Media Monday: Newspapers and Communities Cope with the Weight of the North Dakota Oil Boom

By Teri Saylor

Editor’s Note:  This is second in a series of four stories about newspapers serving their communities in the Bakken Oil Field of northeastern North Dakota, where an oil rush is creating extravagant population growth and an (almost) out of control economic boom. While writing for the National Newspaper Association’s Publishers Auxiliary, I spoke with the publishers at four newspapers. Here are their stories:

 

As I reported last week, North Dakota is booming thanks to a horn a plenty of oil in its northwest corner.

Roger Bailey, executive director of the North Dakota Newspaper Association reported that unemployment is around 3 percent statewide. The state coffers are groaning under a $1 billion surplus.

But expenses are going up.

“Expenditures for the state will be rising dramatically in the areas of infrastructure, mostly for deteriorating roads and increased law enforcement,” Bailey said. “A special session of the state legislature will be held in November to address these issues. Nobody really understood how much of an effect this was going to have on the state and its people. Only now are we getting a firm hand on the situation.”

People traveling out west to seek jobs and better lives should take their own housing with them. There are not enough available places to live for the scores of new workers in the area, and the housing that is available is offered at astronomical prices.

The Bakken oil field is a shale formation spanning 14,000 square miles in North Dakota, Montana and Canada.

Television journalist Harry Smith has been reporting from Williston, ND on this story for the new NBC show “Rock Central.”

Here’s the Williston story from the local newspaper publisher, Mitzi Moe.

MITZI MOE, PUBLISHER, WILLISTON HERALD

Williston is bursting at the seams.

“There are tent cities springing up and campers all over the place,” says Mitzi Moe, publisher of the Williston Herald. “Rents are also exploding. Apartments that rented for $700 went up to $1,000 last year, and this year they are at $2,000.”

People are living in tents, in campers and in residents’ basements. They also are renting rooms and living in housing developments called “man camps” located on the outskirts of the small towns around the oil field.

“Hiring people is next to impossible,” Moe said. “We are running short of staff in every department: news, advertising and circulation.”

Moe, herself, was working the front desk during a conversation with a reporter.

“It has been an experience,” she admits. “I am learning customer service all over again, and learning what my staff goes through day to day. Everyone is pitching in too. Our circulation director is helping to sell ads. Our classified advertising people are taking on accounts. There is so much involved; we’re taking it day to day.”

Moe, who has lived near Dallas, TX, compares the jammed roadways around Williston to Dallas metro traffic.

“We’re not prepared for this. We don’t have the infrastructure,” she says. “Williston is a tiny little town. We have one Walmart, two small home improvement stores, a JC Penney. Yet in the second quarter of the year, we beat Fargo (ND) in sales tax collections.”

In 2009, Williams County issued 447 building permits. In 2011 so far, the county has issued nearly 2,000. Mobile home permits have doubled in the past few years, from 627 in 2009 to 1,108 in 2011, according to Moe.

“Our advertising has increased tremendously,” she said. “Our help wanted classified display ads are generating dollars comparable to our display dollars.”

The Williston Herald is a six-day-a-week newspaper, owned by Wick Communications. In a normal week, the newspaper published two sections just two or three days a week. Now the newspaper has two sections every day.

Moe also publishes a weekly TMC publication and has started a new monthly magazine about the oil industry called “Talkin’ the Bakken.”

The four-color, glossy magazine contained 18-24 pages when it first came out.

“Today we are averaging 80 pages monthly,” Moe said. “Our September 2011 issue had 104 pages. October will have 80 pages.”

Her newspaper employees produce the magazine, in addition to their daily newspaper duties, with no extra help or staffing.

“There’s no extra staff to be had,” Moe said. “Our folks are doing an excellent job.”

Moe’s next frontier is to serve the man camps.

“The camps are very nice, sort of like barracks, and each resident has his own room,” she said. “I have been looking for ways to service them with newspapers.”

She and her staff have reported on these camps, running regular features on the men who live there.

While her job has become stressful, it is not without its rewards.

“There is so much going on now,” Moe says. “I am lucky to have a wonderful managing editor, who does a great job with our staff, and I love to see the excitement in young journalists’ faces when they have an opportunity to cover so much breaking news.”

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