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The Surfer’s Journal Rides That Silver Wave As The Magazine Celebrates Its 25th Anniversary – The Mr. Magazine™ Interview With Brendon Thomas, Publisher, The Surfer’s Journal

March 25, 2016

“Print has a purpose in that you can still hold it and really experience the story and the imagery. It’s something that you can feel in your hands. But it’s also something that, with a high-end publication like The Surfer’s Journal, it’s something that exists in space and it can sit on your coffee table and really says something about you as a person. You can put your passion on display for your friends who come over to your house and it let people know who you are and what our interests are.” Brendon Thomas

“The same way that we see people cultivate their personas on social media by the things they share and what they like and what they say, print media says a lot about you as a person too when you interact with people in the real world. So, I think print will always have a place in people’s lives and as I said in the beginning, with so much time spent on digital devices, there is a need to unplug and disconnect at times and print is the natural place for that to happen.” Brendon Thomas

TSJ-25_1-Cover Anytime a magazine can celebrate 25 years of publishing success in today’s marketplace is truly a rare and remarkable milestone. The Surfer’s Journal is enjoying that landmark anniversary and deservedly so.

The Surfer’s Journal is a purist surf publication based in San Clemente, California and has always had a truly unique, venerated, and commercially successful product by being a circulation-driven publication rather than relying on advertisers to support the magazine. The idea of having readers subscribe to a pre-sold quarterly book novel, and having only six advertisers may have seemed unsustainable at a time when the goal of most publications was to increase the number of advertising pages, not curb them, but a quarter century later, The Surfer’s Journal remains commercially successful and has a definite eye on the future.

I recently spoke with publisher, Brendon Thomas, about the magazine’s 25th anniversary and the fact that The Surfer’s Journal has found and continues to grow a dedicated and passionate readership that sees the value in the tactile, print experience that the magazine offers. Brendon said this is due in large part to the exceptional in-depth, long form storytelling and superb photography that fills each issue.

But Brendon’s goal for the magazine is to continue the path that has already been set; to turn the magazine into a larger, stronger brand with many extensions, such as The Surfer’s Journal online store which lives on the website and offers readers a diverse array of high-end wall prints and other unique items.

So, grab your board and get ready to hang 10 or 25 in honor of The Surfer’s Journal’s silver anniversary as we open up the discussion with Publisher, Brendon Thomas.

But first, the sound-bites:

IMG_9808 On what the role of a publisher is in a circulation-driven magazine: We’re a really small outfit, so the publisher wears a lot of hats, from marketing to sourcing the material to overseeing the editorial, so there are a lot of things that a publisher does. I also handle what a normal publisher would do, since we’re so small. There are still advertising relations that have to be maintained and upheld.

On the trend of new launches following The Surfer’s Journal business model: We get a lot of calls from startups asking how we do it and what our business model is. It’s very simple really. We’ve put the reader first for 25 years and I think in the current digital age there really is a renewed demand for a quality print publication, something that can sit around on your coffee table for a couple of months as opposed to being discarded after a day or two or put in the bathroom.

On the role of print in today’s digital age: That experience satisfies something within people. We’re all looking down at our Smartphones constantly and reading quick hits and really short articles. There seems to be a growing need in people to disconnect and unplug for a time. And longer form print publications seem to be a good way to do that. As of yet, people can’t just sit and meditate and stare into space; they still need something to do in their down time. So, reading about their passion, in our case surfing, is a great way to do that.

On the advice he would give to someone who wanted to start a new print magazine today: I would certainly encourage them to go for it. Digital, as much as it has done harm to print, it has also opened up avenues to reach potential readers in a way that we’ve never had before. The marketing possibilities are huge.

On whether the magazine is making more money or less money since the dawn of the digital age: I would say more, because the avenues for a magazine like The Surfer’s Journal have grown. It’s not just a print publication; it’s a brand. And the readers who are passionate about this brand want the other accessories that come along with the brand, such as the merchandise we offer: the art of collaboration T-shirts with The Surfer’s Journal limited edition runs and our online store where we sell master image prints, which are really high-end wall hangers and because we have a really good rapport with our readers, they trust us to kind of show them what else is out there.

