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Braving the Cold

Running a magazine is tough, especially from Canada's territories.

By Kassina Ryder


Tom Koelbel stepped off the plane in Iqaluit 16 years ago with a goal: to sell advertising space in Above & Beyond magazine to potential advertisers. It was his first assignment for the magazine, and he had always had a certain fascination with the North. So what if it was January in the Arctic, the equivalent of polar hell? Believing he would fit in, Koebel went out and bought everything a business trip to the Arctic in the middle of winter warranted: gigantic white Sorrel boots, a thick parka, good mitts.

The Great White North
Hudson Bay from the shoreline outside of Rankin Inlet, Nunavut Kassina Ryder

The Governor General of Canada was scheduled to visit Iqaluit the same day Koelbel arrived and a community feast was being held at the high school in honour of the event. After spending a couple of hours wandering around town, his boots squeaking on the thick layer of hard packed snow like Styrofoam, Koelbel made his way to the high school. There he stripped down to the business suit he always wore when working and sat in a chair, still absorbing the fact that he was in a tiny isolated community on Baffin Island.

It was about this time he began noticing that people were staring at him. He racked his brain trying to figure out what was wrong. Was it his boots? His parka?

Just then, Governor General Ramon John Hnatyshyn walked through the door. He and Koelbel looked at each other. “Nice suit,” said His Excellency.

Of the 200 people gathered in the school, Koelbel and the Governor General were the only ones wearing suits.

“It was such a learning experience for me,” says Koelbel. “It’s such a casual place. I learned how to dress after that.”

"The digital world has sort of brought us all together and location is not as big a thing as before."

- Tom Koelbel
Publisher, Above & Beyond

Koelbel is now the publisher of Above & Beyond magazine, the in-flight magazine for First Air Airlines, and has been for 10 years. He still wears the occasional business suit when he visits the North from the magazine’s head office in Ottawa, but he now realizes the importance of understanding his target market. In order to comprehend what it means to be a northern magazine, one must first understand the North. 

The Yukon, Northwest Territories and Nunavut encompass a staggering area of more than three million square kilometres. Communities are often far apart and isolated from each other. For example, Nunavut has only 26 towns spread over 1.9 million square kilometres. Above & Beyond also covers Nunavik, the Arctic region of Quebec, and Labrador. The magazine has a circulation of 20,000 bi-monthly copies, 10,400 of which are distributed as an in-flight magazine for First Air, one of the biggest airlines in the North, and smaller northern airlines.

A simple glance at a map shows the distance from Whitehorse in the Yukon to Iqaluit in Nunavut is roughly the same distance as Vancouver to Quebec City. Just over 100,000 people live in all three territories (excluding Nunavik), making covering and distributing the magazine throughout the North a formidable challenge. It’s also 100 per cent freelance written, adding to the problem of getting coverage from all regions of the territories. There are few roads connecting Arctic towns, especially in Nunavut, so most travelling between communities is by plane.

But producing a magazine in the North today is not as difficult as it used to be, according to Koelbel. Since the magazine’s first issue in 1989, the digital age has provided opportunities that would have otherwise been impossible. Staff at Above & Beyond can now do in a day what used to take weeks.

“Not so many years ago, everything was done on film, then gone to the press. So you burn plates from the film, then you print,” he says. “The digital world has sort of brought us all together and location is not as big a thing as before.” In the past, staff in Yellowknife had to courier or mail stories and photographs to the office in Ottawa for printing, a distance of over 5,000 kilometres.

The production of the magazine is still divided between offices in Yellowknife and Ottawa. The Yellowknife crew is responsible for collecting stories and photographs and deciding on editorial, while pre-press, designing and printing are done in Ottawa. Instead of having to send content through the mail or courier service, everything can now be bundled together and e-mailed as a PDF file.

Annelies Pool, the editor of Above & Beyond Magazine
Editor, Annelies Pool Courtesy: Above & Beyond Magazine

Annelies Pool, freelance writer and editor of Above & Beyond, agrees that the digital age has provided an answer to one of the magazine’s biggest challenges, the distances between northern communities. Even though our interview is over the phone, her enthusiasm is unmistakable. “Our designer can work and then just zip PDF copies of layouts of stories over to me and I can have a look at them and it’s great,” she says, laughing. “I wonder now how we ever managed to do it before.”

Pool has been a northerner for about 30 years, since a fateful hitchhiking expedition left her in Hay River, a community of about 3,000 people on the south shore of Great Slave Lake. “This is what you did way back in the 70s, the big hitchhiking trip across Canada,” she says. “I ended up in the North and I’ve been here ever since.” She now runs the Yellowknife office out of her solar powered house, which is just outside of town.

Similarly, Up Here, the in-flight magazine for Canadian North and other smaller airlines in the north, has an office in Yellowknife. But unlike Above & Beyond, Up Here’s office is located in a high rise building on Yellowknife’s Main Street while printing is done in Winnipeg. It also relies more on subscriptions than on serving as an in-flight magazine.

“Being an in-flight magazine is a secondary role of the magazine,” Marion Lavigne, founder and publisher of Up Here says. “It’s mainly a subscriber-based magazine.” It’s also available on newsstands throughout Canada and in Chapters and Indigo bookstores. 

Lavigne decided to move to Yellowknife while working at the Toronto Dominion Centre in downtown Toronto. She saw an advertisement for a job in the Northwest Territories and she knew she was either going to spend the rest of her life working in the city or make a break for it right then and there. She moved in 1975 and has never looked back. “If you manage five years there’s a good chance you’re going to be a lifer,” she jokes on the phone from her Yellowknife office.

The magazine’s first issue came out in December 1984. There are now 15 staff members and about half of the editorial content is written in-house; the rest is freelance written.

Again, the vast space between communities and the miniscule population base in the North are some of the most difficult hurdles to overcome, according to Aaron Spitzer, editor of Up Here. “Normally a magazine of our size would look for a bigger potential population base on which to draw readers from. So most of our readers, weirdly, have to be from outside of the region that we cover,” Spitzer says. “In a weird way we’re a regional magazine, but we also have to have kind of a national and potentially international appeal.”

Content ranges from articles on climate change to the thrills of northern hiking: naked. 

"I wonder now how we ever managed to do it before."

- Annelies Pool
Editor, Above & Beyond

The magazine has also launched a business publication, Up Here Business, introduced in February. It caters to the business community in the three territories, a potentially lucrative move considering the current explosion of diamond mining and oil extraction in the North. It’s a combination of former business issues that Up Here used to publish individually.

Like the outpost camps of early Arctic travellers, which served as stores, doctor’s offices and gathering places, northern magazines have to be multi-faceted to successfully satisfy the needs of their readers. Whether operating as business-to-business, in-flight, or niche magazines, the publications must go beyond the horizons of other magazines to adequately cover the community, all three million square kilometres of it.

“There are all kinds of crazy challenges,” Spitzer says. “We’re very isolated, transportation and shipping and all of those. Anything that makes the north logistically challenging also makes magazining interesting up here.”