Tracks magazine: 50-year-old 'surfers' bible' returns to its roots under new ownership

The cover of the first edition of Tracks, which would become an iconic Australian surfing magazine, contained a curious subheading. “It was the description of a track, from the Concise Oxford Dictionary,” recalls co-founder John Witzig. “Continuous line, series of marks, left by person, animal or thing in passing along.’”

The latest edition of Tracks, published this week, contained the same subheading. A casual reader might miss this minor detail, but it marks a momentous transformation. After decades of ownership by commercial publishers, Tracks has returned to its roots with a group of surfers acquiring it from Next Media. “I’m absolutely thrilled that surfers have taken it over again,” Witzig says. “It strikes me as completing the circle.”

Any Australian who grew up with a surfboard in hand understands the immense cultural significance of Tracks. First published in 1970, it was not the first local magazine for surfers (Surfing World was established in 1962) nor the last (one website estimates that there have been almost 100 surfing magazines published in Australia over the past five decades). Yet with a potent mix of humour, environmental and social awareness, countercultural irreverence, stunning photography and poetic journalism, Tracks became the country’s most significant surfing mouthpiece. As the publication itself proclaims, “more than just a magazine, Tracks is a state of mind”.

Yet 2020 was a challenging time to be in that state of mind. Residents along much of Australia’s east coast began the year with devastating bushfires; Tracks’ second edition of 2020 contained a harrowing recollection of the New Year’s Eve fires from the perspective of local surfers. Then Covid-19 hit, plunging the magazine industry into turmoil. Publisher Bauer Media folded seven major titles while other magazines, including Tracks, temporarily ceased printing. Just as the magazine had been gearing up to celebrate its 50th anniversary in October 2020, suddenly Tracks’ future was in jeopardy.

“It looked a bit up in the air for a while,” says Tracks editor Luke Kennedy, a two-decade veteran of the magazine who has been at its helm since 2008. “We didn’t want to see it let go.” With the magazine’s half-century legacy on the line, Kennedy and four fellow surfers – Greg Cooper, Damian Martin, David Mulham and Peter Strain – banded together to acquire Tracks in February.

“I was in the water surfing the other day, and someone turned to me in between waves and asked what I did,” says Kennedy. “I was saying: ‘I work for a surfing magazine’. And then I had to catch myself and explain that I was now a co-owner of a surfing magazine.”

The consortium is acutely aware of the responsibility they have assumed. “It weighs on our shoulders heavily,” says Martin, advertising director and another long-time Tracks employee. “We feel that we are the custodians of a magazine with an amazing brand and heritage. We take that seriously – we want to reflect modern surf culture while paying homage to the past. We understand the importance of Tracks to the surf psyche and we want to see it grow.”

In the present context, investing in print media is a bold move (Tracks will publish six issues a year). “Most people would tell you that purchasing a magazine at this time is potential commercial suicide,” says Kennedy. “But when you’re so passionate about a brand and a subculture it is hard to say no.” Yet the owners are optimistic about the magazine’s future. “This is a labour of love,” Martin adds. “Making money is not our priority. But we’re confident we can make a living out of this – we have big plans for the brand and we won’t rest on our laurels.”

When Tracks faced an existential threat, Martin, Kennedy and their business partners felt they had no choice but to act. “It’s like being in the water,” Kennedy says. “When a good wave comes your way in the surf, you just have to swing in and take your shot.”

Today, surfing is an increasingly mainstream pursuit: the sport will make its Olympic debut in Tokyo later this year, and Australia’s best surfers – the likes of Steph Gilmore and Mick Fanning – are household names. But in 1970, the sport was firmly part of the counterculture. “Surfing was such a tiny world at the time,” says 76-year-old Witzig. “The general audience didn’t know anything about it; surfing was very separate from the community, we had our own magazines, our own films.”

Witzig was 26 when the idea for Tracks came to him. The journalist and photographer had been sacked from Surf International magazine due to financial constraints, so decided to go out on his own together with Albe Falzon and David Elfick (the duo who later directed and produced Morning of the Earth, a landmark surf movie).

“I was seeing great stuff coming out of the United States,” says Witzig. “The likes of Rolling Stone and there was a short-lived ecological magazine, Whole Earth Catalog.” At the time, Australian surf magazines were printed overseas and seemed dated by the time they arrived on news shelves. “I thought we could do a tabloid, a local newspaper, that would be immediate,” he says. “I also thought there should be more emphasis on environmental and social issues that were being ignored. We all got together, raised a minuscule amount of money and started Tracks.”

The magazine was an overnight success, quickly garnering a cult following and becoming an influential voice for the surfing community. “We obviously touched a nerve among surfers,” says Witzig. A significant part of the magazine’s advocacy involved environmental issues, long before such concerns were widespread. “We were coming into contact with it firsthand,” says the co-founder. “We were seeing shit in the water off Sydney beaches; we could see that the sand mining on the north coast of New South Wales was just devastating beaches. These weren’t just our preoccupations – they were really concerning the entire surf community.”

An environmental and social conscience remains at the forefront of the new owners’ vision for the magazine. “We want to tackle issues relevant to surfers – Tracks has often been outspoken and that remains on our agenda,” says Martin. Kennedy adds: “We certainly try to convey a message and tone that is different to what you find in the mainstream media.”

Not every part of that legacy is glowing, though. Tracks is now up to its 578th edition but for much of that time, female surfers have been marginalised or ignored. The magazine faced criticism in 2014 after a 13-year-old female surfer, Olive Bowers, wrote a letter to Kennedy criticising Tracks’ portrayal of women and women’s surfing. “We want to be more encompassing and inclusive – that is paramount to us,” says Martin. While more female surfers have featured on Tracks covers and spreads in recent years, they remain outnumbered by male counterparts. “That’s been a failing of ours in the past,” says Kennedy. “We will up the ante – that’s an important step.”

Kennedy and Martin are energised about the magazine’s future. “We want to reflect what is happening in surf culture,” says Kennedy. “That is constantly evolving and means different things to more people.” Martin adds: “It’s a balancing act – we have a broad readership, we respect the elders but also want to engage the next generation of readers.”

While Witzig harbours concerns about modern surfing (“I feel sorry for the kids. I’m pretty horrified – you see a photo of Superbank [a wave on the Gold Coast] and there are 5,000 people in the water”), he is delighted that Tracks will live on under surfer-ownership.

Surfer, the United States’ leading surfing magazine, closed in 2020 after a 60-year history, while Australia’s Surfing World also faced uncertainty last year before being acquired by surfing journalist and former Tracks editor Sean Doherty. “So I wouldn’t have been surprised if Tracks had bit the dust,” Witzig says. “This is a very, very pleasant surprise for me.”

Now in its 51st year, Tracks is continuing to leave a mark as it passes along, just as Witzig foreshadowed in that very first issue. “Tracks is an alternative history of Australia,” says Kennedy. “It is the history of Australian surfers – it has given us a sense of identity.”

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