Pics-or-it-didn’t-happen? Try Text-or-you-won’t-get-paid
Antarctica has always been for sale as a storied place. Ever since the first land based expeditions, explorers have had to sell themselves through lectures, slideshows and sponsorship pitches. Those expeditions depended on successfully selling stories for their very existence – they could not go ahead if deals were not made and funds were not found. Carsten Borchgrevink knew this well; his 1898 Southern Cross expedition, which was the first to winter on the Antarctic continent, was financed by publisher Sir George Newnes. Newnes then had access to exclusive tales of exploration, which in turn sold more papers and magazines.
Those newspapers and magazines are what have absorbed me for the past week. Not only are they a rich source of adverts, but the way in which they commodified exploration is most intriguing. Nearly every polar explorer from the turn of last century had an alliance with a news organisation. In the North, Cook and Peary’s famous rivalry was mirrored in the content of the rival publications New York Herald (Cook supporters) and New York Times (champions of Peary’s cause). This pattern continued throughout the Heroic Era of Antarctic Exploration, with Shackleton making a deal with The Daily Mail about news relating to the Nimrod expedition, and Scott’s Terra Nova expedition serialised in The Strand magazine. Later, Edith Ronne corresponded for North American Newspaper Alliance during her husband Finn Ronne’s expedition (1947-48), while Admiral Byrd had deals with multiple media organisations, including MGM and The New York Times.
The relationships between Polar explorers and the media are interesting because the transition from press barons to media conglomerates coincides with time of Polar exploration. As explorers were marching off into the unknown and sending back dispatches about their icy discoveries to headline the evening news, the publishers of said news were changing the way they thought about their product. As the goal of information was displaced by entertainment, explorers captured readers’ attention and kept them loyal to certain publications. Addressing the official accounts of expeditions, Elizabeth Leane writes that ‘while the Heroic Era explorers are stereotypically known as men of action, it was equally important that they be men who produced – or encouraged others to produce – representations.’ (Leane, 151). This was true both of their post-expedition accounts, and of the regular dispatches sent back by people such as Byrd and Ronne.
Such a trend continues today. Every year multiple expeditions set off towards the South Pole, and nearly every expedition leader dutifully produces a book in the aftermath of the adventure to record the adventure and thank sponsors. When leading the ‘Matrix Shackleton Centenary Expedition’ in 2008, Henry Worsley was offered a book deal before the expedition had even taken place. Similarly, Kevin Biggar and Jamie Fitzgerald secured sponsorship for their 2006 walk to the Pole from the xtra internet portal, a modern day equivalent of the print media giants of 100 years ago.
Storytelling is indeed ‘our brains’ native currency (Neeley, 20102). When it comes to Antarctica, that currency still more than holds its value. It’s not just where you go, but how you talk about the way you got there.
Leane, Elizabeth. ‘Introduction: the cultural turn in Antarctic Studies’
The Polar Journal, 1:2. 2011. 149-154
Neeley, Liz. Why Bother with Social Media? New Tools for Your Science Communication and Career. APECS Webinars. 04 April 2012.