Fred Pawle - Journalist / Editor

When and where did you did you start surfing?
It was in Fremantle in 1972, when I was aged 10. I’d got a polystyrene Coolite board for Christmas, and caught my first wave at Port Beach when I went down for a swim one morning before school with my dad. It must have been smaller than half a foot, but I was hooked. A year later we moved to Wembley Downs, half way between City Beach and Scarborough, both of which had reasonable waves, and all the kids in the neighbourhood were on the same path. My dad was seriously into Australian Rules Football and I think he wanted his sons to play the game too, which we did, but never with the same fervor as surfing. I gave up footy pretty early because it just couldn’t compete with surfing, which was so free and adventurous and filled with strange and obsessed people. It still is, mostly.

Perth was an ideal place to grow up and learn to surf. The beach breaks were pretty ordinary but they were uncrowded. I would spend entire, idyllic days at the beach, hanging with mates and just surfing, playing pinball and scrounging for food. They were absolutely amazing days. I remember one day I did a runner from school because I knew the waves were going to be pretty good, and hitchhiked to Scarborough beach by myself. The only other people down there were older dropout guys who weren’t surfing, just hanging next to their panel vans outside Tom’s pinball parlour. The beach was so quiet that you could hear the jukebox at Tom’s from the water. Some guy put 20c into the jukebox and played Frank Sinatra’s My Way. I must have been 15 years old, but even I knew there was something weird about a dropout loser listening to a cheesy song about self-actualisation while everyone else was at work. The irony of realising this while I was meant to be at school didn’t escape me, but deep down I knew there was something worthwhile about surfing, despite the stigma it had at the time.

What was your first board?
It was a secondhand green and yellow 5’6 Cordingley pintail, one of the biggest board makers in Perth at the time. I think I paid $25 for it.

Have you done much surf travel?
By my mid-teens I was scrounging lifts to the southwest from older guys. I almost drowned at Margaret River when I was 16, got caught inside on the section of the left where the wave hits the corner of the reef and throws. It was the first (but not last) time I climbed up my legrope. I went to Nias in 1982, which was just after Storm Riders was released. There was a lot of talk about the place, but still not a lot of people going there. We stayed for two weeks, during which there were never more than about 25 surfers there. It was epic. Never dropped below 4 foot. One day, on the full moon, it hit about 12 foot, and there were only four of us out there. I copped the flogging of my life that afternoon, but got some bombs too. There was no running water, no electricity, and we ate fresh fish from the fishermen every night, and drank nothing but bottles of Sprite. Everyone got sick, it was just a matter of how bad you got it. I also did a trip to the Mentawais in 1996, and we got Macaronis to ourselves at 4-6ft for a whole day, which is unheard of now.

What kind of education have you had?
Like a lot of surfers, I was a bit of a drifter as a kid. I never liked school much, and couldn’t decide on a career at all. I travelled for a few years, then returned to Perth to enrol in a bachelor of arts, majoring in journalism, at Curtin University, in 1989. I did really well in the first year and got myself a job as a cadet reporter at a country newspaper in a town near Margaret River. After that, I didn’t go back to university. Formal education has never been my thing anyway. Some of the writers and journalists I admire most barely finished high school; and journalism is something you learn through experience. Things started coming together for me after I got that first job. My two loves of surfing and writing became my two main activities.

The first ever story I had published was in Tracks, under Tim Baker, in 1989. It was about a crazy, perfect day I’d once had in Mexico, surfing with these dudes I’d just met and being treated with amazing hospitality. I remember how thrilled I was to see my work in print. I was so buzzed. But I was never very interested in becoming a writer for a surfing magazine. I always thought that newspapers and other publications would allow me to develop a more diverse skillset. I love writing as much as I love surfing so I never wanted to write only about surfing, if that makes sense. There have been some surf writers who I’ve admired - I was in awe of Phil Jarratt’s work at Tracks in the 1970s, and for a while I thought Tim Baker and Derek Rielly were both really funny - but the best writers in the world have much more diverse interests and knowledge. I met a young surf writer about six years ago who I saw had enormous potential, and have mentored him a bit over the years; I’ve constantly encouraged him to write about a variety of topics, which he’s done with some success. It also makes his surf writing far more lively.

What other writing positions have you held over the years?
After that first rural newspaper, I got a job back in Perth at a newspaper that closed down a year later, then landed in Adelaide, at The Advertiser, which was where I learned to subedit. That was, for me, a faster and better education than going to university. Subediting is a great way to learn the art of writing. I started writing a weekly surf column, too. Then in 1992 I came to Sydney, where I have had an enormous variety of jobs. I’ve worked at the Financial Review, Picture magazine, GQ, The Australian and The Telegraph, as well as sold stories to the Sydney Morning Herald, Good Weekend and a variety of surf mags.

Can you tell us about your job at The Australian and what it involves?
I joined The Australian for the first time in 1996. It is an amazing newspaper, where opportunity abounds for anyone with a bit of energy and the right contacts. Not all newspapers are like that. I soon established myself as the paper’s first serious surfing writer, and have maintained that ever since, despite leaving a couple of times. My official job now is editing the less earnest sections of the website, but on the side I bang out occasional stories about surfing. There is never a shortage of amazing stories to write. The unique thing about surfing is the tension over what it really is – a hobby, a culture, a business or a sport – which can lead to fairly fervent opinions. Plus, we’ve discovered that a significant proportion of The Australian’s readership consists of guys like me, who grew up totally obsessed about surfing, and who now occupy more responsible jobs and have graduated from surf mags to an intelligent broadsheet newspaper.

