Monday, February 22, 2010

Matt Samet Interview Part 1

For the next couple of weeks I will be talking and corresponding with Matt Samet, longtime climber and until recently, editor-in-chief at Climbing magazine. Give the trends in climbing journalism, the current economic climate, and the historical importance of the journal he worked at, I thought it would be a good opportunity to hear from someone who knows from the inside what it takes to produce a magazine. In this interview, Matt tells us a little bit about where he came from as a writer and how he became an editor. In future installments, he will discuss the day-to-day responsibilities and difficulties of editing and his view of the future of climbing journalism. This type of interview has never been published before to my knowledge and I would sincerely like to thank Matt for undertaking this challenge.

As I hope to show, it is increasingly difficult for editors to present a picture of the sport without real pressure from commercial or financial interests. The new world of Internet media has great potential in this regard, presenting views that need to be heard without regard to financial benefit. I will leave it to readers to judge on the success of this particular experiment. In my view it is a story that needs to told.

Matt has a long resumé in climbing as well as in writing, indicating his commitment to the sport in a variety of styles. His bouldering ascents include the first ascent of Trolling for Skank (V11), the Ghetto, Flatirons, 1991/92 and 1998 first ascents (from the ground, no ropes or rehearsal) of the West Mountain, Hueco Tanks, highballs Big Right (V9) and Chewbacca (V10), both unrepeated and probably X climbs. In sport climbing he achieved early American flashes of 5.13b, with Rendezspew and Dry Doctor at Rifle (1992) and first ascents of the early Rifle testpiece climbs Fluff Boy (5.13c) and Dumpster BBQ (5.13c/d), also in 1992. He redpointed a few of the Rifle 5.14a’s Zulu, Roadside Prophet, Gropius, and Get Shorty — mid-1990s to 2002. His first ascent of Primate (5.13b X) in the Flatirons, a 95-foot pinkpoint-style headpoint on Seal Rock (2000) is still unrepeated. He made a first ascent of Choose Life (5.14), a 100-foot toprope, next to Primate (2002) He also achieved an early repeat of Peter Croft’s mega-route Evolution Traverse (VI 5.9), Sierra Nevada, California, solo in 2002.

Matt, it sounds like you have a long history of working in climbing journalism and media. How did you get started? What was your first article? Who did you look up to a model of writing?

My first published piece for Climbing was a comp write-up on the White Rock Meltdown, in autumn 1991. I forget the exact details, but the upshot was the usual New Mexico Basecamp correspondent, Doug Coleur, couldn't attend, so I -- back in my home state from my freshman year at CU-Boulder -- wrote up a little half-page report and sent it to the mag. I'd ended up winning, so was flailing around trying to find a self-deprecating way to weave in that fact; hard to do when you're 19. I think it was something about "Matt Samet and his crap footwork," a sentence you could just as well print today.

I graduated from CU in 1996 with a BA in journalism (news-editorial) and called the magazine before I moved to Italy, to be with my girlfriend and do some website and translation work for her father's magazine, Alp (basically, the Outside Magazine of Italy). I talked to Mike Benge, the Managing Editor at Climbing then, and said I was keen to give them some newsfeed for Hot Flashes from Europe, so I sent odds and ends to those guys in 1996 and '97 on the Italian sport scene and the World Cups. Dave Pegg, now running Wolverine Publishing, was a huge help with that and the first editor I worked with consistently. I wrote a Vantage Point about my bumblings in Europe for them right around that time, and they liked it enough to give me a column, the Sporting Life, around 1997. I continued to work on that with Dave for many years, and he was always a huge help and a great mentor. This was the heyday of the magazine: fat, 150-page and even 190-page books with the need for lots of content, and before the advent of climbing-news sites in any meaningful iteration. It was probably easy enough for Climbing to figure, this guy climbs, he has a journalism degree -- let's load him up with work!

