Sink or swim: Mira Costa alumnus Matt Warshaw’s online Encyclopedia of Surfing provides a one-of-a-kind look at the sport. Can it survive?
by Ryan McDonald
Last year, the Oxford English Dictionary added the term “tandem surfing” to its store of more than half a million words. As is practice at the OED, which tracks not only the meaning of words but also their etymology and their usage, the editors sought the earliest possible appearance of the term in print.
For that, they turned to Matt Warshaw. As recounted in a “Talk of the Town” segment in The New Yorker magazine, Warshaw was hired as a “surf consultant” for the esteemed lexicon. He weighed in on “dawn patrol,” “green room,” and more, and the citations don’t seem likely to stop. David Martin, a senior editor at the OED who reached out to Warshaw, published a blog post last December promising entries on “pumping,” “macking,” even “SUPing.”
The Mira Costa High School alumnus got the call because he is the closest thing the sprawling world of surfing has to a foremost authority. Warshaw is a former editor at Surfer Magazine, and the author of the “Encyclopedia of Surfing” and “The History of Surfing,” a hefty pair of books that provided definitive looks at wave-riding. He has since taken these ventures online. The Encyclopedia of Surfing, the History of Surfing and Above the Roar, a recently created database of surfing primary sources, are now searchable and accessible on screens of all sizes.
For how much longer, however, is uncertain. After a multi-year partnership with Surfer Magazine ended earlier this year, Warshaw decided to put up a paywall on the site, offering unlimited access to the Encyclopedia, History and Above the Roar for $3 a month. Then last week, Warshaw sent out an email to subscribers, headlined as a plea: “Sink or Swim Time.” The subscriber-based plan had failed to attract enough subscribers, he wrote. If Warshaw cannot not raise sufficient funds by the end of December, everything will disappear.
The threat of folding stings for Warshaw. His entanglement with surfing bears little resemblance to the traditional distance between biographer and subject. Documenting surfing is in part Warshaw’s quixotic attempt to repay the ocean for the gifts it has given him.
“I want to remind people, a few times a week, in a way that isn’t like they’re getting a lecture or forcing them to eat vegetables, that this sport has a deep, wonderful, funny, crossed-up history to it,” Warshaw said. “When I’m riding a wave at Trestles now, and then I see a wave Robert August rode at Trestles in 1962, it makes the experience resonate. It’s true even now, you get some kind of connection. It takes the experience of surfing, and it goes from 3D to Super 3-D.”
He is also working in a kind of race against time and fading memories. Much of what he has collected and presented is found nowhere else on the internet, available only in undigitized magazine archives or scattered parking lot banter. Losing the website would remove the primary information gathering-tool of the generation least aware of the sport’s past.
“If it doesn’t work out, I’d actually have to go sit on a mountain for a while and reflect,” Warshaw said in an interview, half-forced laughter in his voice. “A lot would be lost: all the visuals…I’d have to go away and console myself.”
Sitting on a royal flush
Warshaw and his family moved to Manhattan Beach after spending the first dozen years of his life in Venice, where his childhood friends included future Z-Boy Jay Adams. Both areas were filled with surf-mad kids, though moving south required a few adjustments.
“After the move to Manhattan Beach, I had to get used to calling everybody ‘Mr.’ and ‘Mrs.’ Venice was real hippy, Manhattan was much more ‘Leave it to Beaver.’ But I’m much more a product of the South Bay than I was of Dogtown,” Warshaw said.
Warshaw landed in the South Bay at a time when its surfers were pushing the sport’s boundaries. Hermosa Beach’s Mike Purpus was among the world’s top pros at the time, and he mentored some of the area’s up-and-comers, including Mike Benavidez and Chris Barela on the Hot Lips surf team. In a 2014 article for the Easy Reader, Purpus wrote that the crew would hang out at ET Surfboards with Warshaw, who worked at the Hermosa institution. ET co-founder and Hermosa shaping legend Pat Ryan recalled in a 2012 interview with Swell Magnet’s Lance Kane that Warshaw, as ET’s “shop rat,” once beat Hawaiian pro Larry Bertlemann in a heat at a Katin contest.
After some time in pro contests and surf travel, Warshaw landed a job at Surfer Magazine in 1985. He felt a deep kinship with the “bible of the sport,” noting that it was born the same year he was. After serving as editor, he left in 1990 to attend UC Berkeley. He spent the next two decades in the Bay Area, braving the surf at Ocean Beach and remaining a frequent contributor to Surfer.
