For most people the most fascinating aspect of the recent News International phone hacking scandal is what it has revealed about the reality of how the press works, and the somewhat murky relationship between big business, the media and the world of PR. It was a peep behind the curtain, and no mistake.
As something of an action sports press lifer, being an ex-editor of Whitelines magazine and long-time contributor to many core press titles over the last 15 years, I was also intrigued. That’s because I know from experience that there’s long been a sometimes unhealthy relationship between brands and the press in action sports. When small titles only shift between 10,000 and 80,000 copies a month, they rely on brands’ ad spend to survive, which in turn means that companies often wield a fairly large amount of unspoken influence on the content of this magazines. As a writer, you quickly learn to accept and ignore this fairly large elephant in the room. Still, it does exist.
Now, we’re not in the same territory as News International and NOTW here, but in recent weeks we’ve had our own little example of the curtain being pulled back to reveal something of the truth of this relationship, thanks to the industry reaction to Outside magazine’s recent stories on the death of Andy Irons.
When AI’s tragic death became public, most core and mainstream press reactions chose to celebrate his life and accomplishments rather than dwell on any of the rumours of substance abuse that were doing the rounds. The prevailing mood in the industry was that the circumstances of his death had little to do with his exemplary surfing life, which is what should really be celebrated. This piece by Chas Smith was pretty representative
The notable exception was American outdoor bible Outside, which published two pieces on Andy’s death, both by Brad Melekian. The first broke cover to openly challenge the surfing community’s (and the surfing press in particular) whitewash of Andy’s problems. It’s fair to say that this piece did not go down too well in the surfing and action sports community.
Now the second piece, which in part dealt with this reaction from the press and Andy’s sponsors Billabong, has caused a further stir in the form of a public Twitter spat between Outside staffers and some members of the core surf community, notably ex pro-snowboarder Circe Wallace (@CirceSnow) and surf writer Chas Smith (@chasdoesntsurf) of Stab Magazine.
Both sides’ arguments can be quickly summed up by two tweets: Chas Smith of Stab Magazine’s ‘They didn’t know Andy Irons and don’t know the surf family. So they can take their self-righteousness with them to hell’, and Outside magazine Senior Editor Grayson Schaffer’s riposte: ‘What happened 2 the chas who used to write for the sake of truth?’ (he’s referring to this piece)
But what I find fascinating here (other than rubbernecking at a good old public scrap – some of the tweets are pretty vicious) is what this reveals about the changing landscape of board sports culture, and how the old familiar relationship between the industry and press may soon have to adapt as the sports rapidly grow up, and quickly.
After all, surfing, snowboarding and even skateboarding have grown to the point where something like Andy Iron’s death is of massive public interest beyond the action sports world, and as such was a legit object of interest to a magazine like Outside. Reports on AI’s death appeared everywhere from the Guardian to the New York Times . In hindsight, the idea that action sports could control the way his death was represented with the old ‘keep it in the family’ approach was probably always doomed to failure from the start. And it raises another question – if this piece had run in the New York Times or Wall Street Journal, would people from the action sports industry be tweeting angrily to those responsible? Doubtful, to say the least.
The other interesting point is what it adds to the debate begun by Ben Mondy last week, in his blog about old and new media. True, Twitter helped spread the Outside take on events quickly. But in the end, it was an old fashioned bit of in-depth journalism that broke the story. Much like how the Guardian skewered News International over the phone-hacking scandal.