On why the Pezman’s vision is even more sustainable today than it was 25 years ago when they founded the magazine: It has a lot to do with surfing itself. The Pezman’s started this publication with the idea that it was going to come from a purist’s point of view of the sport, so it appealed to people who didn’t want to see the sport of surfing get overrun by commercialization and brands. And people connected with it back then. The message of the publication was on-point back in 1992 and it’s just as much on-point now in 2016.

On what’s being done to expand the brand and make it more of a household name: We’re not really interested in chasing digital views or readers; we did just relaunch our website with a completely new redesign from the ground up. The goal of the website is not to get clicks; we’re not after eyeballs in that way. Our website is a vehicle to sell subscriptions and to promote The Surfer’s Journal as a print product. And it’s also a place for the converted and for people who love our brand to purchase items in our company store. From The Surfer’s Journal point of view, that’s our goal with digital.

On why he thinks it took magazine companies and publishers so long to figure out that devices like the iPad and entities like the homepage were not the salvation of magazines and magazine media: With every immersion into technology there’s a lot of hype and promise. And I would say that I’m not entirely sure most publishers have realized that fact yet, nor should they, depending on their business model. If they’re advertising-driven and they want eyeballs on their own property, then the websites are the place where they can get the most eyeballs. More eyeballs than they can get in print.

On how easy it is these days for editors and publishers to change places: I think it would certainly be easier for an editor to become a publisher, especially now, as I mentioned with native advertising, and editors are kind of tasked with thinking about revenue generation as opposed to just generating editorial. Editors today are being groomed more in the business side of things than they were in the past. As for my move from Surfer magazine where I was editor in chief to publisher at The Surfer’s Journal, the move made a lot of sense to me personally, because that church and state separation is something that a lot of editors hold dear. And The Journal does that so well; there is no crossover at all.

On what he feels the role of print is in a digital age: Human beings exist in the real world and we have interactions with other people in person. As much as we’re connected through digital media and social media and through our phones; we still interact in the real world. And I think interacting with a magazine is a different experience than interacting with something on your Smartphone or your computer. Print has a purpose in that you can still hold it and really experience the story and the imagery. It’s something that you can feel in your hands.

On anything else he’d like to add: We’re all so incredibly proud and grateful that we’ve made it to 25 years. We’re grateful to our readers who have supported us for so long and are really fanatical about getting their magazines every two months. We’re totally indebted to them, so a big thank you to all of them is all I really have to add.

On the high-end subscription price of $66 per year: You really have to work hard to convince people to part with roughly $17 per issue; it’s not an easy sell. And the benefits of the globalization of media and in having this niche to market to people is that we can reach a lot of international subscribers, but the strength of the dollar at the moment makes the proposition of subscribing to The Surfer’s Journal something you really have to think about. And yet, we’re still seeing growth in our international subscriptions.

On what motivates him to get out of bed in the morning: It’s very easy for me to get out of the bed in the morning because there are so many possibilities that are in front of me and all of us here at The Surfer’s Journal, because we’ve been so focused on our print product and we really haven’t explored any of the other opportunities that The Surfer’s Journal as a brand opens up. I’m really excited about all of the things that the magazine can still be.

On what someone would find him doing if they showed up at his home unexpectedly one evening: reading a print magazine, or an iPad, watching television, or something else: This is a bad time to ask that because I have a newborn at home, so if you catch me there I’m probably tending to a crying baby. (Laughs) I’ve subscribed to a lot of print magazines over the years. I’m a magazine guy and that’s what I’ve been for a long time. So, I have magazines all over the place. I read the actual print product and I read them on my iPad. I follow them on social media, so depending on what time of the day you get me; you’ll see me doing any one of the three.

On what keeps him up at night: (Laughs) You know the answer to that one. It certainly isn’t work. I’m really lucky in that The Surfer’s Journal is so stable and it has been for 25 years and it isn’t something that keeps me up at night wondering if we’re going to keep the subscriber base up and if we know how to survive in this new digital era. That isn’t a problem for The Surfer’s Journal now. Just the crying baby is. (Laughs again)

And now the lightly edited transcript of the Mr. Magazine™ interview with Brendon Thomas, Publisher, The Surfer’s Journal.

Samir Husni: After 25 years The Surfer’s Journal is still alive and kicking and enjoying a good life, with a business model that is more circulation-driven, than advertising-driven. That being said, what’s the role of a publisher in a circulation-driven magazine?