He began work on the “Encyclopedia of Surfing” in 2000, and finished it in 2003. Shortly after the book came out, Warshaw registered the domain name “ecyclopediaofsurfing.com.” He paid the $5 a month to maintain the name, but said that at that point the internet “wasn’t really right” for the encyclopedia. Warshaw next turned to the “History of Surfing,” which came out in 2010. His pride in that accomplishment was part of the impetus to get his work online.
“I didn’t think I could do another book as good as this one, so I thought, ‘Let’s try something new,’” he said.
In 2011, his wife got a job at a Amazon, and the family relocated to Seattle. His wife agreed to let him devote himself to website, so long as it was profitable by 2012. He obtained the rights to the texts, then set about an even bigger challenge: getting access to the archives of the sport’s photographers and documentarians, such as Bruce Brown, Leroy Grannis and Taylor Steele.
He began with Art Brewer, a portrait specialist and former photo editor at Surfer. After 18 months of “toying with” Warshaw, Brewer blithely gave him the okay. Others followed soon after, and Warshaw was sitting on “the flushest royal flush anyone could have to do a site like this.”
He taught himself the basics of photo and video editing software, and hired a web developer to handle coding. And, crucially, he formed a partnership with Surfer, which provided enough money to defray the hosting costs and pay him a modest salary. But Surfer, facing declining margins just like other publications, ended the agreement earlier this year, prompting the paywall.
Derek Levy, a noted South Bay surfer who grew up with Warshaw, has been trying to drum up local interest for the the site since Warshaw launched the subscription model. As a board member of the South Bay Boardriders Club, he reached out to the group’s members to encourage them to sign up. Now, with the latest plea from Warshaw, Levy says he is trying to get the board to consider adding a website subscription fee to the group’s membership dues.
“These are immense shoulders that we’re standing on top of,” Levy said of the surfing pioneers Warshaw documents. “Part of [the Boardriders’] mission statement is to preserve the history of the sport. And what Matt is doing is incredibly good, and incredibly important.”
The battle to keep the site going unfolds as media outlets everywhere adjust to the changes wrought by the internet. In recent years, TransWorld SURF and Surfing Magazine, once two of surfing’s largest magazines, have shuttered. Falling circulation and loss of classifieds have given newspapers and magazines fewer advertising dollars to fund operations. The web has brought publications’ work to more eyes than ever, but the returns of online advertising are meager. And that revenue is increasingly flowing to others in the content-supply chain: according to PricewaterhouseCoopers’ global entertainment and media outlook, released earlier this year, Google and Facebook now make more from advertisements than every newspaper, magazine and radio station on earth, put together. And the disparity is likely to grow worse for print, because more than 80 percent of new online advertising revenue is projected to flow to just those two companies.
Derek Rielly has spent his career in surf media, working as an editor at Australian Surfing Life and co-founding Stab Magazine. He now helms BeachGrit.com, and he often relies on Warshaw for content and historical perspective, calling him “The Smithsonian of surfing.”
“All of us have had to struggle. But as hard as it’s been for online to work out a model, the bottom is falling out of print,” Rielly said. He sees the trend accelerating, as people consume a greater share of content online, especially on their phones.
In this environment, paywalls like Warshaw’s have been slowly spreading. Newspapers are increasingly allowing readers to view only a limited number of articles for free each month before asking them to purchase a web subscription. Others, like the Wall Street Journal, have strict paywalls.
Warshaw set the price low, at $3 per month, figuring that the “painless” figure would allow him to easily reach the 2,000 needed to make his site profitable.
“I was sitting back, basically snapping my suspenders. Four months later, I had only 500 subscribers,” he said.
While a paywall can bring in revenue, detractors argue anything that limits the number of viewers is short-sighted. Warshaw said that before imposing the subscription model, 1,200 to 1,500 people per day visited the Encyclopedia of Surfing site. With the paywall up, all three websites combine for about 800 to 1,200 visitors per day.
Warshaw’s self-imposed deadline, giving himself to the end of the year to keep his promise to his family about making the site profitable, has helped. In the days after announcing it, he added about 200 subscribers. He is grateful for the response, but worries that the torrid pace will fall off.