What is the best thing about writing for a publication that is external to traditional Surf Media?

I’ve never felt the pressure to be part of the surfing scene, or compromise what I’ve written to maintain my or my publication’s place in the inner sanctum. Hanging out with surfing’s elite never interested me anyway. Instead, I’ve simply contacted people and asked them questions that I thought needed to be asked. If they didn’t call me back, or were sceptical about my motives, so be it. If you’re not pissing someone off, you’re probably writing PR. For decades, surf magazines pretended not to know what was really going on in surfing, and hoped their readers wouldn’t notice. That didn’t end well.

Do you have any favourite pieces that you have written?
There are two that stand right out – the piece about Matt Branson coming out as gay and the investigation into why photojournalist Paul Sargeant was banned for life from the tour. Enormous credit is due to Sam McIntosh and Stab magazine for running them. Both of those pieces were so different from the standard rubbish that other mags were churning out at the time. The reaction to the Sarge piece in particular was extraordinary. I copped some flak from surfing’s inner sanctum for daring to air its dirty laundry, but that was outweighed by the positive feedback I got from ordinary surfers for exposing the crap the surf media routinely swept under the carpet. I also led the charge when Slater started agitating for a rebel tour in 2009, which was fun. I steered clear of the Kool-Aid when Andy died, and harassed the ASP and Billabong about their role in Andy’s demise (although not nearly as much as Brad Melekian did for Outside magazine). I found their posthumous hagiography of him sickening. One of the key quotes in that whole saga was from the Irons family, after the coroner’s toxicology report found Andy had died of a drug overdose: “Like all people who face down extreme danger, Andy seemed to feel bulletproof.” It was in a lot of people’s interests that Andy felt that way about himself, and in the end it killed him. I never met him, and don’t feel any confected grief about his passing, other than the world has lost an amazing surfer, but the sliminess of the people who protected him from the truth while also profiting from his delusions, even after he died, is nauseating.

More recently I maintained a bit of pressure on the ASP during 2011 and 2012 to back up their woefully exaggerated claims about the size of the audience tuning in to the tour’s webcasts. It was amusing how they all ducked for cover when I asked them to show me breakdowns. It was around this time that the flimsy business model of pro surfing began to unravel. I can’t take credit for that, but at least I was there reporting about it. Stu Nettle at Swellnet has been doing some great work in this area lately too.

You’ve also written a book?
Yeah, I was dying to publish something about the absurdity of surfing, about the tension between those who saw it as a business and those who just wanted to do something fun and creative and energetic, and thought the best way to encapsulate it was in a satirical novel. I spent most of my spare time in 2011 writing it. It’s loosely based on Evelyn Waugh’s Scoop, which is one of the funniest novels ever written. Sadly, my book, The Road to Ghost Cabins, wasn’t quite as successful. I couldn’t find a publisher for it, so I simply put it up as an ebook on Amazon for $5. I had envisaged I’d tap into the enormous market of people who don’t surf but are intrigued by it. In the end, not even surfers read it. Oh well. I’ve had some extremely good feedback from the handful of people who’ve read it, but book publishing can be a bit of a gamble.

What are your future plans/ directions of your career?
I’m loving digital publishing. I’ve been producing videos for The Australian, devising ways to embellish traditional content and learning for the first time, through the wonders of traffic figures, what readers are actually interested in. Having “news sense” used to be a key skill in journalism, but traffic figures have made that skill almost redundant. They’ve also shown that journalists have been mostly wide of the mark when it comes to understanding their readers. My industry is going through enormous changes at the moment, and with all change comes opportunity. The next huge opportunity for me is not far away, I think.

Do you have any advice for any budding writers out there?

Ignore the lefty rubbish that failed journalists preach at university journalism courses (or, better still, don’t go to university at all, unless you’re going to be a doctor or lawyer), learn to listen and observe without being intimidated, challenge yourself, work hard, read heaps, learn to subedit, seek out mentors (who are rare in journalism) and aim to work at the publication of your dreams. These have been the standard ways to succeed for decades. Now, though, you also need to keep an eye on where the industry is heading. The future of journalism is far from guaranteed. Despite journalism being one of the fundamentals of a liberal democracy, there is no certainty that it will always exist. For most of the past century, journalism has been primarily funded by classified advertising, which has since migrated to the internet, leaving newspapers in desperation. These days, a passion for journalism is not enough to guarantee a lifelong career. However, anyone with a keen eye for innovation might just make an enormous killing from it, as well as prolong a crucial service. If you want to write about surfing, try to break the mould. The nature of surf culture is that it constantly rewards those who don’t conform; this applies as much to writers and publishers as it does to surfers themselves. Avoid groupthink at all costs.

With the demise of print media and surf publications, what other opportunities exist for surf writers?
People always want to feel immersed in their subculture. Surfline, The Inertia and Stab are great examples of success from change. Video is the key to digital surf publishing, but those videos are nothing without great storytelling to go alongside them. 

What do you love about your work?
It’s creative, I meet heaps of cool people, and I get to see my work widely disseminated. There’s definitely a vanity to it. A doctor can save someone’s life, and the only people who care are the patient’s family. I can write an interesting story and people I’ve never even met will admire it. Journalists all pretend that they’re in it because they want to make the world a better place, but deep down, they also want affirmation from strangers. Anyone who says otherwise is kidding you.

Where can we find you online?

Twitter: @fredpawle

Posted by: Troy Roennfeldt, on May 20, 2014
Categories: Interviews