How we made: N by Norwegian, May 2014

The Made In Svalbard issue is still the issue of N by Norwegian that I get the most comments about, both at Ink and externally – which is good because, as vain as it sounds (and as much as people who know me are bored of hearing about Svalbard), I’m really proud of what we did with it…

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It was quite a punchy decision to devote almost 40 pages of the magazine to a relatively small destination – based, really, on the fact that it was the place on the network we were most excited to go to. The idea was that we’d take the whole team up at the end of March – eight of us, from editorial and sales – and make the whole magazine up there, producing the world’s northernmost mag. I think people liked the fact that it was a slightly bonkers idea – not only did the airline sign off on it, but commercially it was a success too.

Though the “office” we set up was really just a visual conceit (though quite a logistically challenging one, involving fat bikes, freezing Macbooks and a stuffed polar bear) – we did spend a whole week up there, and I think we did as much as we could to get under the skin of the place. We shot and interviewed more than 25 locals, from polar bear experts to miners, hostel queens, satellite nerds and the governor. And we went on some epic adventures, from husky rides to snowmobiling to the Russian town of Barentsburg.

In all, I think photographer Tim White took more than 7,000 photos, many of them involving a series of four wooden “n” letters we had made beforehand, which became kind of lucky charms for the trip.

The things I loved about the trip, and the story, weren’t what I’d expected. Naively, I’d half-expected the world’s northernmost town of Longyearbyen to be the kind of place where you’d walk into a bar and a bunch of beardy men with tats would stop and stare at you. In fact, it was full of intelligent, fascinating people – artists, photographers, climate change researchers at the uni, people who knew lots about Cognac – all with big ideas (going to live on Svalbard is a big idea in itself). We tried to put these people, and their stories, front and centre.

That felt like the story that I hadn’t read before – because, really, everyone has a pretty good idea about the epic scenery, the Northern Lights, and all the things that come with going to a place where you can’t leave the main town unless someone in the party has a shotgun (polar bears aren’t that cuddly and friendly, it turns out).

It was also just great fun, and good bonding – even including one particular morning after, when we were all so much worse for wear that the guy organising our snowmobile tour had to call the deputy governor to come down with a breathalyser. Most of the team failed spectacularly, so we had to go out with a limited party. (Still, it was probably for the best, since if you’re found drunk on a snowmobile in Svalbard, they take you to the mainland police in a helicopter, and then make you foot the helicopter bill).

It was a pretty mad effort to pull it all together in one month, with about ten days after the trip to get everything on the page. But there was a certain amount of adrenaline, helped by the fact that so many people had bought into the story. In the end we put Jason Roberts – the Australian who finds polar bears for the BBC and other nature shows – on the cover. Typically of the people we met, he was a total champ, putting on a traditional trapper’s costume and setting up a tent for Tim and Mandi, the deputy editor, who did the interview.

In the end I think it worked as a pretty comprehensive look at a place, and we had an unprecedented number of emails from readers about the story. We also had some nice things written about us, both internally, externally and a sort of hybrid of the two from Andy Cowles, an industry consultant who spent some time working at Ink. Just as importantly, perhaps, it was about the most fun I’ve had making a magazine. Read the full issue here.  

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