The headline blaring across the top of page 1B of the Bismarck Tribune Wednesday morning read “Oil Production Sets Record.” Note to Tribune editors: Just leave that page layout on your computer screen, and insert new numbers a month from today. The headline will still apply. And the month after that, and after that . . .
Which reminds me of a time in the 1970’s when I was employed at the Dickinson Press. Spain’s dictator leader, Generalisimo (I’m not sure where that title came from, but it sticks in my head) Francisco Franco, an aged icon known worldwide, who ruled Spain with an iron fist, fell into a coma and was kept going on life support for quite a long time. I was the news editor at the paper, and it was my job each night to put the paper together—choose the stories which would go into the paper, decide where the stories would go, lay out the pages and write the headlines. When Franco fell ill, the Associated Press sent a story over the wire that said the general was nearing the end. It was important news—he was a world leader—and so I chose to run the story, although an abbreviated version, and on an insignificant inside page, one with a lot of standing features, such as stock markets, grain markets, weather and sometimes a smattering of national or international news—a page where I often shoved a story of some national significance, because even small-town daily newspapers took themselves seriously in those days, as their community’s main source of information before 24-hour cable news channels and all the Internet news sources—but in which very few people were really interested. And so, the paper the next morning carried a one column, four-inch long story under the headline “Franco Hovers Near Death.”
Well, he didn’t die that day, but he didn’t improve either, and so the next night, the AP sent a slightly updated version of the Franco story. I was looking at it and noting that there was really nothing new in it, when my friend and colleague Bill Douthit said “Well, just leave the headline in the same place and put the new story under it.” So we did. We called those things “standing headlines” in those days. Told the staff in the back shop to just let the headline stand, and we’d send new copy. And so they did, that night, and the next night, and the next night, and it became a standing joke in the newsroom, and my editor and publisher did not complain, and I really think our readers got a kick out of it too. The story location and the story length remained the same every day, about three paragraphs, telling us there was no change in Franco’s status, under the same headline, “Franco Hovers Near Death.” We laughingly speculated that every morning people ripped open their paper to page 7 or whatever it was to see if Franco had passed on. They didn’t have to read the story, just the headline.
Poor old Franco “hovered” for about three weeks, as I recall, before finally dropping off. The night he died we moved the story to the top of page 1, gave it a big headline, put the paper to bed, and Bill and I went over to the Shamrock Bar next door to the newspaper office (a place we often NEEDED to visit after some of those nights at the paper) and had a toast to the Generalisimo, whose lingering comatose state had kept us in good humor for a few weeks. Bill’s gone now, but our friends and Dickinson Press colleagues Mike Jacobs and Clay Jenkinson and I still joke about Franco hovering near death from time to time.
Well, North Dakota’s oil industry isn’t hovering near death. Just the opposite. About the 19th or 20th of each month, North Dakota’s Oil and Gas Division Director, Lynn Helms, posts his own “blog,” called The Director’s Cut, on the Oil and Gas Division website, reporting on the latest oil and gas production statistics. He’s been doing this every month since April of 2010. That month, he reported:
Feb Oil 7,310,457 barrels = 261,088 barrels/day (preliminary) all time record high (underlining mine).
Since then it has been pretty much the same report every month, with just higher numbers. The terminology changed a little bit in his January report this year to:
Nov Oil 15,291,793 barrels = 509,726 barrels/day (preliminary) (NEW all time high) (adding the word NEW—in all caps—making it look much more exciting).
And it is more exciting. Here’s what it says this month:
Sep Oil 21,854,812 barrels = 728,494 barrels/day (preliminary)(NEW all-time high)
Production has almost tripled in the 33 months between the first report and the most recent report. Actually, the Director’s Cut is generally pretty interesting, with personal comments from the Director providing information on drilling rig counts, idle well counts (those wells where the drilling is done and they are just awaiting the fracking trucks), how much natural gas is being flared, where the wells are being drilled, a weather report, and a usually couched reference to the Environmental Protection Agency hinting some displeasure with fracking rules. But the message at the top remains the same: New Production Record.
So, Tribune editors, just hang onto that headline. You should be able to use it into the foreseeable future. Enforcement of oil and gas regulations might seem somewhat comatose, but I don’t see Generalissimo Helms passing on any time soon.