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A sea of change over these last 50 years

After 50 years and somewhere in the neighborhood of 600 issues, what do you do for an encore? If you’re in the publishing business, you’re conditioned to look ahead to the next issue, the next set of deadlines, tomorrow’s blog, story or e-newsletter.

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But this month we pause and reflect on the first half-century of Soundings. It’s been one helluva journey, and we’ve been fortunate to have had you along as crew for at least some of that voyage.

It is impossible to look back on the formative years of Soundings without some thoughts on the late founding publisher John P. “Jack” Turner. Admitting to having more energy than publishing knowledge, Jack and two colleagues not only cooked up the idea for the magazine you are reading today but also managed to execute it.

“We polished off a quart of gin one night in February 1963, and before it wore off, we had agreed to launch Soundings,” Jack wrote on the 25th anniversary of the magazine. “We had no capital, no market research, no business experience. One thing is for sure: We never could start Soundings today the way we did back in 1963.”

Jack Turner was one of those larger-than-life characters who could have walked out of a Hemingway story. He was a big, hulking man with enormous hands; a large head and large, round eyes; and a big voice and laugh.

He was smart, quick and restlessly creative. He dressed like a guy you’d meet on the docks, and he didn’t wear socks, even during New England winters. An ex-Marine with a cutting wit, Jack didn’t stand on ceremony and didn’t care much for blowhards, bureaucrats or pompous Thurston Howell III types.

He was a true Renaissance man. At various times, Jack was a boatbuilder, woodworker, sailor, fiction writer, journalist, gardener, chef, artist, computer programmer, publisher and a few others things I have surely forgotten.

He easily tired of the status quo. Consequently, change was always in the air — a new idea, a new section to the magazine, an entirely new publication. It proved to be good training for the world we navigate today.

In his book “Wanderer,” sailor, actor and author Sterling Hayden wrote: “To be truly challenging, a voyage, like a life, must rest on a firm foundation of financial unrest. Otherwise you are doomed to a routine traverse, the kind known to yachtsmen who play with their boats at sea — ‘cruising’ it is called.”

With Jack at the helm, we were more often than not “voyaging,” by Hayden’s description. And there was nothing routine about it. We had fun, but we also had our share of heavy weather and a few hard groundings. A near bankruptcy, squabbles between investors and partners, a layoff that made the local paper, a libel suit or two (before my time). But we always managed to work our way free; we either floated off on the next good tide or we kedged ourselves loose. Jack was lucky as hell, too, a good trait in a skipper.

The future?

“We drive into the future,” the late media visionary Marshall McLuhan once opined, “using only our rear-view mirror.”

Even Apple co-founder Steve Jobs, who is credited with the ability to “see around corners,” admitted that “you can’t connect the dots looking forward. You can only connect them looking backward. You have to trust in something, your gut, destiny, life, karma, whatever.”

Given the enormous structural changes taking place in media these days, the near-term weather remains unsettled and the seas confused. But Soundings is a well-found vessel, and her crew came up the hawsepipe.

Today, we are healthy and growing and continuing to evolve. We work our way to weather using everything we’ve learned: We shoot the sun, sound with the lead, turn to our gut and experience and seaman’s eye for guidance. But we also move ahead with the help of decidedly 21st century tools, including online research and surveys, cover tests and, of course, feedback from you, whether by email, snail mail, a comment on an online story, a conversation on the water, a note in a bottle. We read and value each one of them.

We live in a time when technology is outpacing tradition; we keep a foot in both camps, knowing how much the sea values the old ways, too. And we continue on a course marked by good journalism and storytelling as we push out our content over ever-new current streams.

Please join us on the next leg. 

"For the first time and not on paper and in dreams, I had the little ship alone in my hands in a night of velvet dark below and stars above, pushing steadily along into unknown waters. I was extremely happy." - Arthur Ransome

May 2013 issue