Rant: Fan worried about our fishwrapper’s future says people should pay for it – and then donates $1

This is the perfect example of why our little scandal sheet is the stupidest business venture in Svalbard’s history – and how being loved, no matter how rewarding – sadly has no value as legal tender.

I’ve (yeah, abandoning the phony and absurd plural self-reference for a moment) had hundreds of locals and visitors say over the years “your newspaper is great, you should charge for it.”

Well, that’s not going to happen, ever. Period. When this thing dies – which it will, whether it’s 50 days or 50 years from now – I want my conscience to be clear. That means telling locals and the world about what’s up here as a labor of love that’s available to everyone, with no regard for how anything I write might affect my ability to earn money.

Perhaps the most adament and analytical of those comments from fans (for the moment I’m admitting there’s more than two) arrived in the form of an e-mail today, where the sender expressed fears about Icepeople’s ability to survive and outlined a list of steps, including per-issue and subscription fees, arguing I was providing a product and should be compensated for the costs of it, just like someone selling a cake.

The person also showed a willingness to provide financial support by making a donation at the website. For $1.

(Spoiler: The person mentioned here did ultimately contribute more after some e-mail exchanges and sent a fundraising pitch to co-workers at the large entity the person works for. And the suggestions, which go beyond charging people to read it, were intelligent. So ultimately this is a tale of gratitude, not a bitch session.)

First, just to be clear, any donation at all is awesome. It tells me someone cares enough to help at whatever level they can afford – and even a symbolic gesture can turn a crappy day into a good one.

That said, a $1 donation actually costs me money if I try to spend it. The service processing my payments takes 35 cents and five percent, and I’ll be hit with several dollars of ATM and currency exchange fees if I try to spend that remaining 60 cents. Even without the fees, it costs more than a dollar (10 kroner) to print each copy of the fishwrapper. Multiply that by the number of copies printed weekly and it’s obvious why it’s easy to lose a massive amount of money during the seven years I’ve done this (much like Charles Foster Kane, I came here with a lot of money prepared to lose all of it doing this simply because I wanted to; now to survive I no longer have that choice).

Anyhow, I pointed out some of this reality in a response to the sender, who chipped in another $20 (nearly enough in total to pay for a half-year of fishwrappers) and sent an e-mail around the workplace asking others to chip in. I call that a happy ending, regardless of whether anyone responds.

Still, this person’s concerns about the future of this publication are real. As money had grown (much) tighter I’ve actually expanded it rather than cut it back, if only to ensure it evolves into what I truly want it to be before its ultimate demise in November of 2015 or 2065. You’ll almost certainly see my apartment listed for sale during the next week, since I figure I can rent a place and keep going a bit longer from that. I may also sell that absurd sports car of mine and either walk or zip around on a scooter during the non-snowmobiling months. And, of course, I’ll keep pleading for advertisers, donations and contributions for whatever other crazy projects I dream up (watch this spot for the latest in a week or two).

It’s hard to ask people for money right now given the horrible crisis that has engulfed our town due to the massive downsizing at Store Norske, and massive uncertainty that poses threats and huge costs to virtually every person living here. But I’m prepared to do whatever it takes – including sleeping in my car, if the Sysselmannen doesn’t arrest me – to bring that story to locals and the outside world. I’m also working on a book about all things Svalbard (title: “Mucking Cold”) through my obviously distorted lens and, above all, I’m willing to do anything short of robbing the bank to be here until the crisis plays out.

So while this is obviously a plea to contribute in these tough times, it’s also a partial embracing of the advice I’m getting. Pick up 20 of my fishwrappers a year? Consider donating the 200 kroner it cost to print them. If you’ve got a business and think I’m offering something people want, consider advertising: rates start at 500 kroner a month (a few meals or far less than the price of one tour) and I’ll consider trades for thing such as, say, printing “X” copies of my crazy fishwrapper if you’ve got the equipment. (And if anyone with surplus apartments wants to swap one for an ongoing full-page ad, I’m definitely open to discussing the idea.)

Yeah, I hate these self-centered rants, since real journalism is supposed to be all about other people. But since that won’t keep the internet and lights on at my place when the bills come next month…

– Mark Sabbatini, editor-and-lunatic-in-chief (I’m thinking of modifying my business cards to say that, although it’s admittedly less enticing than “the world’s coolest journalist”)