TSJ_25.1_a Brendon Thomas: We’re a really small outfit, so the publisher wears a lot of hats, from marketing to sourcing the material to overseeing the editorial, so there are a lot of things that a publisher does. I also handle what a normal publisher would do, since we’re so small. There are still advertising relations that have to be maintained and upheld. We have six sponsors that go into the magazine, so there is that aspect to it as well, which obviously helps absorb some costs. The goal is to drive some revenue, as is the goal of most publishers.

Samir Husni: Just in the last six months I’ve spoken with two or three publishers who have launched new magazines and it seems that everybody wants to follow The Surfer’s Journal business model.

Brendon Thomas: Yes, we’ve noticed that ourselves. We get a lot of calls from startups asking how we do it and what our business model is. It’s very simple really. We’ve put the reader first for 25 years and I think in the current digital age there really is a renewed demand for a quality print publication, something that can sit around on your coffee table for a couple of months as opposed to being discarded after a day or two or put in the bathroom.

We’ve seen that there are a number of lifestyle magazines, for example, the Kinfolk’s of the world, that are doing very well based on the fact that they’re almost an accessory as much as they are something to read.

Samir Husni: Tell me about the role of print today in a digital age and that connectivity that The Surfer’s Journal has with its readers. Is it that easy for others to imitate your business model and have the same success?

Brendon Thomas: No, I wouldn’t say it’s easy. It’s definitely a challenge. With the decline in newsstand and bookstores closing left and right, the avenues to get the print product into people’s hands has definitely shifted. And that’s part of the selling point for a magazine like The Surfer’s Journal. It’s a tactile experience and once you feel it and hold it, you really understand what it’s all about.

So, that experience satisfies something within people. We’re all looking down at our Smartphones constantly and reading quick hits and really short articles. There seems to be a growing need in people to disconnect and unplug for a time. And longer form print publications seem to be a good way to do that. As of yet, people can’t just sit and meditate and stare into space; they still need something to do in their down time. So, reading about their passion, in our case surfing, is a great way to do that.

Samir Husni: If someone approached you today and said that they wanted to start a new print magazine, based on your own experience, what would you tell them?

Brendon Thomas: I would certainly encourage them to go for it. Digital, as much as it has done harm to print, it has also opened up avenues to reach potential readers in a way that we’ve never had before. The marketing possibilities are huge.

And as Steve and Debbee Pezman (Founders of The Surfer’s Journal) keep telling me, you can’t start a new magazine without a list of people to market to from the get-go, because you really need readers in a reader-supported market and getting those readers from the start is really important to the success of your publication.

And depending on how you want to slash the advertising model, you can get a couple of brands that back your idea and believe in it and that will go a long way in helping you get off the ground.

Samir Husni: When it comes to money and revenues; since the dawn of the digital age, are you making more money or less money?

Brendon Thomas: I would say more, because the avenues for a magazine like The Surfer’s Journal have grown. It’s not just a print publication; it’s a brand. And the readers who are passionate about this brand want the other accessories that come along with the brand, such as the merchandise we offer: the art of collaboration T-shirts with The Surfer’s Journal limited edition runs and our online store where we sell master image prints, which are really high-end wall hangers and because we have a really good rapport with our readers, they trust us to kind of show them what else is out there. And that’s what we’ve been able to do. So, I would say that the revenue has increased, for sure.

And magazine-wise, it’s a tough one because, and I’m talking about the print artifact now, it’s kind of tough because the costs for printing are perpetually going up and we can’t keep asking our subscribers to pay more and more for the subscription. We’re a relatively high-end publication at $66 per year. So we work hard to try and keep that price down and still deliver the same quality to our readers.

Samir Husni: As you celebrate the magazine’s 25th anniversary, is there anything else you’d like to add about the concept of the magazine or the vision that the Pezman’s had 25 years ago and why that vision is still sustainable or even more so in today’s marketplace?

5A1B10E5-E3FB-457E-B90F-F7C46359A3DF@home Brendon Thomas: It has a lot to do with surfing itself. The Pezman’s started this publication with the idea that it was going to come from a purist’s point of view of the sport, so it appealed to people who didn’t want to see the sport of surfing get overrun by commercialization and brands. And people connected with it back then.

