still very white. And judging by the comments below Todd’s endorsement, it’s very conservative, too. I found that really heartbreaking and disappointing.
You’re yourself still in an editorial role — can you speak at all to how the magazine’s disappearance fits into the larger conversation we’re having as a society around the loss of local news and the leaning out of the media landscape in the United States?
It enrages me. Because the companies that are responsible for it — most notably, Facebook — they’ve killed advertising for so many media companies. But they refuse to acknowledge they’re a media company. So they take none of the responsibility that comes with that, which is curating the shit that’s up with your website. That’s what magazines are all about — picking, choosing, crafting, polishing. And also just having a filter for falsehoods. And that’s what the worst part of it is — local journalism especially is being replaced by something that’s not even journalism. It’s propaganda, disguised as journalism, or it’s free-for-all fistfights online. Think about what Sinclair [Broadcast Group] is doing with television stations. I try in general to be an optimist, but that whole state of the world depresses me. I don’t see a solution to it. Philanthropists who come in and buy [media organizations], like what [Jeff] Bezos did with the Washington Post… that’s only gonna go so far.
I read an interview with Todd Prodanovich in which he said he hoped someone wealthy with a passion for surfing would come in and purchase Surfer — just to preserve its existence out there in the world.
And as pessimistic as I am about the state of journalism, I do think that I agree with Todd. I think someone will come in. The Surfer brand has too much of what economists call ‘good will’ behind it. It’s a true asset, and brands like that rarely just completely disappear. So I can’t imagine that the brand, SurferMagazine, is really going to go away.
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