As a model of writing, it was John Sherman - his features, the column Verm's World, and probably most of all his first Hueco Tanks guidebook. The way he poked fun at stuff while still presenting good factual information showed that you could make climbing writing entertaining, though in any good comedic enterprise laughs have to come at someone’s expense, even if it’s your own. This much, at least, I've learned over the years. ... I'd read some of the earlier anthologized stuff from David Roberts (Mountain of My Fear) and Jon Krakauer (Eiger Dreams), as well as most of the classics of mountain literature, and these books, too, had an enormous influence and to this day still feel like high-water marks for mountain writing.

Sherman and David Roberts? Quite an eclectic mix. But both have a real desire to show things in climbing for what they are. Did you also believe that climbing writing should reflect this desire? What did you feel that you could offer readers? Was there anything about your background in climbing that you felt you should/could share?

I really do remember connecting with Sherman’s over-the-top, tell-it-like-he-saw-it humor, yes, but also the threads of darkness and introspection coursing through Roberts’ and Krakauer’s essays. My first climbs were in the Cascades starting at age 12, so I’d felt that pull of the peaks early on. When I got into rock, later at age 15, we did a lot of bouldering around New Mexico and, of course, Hueco, which was one of the areas Sherman wrote about at the time. He had that seminal piece in Climbing about bouldering out See Spot Run before crashpads, and I remember being so gripped just reading it. This epiphany that A) You could have this magnificent, hairball adventure on 25 feet of rock. And that B) You could concoct an amazing narrative from such a “small” ascent.

I did connect with these writers’ honesty, yes. Climbing isn’t all sunshine and rainbows and noble conquest. At its rawest, it’s a dirty, gritty, individualistic, anarchic sport where anything can happen and does. People are maimed and killed; people argue and cut each other to ribbons over things like “style” and “ethics.” You don’t know or believe this early in the game, but as the decades go by you stop counting friends killed in the mountains and on the cliffs. You just accept this reality, and the best writers in the genre seem not only to touch on the darkness but on the peculiarity of spirit that pushes us to take these risks. On our otherness.

I never thought too much about what I could offer readers. I just figured, here’s a chance to make some money writing about the thing I love to do, so I guess I’ll do it. Early on, I was cast as the resident cynic with the column The Sporting Life — poking fun at sport climbing and sport climbers from a practitioner’s perspective. I was reading a lot of Charles Bukowski, Louis-Ferdinand Celine, Henry Miller, and De Sade then — the 1990s — these dark, bleak, angry but overarchingly funny authors. So I suppose one goal was, however clumsily, to import that spirit into the climbing world. It’s always met with mixed results, but whatever. Life to me is basically meaningless and horrible, and I wasn’t going to change my outlook just so people could keep rooms full of stuffed animals in their heads.

That then, would be the one thing I tried to share: that you also need to embrace the insanity, absurdity, and ego-feeding side of climbing as a counterpoint to the sublime. And that none of us, despite how we want to appear to our peers, are truly exempt from this push-pull or safe from our lesser instincts. I don’t think my background as a climber brought me to these conclusions, but maybe just my life background and the way I’ve always seen things.

Can you talk about how you made it into editing as a full-time proposition?

I took a full-time job at Climbing in spring 2002, probably April or May. I’d just finished up getting a Master¹s degree in English ¬ Creative Writing from CU-Boulder. I’d helped pay my way through school by teaching undergraduate creative writing for four semesters and by continuing to write regularly for Climbing, but once I defended my thesis, the joy ride at school was over. I was just about out of money and had put in application at a local bagel shop when the position opened up at Climbing, to be Associate Editor. Half the staff had left Climbing for Big Stone/Rock and Ice, which had been bought from its owners in Boulder, Colorado, and moved to Carbondale, pretty much across the street and one block down from Climbing’s offices. Interesting times...

The Climbing editorial staff that first year I worked there was Jonathan Thesenga as Editor, Matt Stanley as Senior Editor, me as Associate Editor, and Zach Reynolds as Photo Editor. I left Climbing in 2003 during another transitional time that left too much work to be done, and not enough staff being put on the ground quickly enough to do it. The magazine at that point was owned by Primedia, at the time one of the world's largest magazine conglomerates. Primedia acquired the title when they swallowed up Cowles Media (1999? 2000?), which had bought Climbing from Michael Kennedy around 1997.

