Ten years and counting
Antarctic Sun marks first decade covering cutting edge science for National Science Foundation
Posted November 1, 2007
It seems nary a month goes by in Antarctica these last few seasons when there is not a historical moment to commemorate or an anniversary to celebrate.
The ongoing International Polar Year (IPY) follows a half-century after the U.S. Navy established a foothold on the continent, allowing scientists access to the Antarctic like never before as part of the International Geophysical Year (IGY).
We have recently observed the founding of McMurdo and South Pole stations, including the historical landing of the first plane at 90 degrees South by Navy pilot Gus Shinn on Oct. 31, 1956. On Nov. 29, 2004, a memorial flight retraced Adm. Richard E. Byrd’s historic flight over the South Pole 75 years to the day.
Even The Antarctic Sun has hit a modest milestone.
Happy birthdayThis season marks our 10th year as the U.S. Antarctic Program’s official news source for everything you wanted to know about Antarctica, the cutting edge science that takes place, and the people who make it happen.
Our history actually goes back much further when you factor in our predecessors, stretching back to the McMurdo News published during the IGY. It was followed by the McMurdo Sometimez—so named because of its irregular publication schedule—from at least 1960 until 1980.
Along the way, sometime in the early 1970s, professional Navy journalists took over the operation from Navy volunteers. In 1980, the name morphed into the more professional sounding Antarctica Sun Times.
The Navy would continue to operate the paper until the 1997-98 austral summer, when the publication was taken over by civilian contractors as part of the de-commissioning of Operation Deep Freeze. (For a fuller, more colorful retelling of the tale, see the history written by Billy-Ace Penguin Baker, USN (Ret), about the McMurdo Sometimez.)
In the beginningThat season Sandy Colhoun took the helm as the first journalist of The Antarctic Sun. A magazine and newspaper writer finishing graduate school, Colhoun applied for the newly created job after hearing about the opportunity from a friend in the USAP.
“I thought, ‘This is a dream job. I’ll never be able to get it,’” said Colhoun, who has since quit journalism and now works as a fundraiser for private schools in New England.
“It was one of the best experiences of my entire life, and I’m really grateful to have done it,” he said when we tracked him down in October. “The people down there made it easy for me, and it was a dream job.”
Calhoun got to see bits of the continent—like the other journalists who would follow him—that few non-scientists visit. The only downside, he recalled, was the restrictions common to government-run publications. Unfettered journalism it’s not, and journalists who take the job know that going in.
“That was a challenge for me as a young, aspiring journalist,” Colhoun said.
Colhoun stayed on for two seasons. Ginny Figlar, another journalist finishing graduate school, joined him that second year. Now living in Sweden with her husband and expecting her first child, Figlar had, like many in the program, applied for the job on a whim.
Via e-mail, Figlar said she enjoyed a lot of creative freedom when it came to feature articles in those early days.
“We threw in a lot of human interest stories, because back then, the Internet was nothing like it is today,” she recalled. “There really wasn’t much other news people could read. The Sun was delivered every other Sunday morning. So we saw it as a form of entertainment, not just information.”
As the Sun evolved each season, it continued to strike a balance between science and features that related what life was like on the Ice to a growing online audience back home.
Colhoun recalled that the Sun was using fairly cutting edge technology a decade ago. Issues were uploaded on the Internet in PDF format, which was not nearly as ubiquitous as it is today.
“Much of it was intended to give information to the people on the Ice, but I think it did reach out to people who never had an opportunity to know what was going on, on a more regular basis,” he said.
A lasting impressionPerhaps no journalist in the publication’s 10-year history had more of an influence than Kristan “Stan” Hutchison. She worked five straight seasons—four as the lead editor among a staff of three—beginning in the summer of 2000-01.
“I found that I loved reporting on science. I just loved it,” Hutchison said, explaining, in part, the reason behind her longevity. “The science was spectacular to me.”
Yet, she almost never made it to the Ice that first season. An alternate for a janitor position, Hutchison was working at the Juneau Empire newspaper in Alaska when she got the call to jump on an airplane right away, as the season was already under way.
After less than two weeks at McMurdo Station mopping floors and scrubbing toilets, she learned that one of the Sun journalists was quitting and joining the janitorial crew. She seized the opportunity.
“To me, it felt like fate’s hand reaching down and saying, ‘OK, you were willing to sacrifice everything to get here. You were willing to risk doing a position that was difficult and menial at the bottom of the world away from your new husband … so now I’ll give you what you wanted,’” she said.
Hutchison repaid fate in full over the next several seasons. A famous workaholic on a continent of overachievers, she built up the publication’s reputation in the community. And that included helping establish such Sun traditions as the Dr. Seuss poetry readings, held each season at the McMurdo Coffee House.
She said the community and its unique forms of social interaction was another reason why she remained engaged for so long.
“It’s a little bit like Brigadoon,” she said, referring to the mythical village that appears for just one day each year. “Each season, the city is reformed, with some new and some old population.
“The people who are there are so excited to be there, and so aware that they get to create what it’s going to be,” she added. “I always felt that we at the Sun had an important role—as newspapers always do—in building that community and adding to it in different ways.”
A new beginningThis season, the Sun will begin a new chapter in its relatively short history.
The publication is going completely online, and will publish new content year-round. That means the Sun and its staff will give up their cozy home at McMurdo Station, but still make occasional visits to the continent.
Val Carroll, Communications manager for Raytheon Polar Services, the company contracted to manage the USAP, said the new format reflects the changing times.
One thing that will not change is the publication’s mission, said Carroll, who has served as the Sun’s publisher throughout its history. “Our audience is still primarily the USAP participants, their friends and family,” she said.
Kim Silverman, Polar Information Officer for the National Science Foundation added, “The change in the Sun’s format is also intended to better serve and inform the American public about NSF-funded research and discovery in Antarctica, the scientists who conduct the research, and those who support it.
“This is an important step in promoting transformative research in the polar regions,” she said.
How the Sun will carry forth on that mission will continue to evolve and, we hope, improve.
“There’s no shortage of good ideas and things we’d like to do,” Carroll said.