Powder Magazine’s Associate Editor John Clary Davies talks professional ski bums, covering the Olympics and the trouble with non-skiers writing about skiing.
Four decades ago, David and Jake Moe started Powder Magazine as a rebuke to mainstream ski titles. The brothers sought to focus their publication away from vacation skiers to the sport’s hardcore ilk. It is John Clary Davies’s job to separate black diamond content from bunny hill prose. An Oregon native, he wrote sports columns for his community paper in high school before he studied environmental journalism at Western Washington University. An internship at Powder led to freelance and correspondent opportunities and, ultimately, a full-time role as an editor. Powder recently won three trophies at the Maggie Awards (magazine awards for titles west of the Mississippi) in LA, including the top prize of best overall publication.
Skiing is both a professional sport and a leisure activity. Is it hard to balance the two?
It is. Ski competitions are growing rapidly, and they are hard to cover. The Freeride World Tour is gaining a lot of momentum, which is huge in Europe and starting to get bigger and bigger in the U.S. Free skiing is going to be in the Olympics for the first time next winter. We started debating how we are going to cover the Olympics, if we want anything to do with it, or if we want to stick to our guns so to speak.
‘Ski bum’ is a popular term in the United States. Does the same ski culture persist in Europe and other parts of the world?
Yea, but it’s a bit different. I guess when I say ski bum I mean anyone who has made skiing the first priority in his or her life. Maybe it’s more romanticized in Europe. A ski town in Europe has been there for hundreds of years, where as places like Vail and Whistler were built around real estate more than a rich, authentic community.
East coast skiers always fly out west during winter breaks for “good skiing.” Do people in Europe travel under similar conditions as they do in America?
I think it’s a lot easier overseas. It’s a short drive from Munich to the Alps whether you’re going to Austria, Italy or Switzerland. We end up covering a lot of travel stories because that is such an essential part of skiing. It’s hard to live in a ski town close to great mountains, so the travel– whether it’s an hour-long drive from Steven’s Pass to Seattle, or a flight from New York to Denver– is an essential part of what we do. The travel ends up being as much a part of the story as the skiing.
One term that comes up for ski documentaries and movies is “snow porn” — eye-candy action shots without much story or substance. For a magazine that produces features, what stories really draw you in about the ski world?
We receive frequent pitches from freelancers about particular athletes or places. They’ll read, “this place is rad,” or “this person is rad.” Stories that really interest me are not necessarily your most famous places or people, but those with the most interesting backstory. Last year, one of my favorite features we ran was on Chad Sayers. The tagline read “the first professional ski bum.” He’s not close to one of the biggest names in skiing, but he is an intriguing spiritual person who is on this path to seek the meaning of life through skiing. He was candid through all of his interviews and it led to a really great profile of him.
At Powder we try to be pretty analytical of skiing also. It’s not all “ski porn.” It’s not all bros and high fives. There is a lot more to skiing than that. We ran a cover in December with the cover line, “Why Do All The Best Skiers Keep Dying.” We felt it was our responsibility to address an issue that was on the tip of every skier’s tongue.
I wanted to ask you specifically about the December issue. The cover is provocative and a bit a darker. But the story is neither a melancholy eulogy nor a fiery rant. As an editor, was it a challenge to get the right tone?
Matt Hansen knew how to balance that story and he knew the right people to talk to. On the edit side it didn’t take a lot of work. It was a big, exhaustive piece to edit. Emotionally it was tough because you are reading about people you know that are deceased, or got seriously injured. As far as establishing the write tone Hansen hit it out of the park. He’s a fair writer, never being too sensational. It was a really pressing issue and Matt Hansen’s story backed that cover line up. We weren’t trying to call anybody out; we were trying to look for answers. How can we somehow change this trend.
Do you need to ski to write about skiing? Is there a certain visceral connection between sport and writing that holds it together?
Absolutely. To write for Powder you have to be a skier. Everybody who has worked here has made skiing the priority in his or her life. We always run through different situations in our heads and wonder how a non-skier would do it. It just doesn’t work. You’re a voice of skiing and you need to be able to connect with the skiing community. You need to know the language, sync with those people in an authentic way. Readers come to Powder for its authenticity. To send a non-skier on assignment, it wouldn’t work.
I understand it’s an authentic tribe, but if you send an established writer on assignment with no ski background you might get an objective outlook unlike before.
I guess it would just depend on the story. The author of the Chad Sayers profile, for example, he’s a skier, but he’s a professor in New York first. I think the reason the story was so good is because he wasn’t entrenched in the ski industry. He was able to communicate Chad’s refreshing outlook more because he wasn’t embedded in the ski culture. He’s also a fantastic writer. He still skis, and he had to ski for that story. But, yea, I guess there are different degrees of skiers.
Do you have any advice for people who want to pitch Powder?
Be brief. I hardly find time to read through even a 500-word pitch. In that brevity address how the story is unique and engaging. I want a story that no other magazine is going to run. It’s always clear when someone pitches and doesn’t know Powder. You need to know the magazine through and through. I’ve been on the other side of it and pitched to magazines I’ve never read and it never works. I understand how brutal freelancing can be. Being on the other side of that has helped me become more sympathetic as an editor.
Best place you’ve gone skiing?
Mt. Baker, Washington. It set the record for most snowfall in the world in 98’, 99’ with something like 1200 inches of snow.
What does the future look like for Powder on the horizon?
We’re putting a lot more energy into Powder.com. Last year we launched these cool digital initiatives called Watch This Issue, which is a trailer/teaser for the issue, and Behind the Cover. We just released our first flipbook. It’s a great way to feature incredible stories and photos that neither fit in the magazine, nor get justice as a digital gallery. Evolving digitally is just as important as keeping the magazine great.
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