I rode a desk at Rock and Ice the next two years (2003-2005), one year as Senior Editor, and one year as Editor. I wrote for Rock and Ice as a Contributing Editor for nine months after that, then came back to Climbing (again, during another period of transition that left many desks to fill) in January 2006 as Senior Editor, working again with Jonathan as Editor. Primedia sold Climbing to Skram Media (publisher of Urban Climber) in December 2006, and I started as Editor in February 2007, a position I held until February 2010. The magazine moved from Carbondale to Boulder in February 2007, as well. Carbondale’s a small town, and if you look at the subtext within the series of shifts and transitions above, the decision to move Climbing to a different city makes good sense.

So basically, I'd just sort of happened into that very first desk-editor job, and from there moved into these other positions. Magazines typically call on their roster of contributing editors when it’s time to hire staff, and since Jonathan and I had then (2002) been friends for four years, he offered me that opportunity.

Without going into the politics of the matter, the one thing I will say about alphabet soup of job titles and positions above is that it illustrates that not all the decisions relating to editorial staffing (and even content) are made solely by a magazine’s editors. The publishers/owners have the final say, and in the case of an absentee owner, like, say, Primedia, with their corporate offices in California, it’s almost impossible to keep up the level of detailed conversation the creative (editorial) and business sides of a magazine need to be having every issue, if not daily. This sort of communication breakdown can demoralize the core creative staff and even destabilize an otherwise healthy title...for reasons that have nothing to do with editorial competency. Making magazines is difficult, stressful work, and I think it’s best to have all your staff under one roof, at least for morale if nothing else.

End of Part 1


Dave McAllister said...

I feel like I just woke up to a Christmas present with this interview series. Thanks a ton, Peter. As a struggling writer myself (working at all different angles), its refreshing to hear a voice devoid of spin and full of truth. What Matt has to say is important to anyone in this industry, without a doubt. Cheers to Matt...I hope to see his words in print for the rest of my climbing career...

Peter Beal said...

Thanks Dave. I hope this interview clarifies for a lot of people what actually goes into creating a magazine and what writing for one is like.

Anonymous said...

Any non-softball questions coming up?

Peter Beal said...

What do you have in mind, Anonymous?

chuffer said...

Matt's voice will be missed, but I'm sure we haven't heard the last from Mr. Samet. Doing what he did for Climbing the last couple years - with almost no staff - is impressive.

Go climbing dude, you've earned it!

Mick Ryan said...

Hi Peter (and Matt),

Question for Matt.

Why did you leave Climbing magazine?

Mick Ryan

Peter Beal said...

Hi Mick,
I think we'll be touching on that in the next installment.

Anonymous said...

Great interview Peter. It was interesting to see how the dates of Matt's different jobs coincided with my opinions of the different climbing magazines.

I previously preferred to read R&I. At about the time Matt left R&I for Climbing, I felt that R&I went downhill, becoming all about big glossy pictures, with little written content (I could read an entire magazine end to end in a single sitting), so I canceled my R&I subscription (and kept Climbing).

I recently re-subscribed to UC and was surprised to see a large percentage of the content was written by Justin Roth. While I love his writing, it seems there should be more outside contribution. I cant imagine that he has the time to do that much writing (and keep up the quality) on top of all his other duties.

I will also be curious to hear why Matt left, and where he is going next.

Matt Stark said...

Matt, we wish you all the best in your future endeavors. I know first hand the pains and difficulties associated with running a magazine. You did your task with grace and your voice will be missed. If you ever feel the need for your voice to be heard again, give me a shout.

tommy said...

great work peter.

Unknown said...

Very interesting interview, especially the part on the editorial strategy, finally decided by the owner, and not by the journalist...
Impatient to read the following answers.

BRFvolpe said...

Matt, can you connect me to Neil Kaptain? Thanks.

Pete Takeda said...

Great interview.