Soundings enters the digital era

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Soundings at 50 - Celebrating a half-century of boating

In 1937, William L. Shirer was a down-on-his luck newspaper reporter in Berlin, Germany. He had lost his foreign correspondent’s job with the Universal wire service, he was broke, his wife was pregnant, and all around him the Nazis were gearing up for war.

From newsprint to the iPad, Soundings remains ready to adapt.

Somewhat out of desperation, Shirer accepted a meeting with a young European director for CBS radio by the name of Edward R. Murrow. Radio was no place for a thoughtful journalist, but over the course of a dinner Murrow sold the newspaperman on his vision for news radio. They went on to form one of the most respected reporting teams covering World War II — a group of journalists called The Murrow Boys. Shirer later described his excitement in “The Nightmare Years, 1930-1940.”

“Murrow had fired me with a feeling that we might go places in this newfangled radio-broadcasting business. We would have to feel our way. … Instantaneous transmission of news from the reporter to the listener in his living room, of the event itself, so that the listener could follow it just as it happened … was utterly new. There was no time lag, no editing or rewriting, as in a newspaper. A listener got straight from a reporter, and instantly, what was taking place.”

Anyone who has ever asked a boating writer to tweet a new-boat launch or create a Facebook profile has been witness to this kind of pioneering spirit. A reporter who has no trouble waxing poetic about a boat’s lines and seaworthiness in print suddenly becomes tongue-tied when you stick a microphone in his hand and tell him to speak naturally while looking into the business end of a video camera.

It’s not easy for a publication hitting midlife to keep up with the younger generation. They text. They tweet. They’re hypnotized by their phones at all hours of the day. In the office they have conversations at lightning speeds about programs you’ll never see, using acronyms you’ll never unravel.

But when a magazine has enough staying power to stick around for half a century, it finds itself needing to keep up. Quality brings longevity, which brings change, which, hopefully, leads to adaptation. And as Soundings celebrates 50, it may not be able to hang with the hipsters, but it at least knows what they’re tweeting about.

Soundings has always been out in front, especially for a publication that started at a kitchen table over a bottle of gin. Jack Turner launched boating’s first online classified database in the 1990s. Soundings’ sister publication, Trade Only, launched a daily e-newsletter in 1999 as a way to keep the boating industry informed on the collapse of industry giant Outboard Marine Corp. — parent company of Johnson and Evinrude, Chris-Craft, Four Winns and SeaSwirl, among others.

As with most tentative steps into this new frontier, progress was uneven. When I started at Soundings in 2000, all of my fact-checking took place at the one computer in the office that had Internet access. All of the writers took turns using it. There was never a wait to get on; reporters would rather be on the docks than wait for the hourglass to finish loading the page.

Some nine years later, I found myself lugging half my body weight in video equipment out to the boatyard, where editor Bill Sisson and technical adviser Erik Klockars improvised a 2-minute, 23-second piece on winterizing that was pure Soundings: entertaining and loaded with information that was actually useful. As of this writing, that video has more than 53,400 views on YouTube.

Soundings now lives comfortably on all of the popular social media channels. The print magazine retains its personality, but with Facebook, Twitter and the Dispatches e-newsletter it takes full advantage of the instant nature of digital media. During last fall’s Superstorm Sandy, Soundings was able to give readers information when they needed it but still provided the macro view in follow-up stories in the magazine. Like William Shirer, it’s able to instantly communicate with readers in their living rooms in real time. Unlike in Shirer’s time, however, our conversations go both ways.

If you run into “The Soundings Boys” at a boat show these days, you’re as likely to see them with an iPad as a you are with a notepad. The online efforts might not yet have achieved the heights of The Murrow Boys reading their dispatches from around Europe, but if a medium could make the American people feel the heat as bombs dropped over London, then perhaps serious journalism can also share the Internet with cat videos.

Lisa Cook held several editorial positions at Soundings from 2000 to 2010 and helped usher the magazine into the digital era as electronic media editor. She is currently editor of New Trail magazine, based in Edmonton, Alberta.

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June 2013 issue