For the greater part of the past decade, journalist Mark Sabbatini has been running Icepeople, the world’s northernmost alternative weekly paper, out of a café in Longyearbyen, Svalbard, a remote archipelago governed by Norway in the Arctic circle. Sabbatini, who writes, edits, publishes, and prints the publication, combines enterprising reporting with local gossip, detailed news about the weather, and regular polar-bear updates. He also breaks news where few dare tread: During a fatal avalanche a few years ago, he was the sole correspondent on the ground, and media from around the world relied heavily on his accounts of the tragedy.
Sabbatini grew up in Colorado, but he couldn’t be a more enthusiastic ambassador for his adopted home, which lies between Norway and the North Pole. “I’ve been to 60 or 70 countries all over the world, and it’s the most international place I’ve ever been,” he says. “Antarctica is like that, too, but it’s all spread out by each country’s research stations. Svalbard is really special.”
Yet in spite of his (relative) prominence and the unique nature of his work, Sabbatini has had a tough few years. He spent months in bed after breaking both hips and injuring his shoulder, and his apartment building was condemned after sinking into permafrost—just one of many hazards of living with rapid climate change in a place where virtually everything, until now, has been literally on ice.
What’s more, journalism is a tough profession regardless of where you are. Since Icepeople is distributed for free, Sabbatini cobbles together a living with odd jobs like fixing computers and giving tours. He also receives grants and donations. You can donate to Icepeople on this GoFundMe page set up by a young fan. You can also buy an e-book with the best (or, as Sabbatini puts it, “least bad”) of the paper on his website.
In a video chat earlier this week, Sabbatini—bearded, bespectacled, and skinny—shared what it’s like to write and report Arctic news in a place where winters bring months of total darkness, and the summers light up 24-7 in the midnight sun.
—Atossa Araxia Abrahamiam
AAA: How did you get your start as a journalist?
MS: I’ve been a journalist since I was in college. I’ve lived mostly in small towns with mountains and snow—I grew up in Aspen before it became overrun by tourists—and I spent a couple years at Western State College. I think it was the highest accredited campus in the U.S, at [over] 7,000 feet.
After a while, I went out to LA. It was the first time I ever lived in a large city or a warm place but the only way to grow is jump headfirst into things. My family said, “You’ll hate it!” And they were right, I hated it, but I ended up working at the LA Times in a remote part of LA county where there were a lot of body dumps and forest fires. Unlike a lot of newbies I ended up with a lot of front-page articles.
AAA: What led you to Svalbard?
MS: After LA, I flew to Juneau, Alaska, and spent a decade there. I met someone, married her, and we went to Antarctica. I edited a newspaper that was much more science-oriented than what I do now, but I got to see a lot of Antarctica. After that, I spent eight years traveling the world writing about jazz in Iceland, Greenland, Turkmenistan—lots of really weird countries.
That’s how I found Svalbard. I saw a thing called Polar Jazz, the world’s northernmost jazz festival. It was in late January, early February, and I thought, I’ve gotta go—because what kind of idiot would buy tickets to see jazz in this place with terrible cold and 24-hour darkness?
I got here and immediately loved it. I was ready to stop traveling.
AAA: What was the Arctic media scene like at the time?
MS: I knew coming in it was a really unique community and just talking to folks there I could tell there wasn’t much news coverage. There’s a Norwegian paper, but there are so many people from all over the world, so I thought, how about an English language paper? A few months later I moved here and I started my newspaper in March 2009. It started as a humble four-pager, a really scrappy four-page PDF. It went up to 40 pages, and the ones I’m doing now are around 20. They’ve been roughly that size for past couple years.
AAA: What’s a typical day like for you?
MS: I have certain routines. When I can I try to get up and spend an hour scanning everything: government sites, Twitter, anything involving Svalbard. That gives me ideas, talking to people gives me ideas. And I ask myself, what do you wanna write today? It takes more hours than I have in a given day or week, to say nothing of selling ads or raising money. There’s just so much news.
I try to focus on writing in between the nuts and bolts you need to put out a paper, like the calendar.
The day-to-day office life, it’s like being anywhere. But the great thing here is, who knows what’s gonna happen? The unpredictability is unlike anywhere I’ve ever been.
AAA: The Arctic is going through some enormous environmental and economic changes. What’s struck you the most?
