North Dakota oil boom has community papers scrambling

Dec 1, 2011

Editor’s Note: This is last in a series of 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. Publishers’ Auxiliary spoke with the publishers at four newspapers. Here are stories from the Mountrail County Promoter in Stanley, and the McKenzie County Farmer in Watford City.


North Dakota is booming thanks to a rich supply of oil in its northwest corner.

Although the nation is saturated with news of rampant home foreclosures, employee layoffs, government cutbacks, and double-digit unemployment rates, the “Peace Garden State” is bowing under an economy that has grown so fast, the area can’t keep up.

Newspapers in the oil field are doubling their classified pages. Editors and publishers are understaffed. Newspaper circulations are starting to double, and page counts are on the rise.

According to North Dakota Newspaper Association executive director Roger Bailey, oil has been a huge shot in the arm for the State of North Dakota.

Unemployment is less than 3 percent; the state legislature has a budget surplus of $1 billion, and the state’s population is starting to rise.

But there is a dark side.

The two lane roads in the small towns in the oil field are crumbling under the weight of truck traffic. Traffic jams, once unheard of, now rival congestion in metro areas. Accident rates have quadrupled. Housing is not available for those heading west to seek jobs. Schools are beginning to overflow.

There are no absolute figures on the amount of oil present, but estimates range from 4 billion barrels to 20 billion. The controversial method of fracking, drilling down, and using pressurized water to move oil throughout the oil shale deep below ground enables oil companies to extract large volumes for many years, even an entire generation.



Mary Kilen barely has time to talk on the phone.

“We are very busy,” she explains.

In a business where small newspaper owners routinely live their jobs, at the Mountrail County Reporter in Stanley, ND, Kilen is logging unprecedented 80-hour weeks. Every week.

She depends on four people to produce the 2,300-circulation weekly newspaper that has been in her husband’s family for several generations.

“People are calling Mountrail County ground zero, in this oil boom,” Kilen said. “It’s insane. People keep saying, ‘you think it is busy now, wait ‘til next year,’ and they have been saying that the past few years.”

In Stanley, the Mountrail County Seat, the 2010 census reported a population of 1,458. Kilen reports estimates that the population has increased to 2,200 in just one year.

“The schools grew by 90 children this year, and now the school board is looking at expansion projects,” she said. “Infrastructure needs have turned into a nightmare. Our legislature has allocated hundreds of millions of dollars to improving the infrastructure, but that will barely scratch the surface.”

Housing is not keeping up with demand, and as in other oil field communities, man camps are springing up all along the outskirts of town.

“Currently, the man camps have more than 4,000 beds, but our county has instituted a moratorium on those camps and other temporary housing,” she said. “For the most part, the county is doing a fabulous job. We have a new county planner and a new county engineer helping.”

At the newspaper, local advertisers are staying faithful, and oil companies and other businesses are advertising, too. She publishes entire pages of help wanted ads.

“Our newspaper used to average 10 pages a week, and now we are running 16 to 20 pages,” Kilen said. “We’re the official county newspaper, and our (public) notices used to take a page or a page and a half. Now we run two or three pages of (public notices) per issue. This week, we had four pages of legals.”

Local government meetings that lasted just a couple of hours, now average four hours. Kilen credits her state’s Sunshine Laws for keeping those meetings open, and reported no problems with government secrecy, and news is plentiful.

“It used to be we would spend the whole week wondering what to cover and put in the newspaper; now it is easy,” she said.

In addition to the growing population in her area, spring flooding displaced many residents who are also looking for places to live. People have been sleeping in their vehicles, “which was not bad during the summer, but winter is coming,” Kilen said. And the situation is approaching the crisis point.

“A lot of people are coming our way looking for the American Dream,” she said. “They’ve packed up all their belongings and are heading west.”



Two years ago, Neal Shipman could not have imagined the headlines that have been in his paper lately.

l City’s sales top $28 million in second quarter.

l School Board approves $8.3 million budget.

l Commissioners looking at $60 million budget.

l Power Fuels to build housing for 1,000 people.

Two years ago, Watford City, ND, a town not quite 100 years old, had a population of 1,500 people.

The population had neared 1,750 last year, according to the 2010 census.

“Watford City has always been a vibrant town,” he said. “We have two groceries, two pharmacies, a hardware store, three or four gas stations and three or four restaurants.”

Today the town is beyond vibrant. It is downright crowded.

“Eighteen months ago, things were fine and dandy,” Shipman said.

“Today we have 15- or 20-minute long waits at the gas pumps and in lines at the grocery stores,” he said. “If you park on Main Street, you can’t even pull away from the curb. Traffic is terrible. You can stand on Main Street, and look south for three miles, and you will see bumper to bumper traffic, the entire distance.”

Shipman likes to compare life in Watford City today to life there 18 months ago, when the McKenzie County Farmer was a solid 10 to 12 pages a week.

“Today the norm is 16 pages, and two weeks ago, we even had a 22-page newspaper,” he said.

Readership is also on the rise, and single copy sales are through the roof, with issues disappearing from stores and racks in two days.

“We’re running two or three pages of help wanted ads each week too,” he said. “It’s hard to put your arms around what is going on here.”

Shipman is the majority stockholder in his locally owned newspaper. He previously worked in state government in Bismarck, North Dakota’s capital, but came home at the end of the state’s first oil boom in the early 1980s and started running the newspaper.

Watford City was started in 1918, and no one was thinking about oil back then, when the Northern Pacific Railroad came through. Watford City was the end of the line.

Today, drilling comes right into town.

“You can stand in Watford and the town glows in the lights from the oil fields,” he said.

But as in other oil boom places in North Dakota, there are growing pains.

An all-volunteer fire department serves Watford City. The fire chief told Shipman that just six years ago, firemen responded to 70 fires that entire year, and most of them were minor. In September 2011, the fire department responded to 70 calls in that month alone.

The police log has as many as seven automobile accidents per day.

Housing costs are through the roof. The school board is considering ways to expand classrooms to accommodate a student population that has nearly doubled, from 400 to 700 students in three years.

“And just wait for winter,” Shipman said. “Tough snow; tough winds; low visibility. Drilling won’t stop either. As long as workers can get to the sites, they’ll keep pumping. Cold and snow do not impact this work.”

Shipman predicts that the oil boom will spell good things for his community in the future. But now he’s hanging on and managing the best he can with three full time and three part time employees.

“I need to hire more writers and production staff,” he said, and added that he’s trying to convert his part time employees to full time.

“Sometimes the staff gets a little tense, and we land stories we would never dream of,” he said. “It’s stressful, but it’s also fun.” © Teri Saylor 2011

Teri Saylor is a freelance writer in Raleigh, NC. Contact her at