And I think it’s truer and more needed now than ever before. As more and more people surf and the lineups around the world get more and more crowded, there’s definitely a yearning in surfer’s to kind of appreciate the purist’s point of view and surfing for surfing’s sake as opposed to surfing for a commercialized version of surfing. So, people really connect with the Journal’s message. Our reader base is passionate about surfing and they’re passionate about retaining the qualities that it had when they first started and what got them into it.

The message of the publication was on-point back in 1992 and it’s just as much on-point now in 2016. I would say that the biggest reason that we’ve been sustainable is that we connect with our readership in a way that few publications can.

As far as celebrating our 25th year, we’re certainly not resting on our laurels here. We realize that it’s a tough marketplace and we’ve been fortunate enough to be kind of exempt from the hardships of print that some of the other publications have been experiencing. But we also realize that there are a lot of avenues that we haven’t tapped into and there are a lot of opportunities that we haven’t jumped at so far. And there’s always room for the print publication to improve as well, so we’re constantly looking to do that.

Samir Husni: Is there room for you to duplicate that model? What are you doing to help expand that brand or to take it from just the magazine to a magazine media brand that everybody will be talking about?

Brendon Thomas: We’re not really interested in chasing digital views or readers; we did just relaunch our website with a completely new redesign from the ground up. The goal of the website is not to get clicks; we’re not after eyeballs in that way. Our website is a vehicle to sell subscriptions and to promote The Surfer’s Journal as a print product. And it’s also a place for the converted and for people who love our brand to purchase items in our company store. From The Surfer’s Journal point of view, that’s our goal with digital.

We’ve had huge hits in social media, but our goal in social media is to drive conversions into subscribers, so every piece of editorial we put out is an attempt to advertise the quality of our editorial, rather than to just have people come onto our website for being on our website’s sake.

The Surfer’s Journal does have both a French and a Japanese version of the magazine, which I think is very interesting and a testament to the brand’s success.

Samir Husni: Recently I was at a conference where I heard that the homepage is dead; the tablet is dead; everything is now all about social, videos and notifications. You mentioned that your website is more of a marketing tool rather than a content provider. Why do you think it took the magazine companies and publishers so long to discover that? That the iPad was not the salvation of the media; the homepage was not the salvation of magazines; why do you think it took them so long to figure that out?

TSJJ_6-1_cover Brendon Thomas: With every immersion into technology there’s a lot of hype and promise. And I would say that I’m not entirely sure most publishers have realized that fact yet, nor should they, depending on their business model. If they’re advertising-driven and they want eyeballs on their own property, then the websites are the place where they can get the most eyeballs. More eyeballs than they can get in print.

I basically came from Surfer magazine where I was the editor in chief for five years. And I watched the transition from print to digital and then from banner ads to native advertising and it’s a big shift for editors to have to undertake, but it’s become kind of the new normal. Native advertising and all that is really a way that most publishers are realizing revenue online. It’s a far better CPM than banner ads.

So, I don’t think that the websites are purely marketing tools for publishers and in some cases when the print product isn’t that strong, then yes, it might even be a salvation for some of those print products, where they can reinvent themselves online and let people know what they’re about. But from my own personal experiences, when I’m unaware of a publication, the website is the first place where I go to see what they’re about. If I happen to run into an interesting story on social media and it takes me to a site that I’m unfamiliar with, then that website and that editorial is my first impression of that brand, and whether I subscribe that day or five years later, those impressions matter. And I certainly don’t think the website is dead; it still influences people and enlightens them as to what you’re about.

Samir Husni: You’ve been both an editor and a publisher; do you think that we’re reaching the stage where, like some describe the destruction of the wall between church and state, editors can easily become publishers? And would it be as easy for a publisher to become an editor?

Brendon Thomas: No, I don’t think so. I think it would certainly be easier for an editor to become a publisher, especially now, as I mentioned with native advertising, and editors are kind of tasked with thinking about revenue generation as opposed to just generating editorial. Editors today are being groomed more in the business side of things than they were in the past.

As for my move from Surfer magazine where I was editor in chief to publisher at The Surfer’s Journal, the move made a lot of sense to me personally, because that church and state separation is something that a lot of editors hold dear. And The Journal does that so well; there is no crossover at all. The sponsors have no say in the editorial and they don’t want a say in the editorial. They just want us to create a beautiful book every two months.