MS: When I moved to Longyearbyen it was only 14 percent foreign. Now it’s 35 percent foreigners. It’s an unbelievable change. It was still a mining town back then; people came to clean and cook or help haul coal. Now only 5 percent are miners, there’s only one tiny mine. Tourism in the past two years has grown way over 40 percent. It’s neither good or bad; it’s a number that defines what the community now is. We’ve seen a complete societal and economic turnover, and that’s a huge shock. It’s as huge a shock as climate change. This is a community in complete turmoil in terms of where its foundations are.
AAA: How has the climate changed Svalbard, and your life?
MS: You have places with wars and droughts and major disasters but I haven’t seen any place anywhere going through as many different types of changes as Svalbard. Climate change is occurring three times as fast here as anywhere else.
About three years ago, I was sitting in this cafe at 4pm on a Thursday and I got a call from someone in my building saying, you might wanna go home—our building is suffering massive structural damages from sinking into permafrost.
Well, I did exactly what she said: I got home and threw as many belongings as I could get my hands on into vehicles anyone could provide. In two hours, they blew up the building and that was that. I had a flat that was worth, I don’t know, $200,000 dollars and immediately it was worth nothing, I was bankrupt.
The only reason I’m still here is people chipped in and helped me find a place and also helped when I was injured. If I was in the US I’d be homeless and definitely dead because health care is that bad.
But it’s been week to week since then. I don’t know if I’ll have enough money to be here tomorrow. Crowdfunding has helped keep me here.
AAA: What’s been your favorite story, or the most rewarding one you’ve covered?
MS: Favorite? Rewarding? These terms are odd. The No. 1 story is covering the avalanche in 2015 and it was one of the most tragic things I’ve gone through. But the reason it was satisfying is that it was the week or two that people realized what I did mattered. I was the only one writing any info at all in English.
The English-language folks from the outside world crashed my website, I got like 90,000 uniques in a very short time. That’s happened a few other times. There’s about 2,000 people reading regularly day to day, but it spikes massively when there’s big news like a polar bear attack.
AAA: What do you read in your time off?
MS: My reading is insane in terms of how much I do, and it has been since I could read.
Growing up I read tons of books. I found a newspaper machine that was broken and I got a free paper every day. The cool kids were playing ball and I’d be reading the paper. That’s where my fanaticism comes from.
I’ll probably spend 4-5 hours every day reading every news item round the world. I read everything happening on earth. I could talk to you for hours about the godawful architectural monstrosity that’s Hudson Yards.
AAA: Tell me about the economics of being a one-man publisher.
MS: It costs more since I made the paper longer: It’s 10 kroner ($1.25) for every four pages, and that’s just photocopying. There are other costs: keeping up the computer, web hosting, and so on. I try to condense things in print but it kept getting bigger because people enjoy sitting down and reading it. It’s rare these days. I admit, I like that. So now it’s 16-20 pages a week, but that means I’m paying $4 per copy just to print this—and if I’m giving a $4 paper away for free it’s insane. The ads don’t pay for it, nor do some of the grants I get.
People ask, why don’t you sell it? But that’s like asking what The Village Voice would have been if it charged a dollar a copy. You just don’t do it. I’m glad to give the paper away free for anyone who can’t afford to pay for it. I’m grateful to do it.
A while ago a kid from the US set up a GoFundMe for me. That’s the best way to help, and it’s nice for the kid to see his efforts recognized. Donations are all over the map, and sometimes people are very generous, but the tourist crowd, not at all. Our busiest week in 2014 brought 3,000 people to Svalbard. I printed 3,000 copies and I didn’t get a single donation.
Now the $25,000 goal on the GoFundMe is not a joke. If I’m gonna make it here I need to make it all the way to that figure. My rent is 23 days overdue and my landlord is tired of me being late.
AAA: You’ve been around the world. What’s next for you?
MS: I love it and I love it here, and being able to do something no one else is. I don’t know if anyone else is crazy enough to want to do it.
My goal is to keep doing this until I die. If in 30 years I’m in poverty digging stray bread crusts out of the bread machine so I can eat—which happens—that’s OK. I wash cars, I can fix hardware on a Macintosh, which is a nice skill to have. I give tours. I don’t write about myself if I can avoid it.