“It looks like I’m saying I have to push this off a cliff if we don’t raise the money. But saying ‘Save this project!’ instead of ‘Support this project!’ seems to be making a difference,” Warshaw said.
Warshaw’s joke aside, publications built around sympathy instead of profitability are the latest model to emerge. Over the last decade, nonprofit newsrooms like ProPublica, the Center for Investigative Reporting and the Marshall Project have tackled serious stories that may not pencil out financially, but represent a valuable public service.
Lewis Samuels, contributor writer at multiple surf magazines and a friend of Warshaw, has a day-job with a Bay Area tech company, and has offered periodic advice on the project. Samuels said he had long cautioned his friend about the difficulties involved in a subscriber model, and tried to nudge him toward finding benefactors. The fate of Warshaw’s work, he said, will reveal what surfers’ devotion to their pastime really means.
“It’s kind of the final experiment: whether there are enough surfers interested in the history of surfing to keep this thing afloat. It tells you something about surfers, and about what they value,” Samuels said.
Warshaw is the first to acknowledge that people are far more exposed to surfing today than when he was growing up. Beyond the sport’s gradual shift from bohemia to the cultural mainstream, images and video are endlessly available on curated websites and, increasingly, social media feeds. And almost all of these are free.
The ever-expanding volume of surf footage, though, is not evenly distributed across time. It is heavily tilted toward the present, and less innocuously, slanted toward those with corporate sponsorship. In this environment, the kind of esoterica on which Warshaw has built his corpus seem unlikely to stick around.
Bradley Peacock, curator and manager of the Hermosa Beach Historical Society and Museum, presides over a collection of surf photos, videos and memorabilia. He said that surfing is a kind of folkway, with much of its traditions and customs sorted out informally. It is resistant to cataloging in official texts, which makes documenting the history of surfing different than, say, covering an election.
“You can’t always rely on the written word, because it is an everyday-people kind of thing. Oral history and photography are the vital sources for those. That makes it difficult, because you have to find people and track them down. Skateboarding is another good example: a lot of it, we just don’t know. It started as an underground culture, stigmatized,” Peacock said.
Samuels said that the comparative fortunes of social media and sites like Warshaw’s reveal another hazard: the loss of a coherent narrative for the sport.
“You’re removing the gatekeepers with social media, as opposed to having a journalist assemble a story,” he said. “It’s a free-for-all with user generated content.”
Warshaw is not, in the dismissive term of historian Richard Hofstadter, a mere “archive rat.” He is constantly providing a narrative of surfing in a broader cultural context. And his work shows how focusing in on one slice of history can tell us a lot about the bigger world. In the History, for example, he notes the striking similarities between the Beat Generation of the 1950s, and the California transplants then eking out a feral existence on the westside of Oahu. Both, Warshaw wrote, were “reacting to the self satisfied, slightly anxious, prosperous and consumer-oriented middle class” of post-war America.
Warshaw’s deep dive into surfing’s past has made him perhaps the sport’s most eloquent and thoughtful commentator. Here he is, on the fate of the collective surf-film experience, from an interview with Surfer earlier this year:
“Once the mags were coming out one after the other, and you could rent surf movies at the video store and watch till the tape broke, and there were surf shows on cable — that was it. The surf movie didn’t really have purpose. It was optional. We stopped going to surf movies around the same time we stopped going to porn houses.”
With the end of the month looming, Warshaw is frustrated, but a part of him still thinks he can make it work.
“As much as I sort of sound desperate, it’s also not that far. If I just add another thousand subscribers, I’d have enough at 1700, to slowly grow from there,” Warshaw said. “I know there are 1,700 surfers out there who would gladly pay $3 per month.”
The obsession that the sport breeds, after all, should make for an engaged audience. But the success of the venture will ultimately turn on making surfers understand exactly what they are getting for their $3. And as William Finnegan, author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning surfing memoir “Barbarian Days” and a staff writer at the New Yorker, wrote in his forward to the Encyclopedia, Warshaw has done more than simply hurl facts at a wall.
“The true framework,” Finnegan wrote, “instead delineates the capacious, discriminating mind and archives — the manic curiosity and Talmudic diligence — of Matt Warshaw. And that is simply much more interesting country than the data world of conventional sports almanacs.”
For more about Warshaw’s Encyclopedia of Surfing, go to https://encyclopediaofsurfing.com/2017/11/30/30k-or-bust-save-encyclopedia-of-surfing/