So, it was very attractive for me to come over to The Journal because it’s still very much that way here. But from where I was and what I saw in the industry, I would say editors are increasingly publishers. They’re taking meetings with clients; they’re coming up with editorial ideas that can benefit their clients, especially in our world of action sports and the niche markets.

I would say that you’re probably going to see an increased amount of editors becoming publishers or they’re just going to be all kind of rolled up into one job.

Samir Husni: Can you define for me what you believe the role of print is in a digital age?

Brendon Thomas: Human beings exist in the real world and we have interactions with other people in person. As much as we’re connected through digital media and social media and through our phones; we still interact in the real world. And I think interacting with a magazine is a different experience than interacting with something on your Smartphone or your computer.

Print has a purpose in that you can still hold it and really experience the story and the imagery. It’s something that you can feel in your hands. But it’s also something that, with a high-end publication like The Surfer’s Journal, it’s something that exists in space and it can sit on your coffee table and really says something about you as a person. You can put your passion on display for your friends who come over to your house and it let people know who you are and what our interests are.

The same way that we see people cultivate their personas on social media by the things they share and what they like and what they say, print media says a lot about you as a person too when you interact with people in the real world.

So, I think print will always have a place in people’s lives and as I said in the beginning, with so much time spent on digital devices, there is a need to unplug and disconnect at times and print is the natural place for that to happen.

Samir Husni: Is there anything else that you’d like to add?

Brendon Thomas: We’re all so incredibly proud and grateful that we’ve made it to 25 years. We’re grateful to our readers who have supported us for so long and are really fanatical about getting their magazines every two months. We’re totally indebted to them, so a big thank you to all of them is all I really have to add.

Samir Husni: When one issue of The Surfer’s Journal is more expensive than an entire year’s subscription of some other magazines, you know that you’re connecting with your audience.

Brendon Thomas: Exactly. And you really have to work hard to convince people to part with roughly $17 per issue; it’s not an easy sell. And the benefits of the globalization of media and in having this niche to market to people is that we can reach a lot of international subscribers, but the strength of the dollar at the moment makes the proposition of subscribing to The Surfer’s Journal something you really have to think about. And yet, we’re still seeing growth in our international subscriptions.

And right now our international subscriptions are $108 and in many places where the currency isn’t as strong as the U.S. dollar, that $108 is easily a $150 in that local currency. So, it’s amazing to see people still willing to fork out what is a lot of money for a publication, but they believe in it and enjoy it so much that they just have to have it. It’s awesome.

Samir Husni: What motivates you to get out of bed in the morning?

Brendon Thomas: I’m in the enviable position of being fairly new to my position here at The Surfer’s Journal. I’ve only been the publisher for a couple of months. I was the operations director before that. And as I said, I was at Surfer’s magazine before coming onboard here.

It’s very easy for me to get out of the bed in the morning because there are so many possibilities that are in front of me and all of us here at The Surfer’s Journal, because we’ve been so focused on our print product and we really haven’t explored any of the other opportunities that The Surfer’s Journal as a brand opens up. I’m really excited about all of the things that the magazine can still be.

Samir Husni: If I showed up unexpectedly at your home one evening, what would I find you doing? Reading a print magazine, or your iPad, watching television, or something else?

Brendon Thomas: This is a bad time to ask that because I have a newborn at home, so if you catch me there I’m probably tending to a crying baby. (Laughs)

Samir Husni: (Laughs too).

Brendon Thomas: I’ve subscribed to a lot of print magazines over the years. I’m a magazine guy and that’s what I’ve been for a long time. So, I have magazines all over the place. I read the actual print product and I read them on my iPad. I follow them on social media, so depending on what time of the day you get me; you’ll see me doing any one of the three.

Samir Husni: My typical last question; what keeps you up at night?

Brendon Thomas: (Laughs) You know the answer to that one. It certainly isn’t work. I’m really lucky in that The Surfer’s Journal is so stable and it has been for 25 years and it isn’t something that keeps me up at night wondering if we’re going to keep the subscriber base up and if we know how to survive in this new digital era. That isn’t a problem for The Surfer’s Journal now. Just the crying baby is. (Laughs again)

Samir Husni: Thank you.

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