Apocalypse Now culminates in a meeting with a large, terrifying man in a forsaken place that few normal humans would dream of venturing into of their own free will.

I was reminded of this narrative when listening again to a BBC Radio 4 documentary by my friends and former co-workers, Andy and Grigori, about their trip to Russia’s Norilsk nickel mine several years ago. The eponymous town is a byword for extremity: bad extremity, at that. Lying within the Arctic circle and the permafrost zone, it is Siberia’s northernmost city: a grim, black stain on the white tundra. In 2003, when my friends visited, it was still a closed city, long after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Officially designated one of the filthiest places on earth, Norilsk offers it’s residents a life expectancy 10 years shorter than the national average. I can tell you’re itching to book yourself a ticket.

When I worked in Fleet Street, Andy ran commodities coverage for me. The uninitiated within mainstream journalism will tend to regard commodities as a Cinderella profession. But you don’t succeed in this highly investigative area of reporting by being a shrinking violet. It touches the whole world, and the more difficult parts of it to boot. There is a darkness to it that is never far away; places like Norilsk epitomise that shadiness. Commodities is an environment in which a tradition of buccaneering still survives; there were moments when you kind of knew that the wrong decision of what to cover — and how — could cost somebody their life. I reported metals for a while, and so could only marvel at the depth of knowledge and range of contacts that Andy and Grigori managed to construct over the years.


Norilsk Nickel Plant from the air (Google Maps)

Andy and Grigori between them had long had to report the ins and outs of industrial activity at Norilsk because it dominates the world nickel market. As the documentary makes plain, this was no easy task. And it is important because, yes, we probably all own something that came out of the ground there. Based on what Wikipedia has to say here, you are breathing some of it each day too:-

The Blacksmith Institute included Norilsk in its 2007 list of the ten most polluted places on Earth. The list cites air pollution by particulates (including radioisotopes strontium-90, and caesium-137 and heavy metals nickel, copper, cobalt, lead and selenium) and by gases (such as nitrogen and carbon oxides, sulfur dioxide, phenols and hydrogen sulfide).”

Andy and Grigori’s programme, though, was a personal attempt to visit the human story that is Norilsk, rather than the statistical and commercial that had shaped their own long relationship with the place. The sense of environmental and other dangers is palpable, particularly as they descend into the heart of darkness that is the unlit mine 1km below the Siberian surface. There, in a 300km network of underground shafts, huge diesel vehicles manoeuvre in and out of side tunnels, sometimes at speed: behemoths looming monster-like out of the shadows. Andy and Grigori are provided with emergency supplies in the event that they get separated from their guide and lost in the labyrinth.

Knowing both men, the programme also highlights and reminds me of the themes in yesterday’s post about diversity and collaboration within teams; I touched on this before in my essay about Twitter. Andy and Grigori were essential parts of a real-time network of reporters that coordinated their daily activities across the globe using instant messaging, in particular the mIRC tool, reflecting the need for rapid coordination to break and respond to financial market news events. Unlike the telegraphese-based message wires that characterised inter-bureau communication in the old newswire days, which were terse and sometimes highly politicised, IM was particularly beneficial where remote bureaus and the very general skills needed by the staff in them, were routinely pressed to cover highly specialized beats. This required expert supervision from the main reporting centres, and mutual trust.

The blogosphere is often referred to now as “The Conversation”. But the beauty of the mIRC chat service we used back then was that the remote bureau could become an active part of even the water-cooler conversations in major bureaus like London. The diversity of the organization, that would otherwise have been latent, became active.

Anyway, I think you can hear the nature of the working friendships forged in action in the podcast.

Andy has written a book about his experience — Siberian Dreams – which is available from the usual suspects or via Knackered Hack Booksellers Inc. So reserve your signed copy now, by email, for when new stocks arrive.

You can find out more about the BBC/Royal Geographical Society’s Journey of a Lifetime broadcast series here.

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When I was in the engine room of journalism — the Fleet Street office of an international financial news agency — 66 characters was the length of a headline.

That’s all that would fit onto one line of computer screen. Ten words or so could send a market into a tailspin, and your pension fund with it. But this practice of modern finance — the trading on news headlines — is less horrifying than what the world is learning about money since the sub-prime meltdown was followed by the August credit crunch.

I was reminded of those 66 characters when considering adding a Twitter service to this blog (see sidebar under “what’s making me twitchy“). Twitter is a short-message social networking tool that allows the twitterer to “micro-blog” his “followers” through different platforms, including instant messaging and mobile phone text messages. The message length, in keeping with mobile texting, is 140 characters.

If you recoil from this idea (as I would because I don’t text or IM that much), then pause a little to consider the devastating way that beatblogger and citizen journalism advocate David Cohn used the service when his request for an interview with Craig Newmark of Craigslist was granted, with just 30 minutes to prepare. Continue reading ’66 characters in search of a story’

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