Growing up in the small, western North Dakota town of Hettinger, Todd Melby didn’t know his upbringing would prepare him for one of the biggest professional projects of his life. Granted, it took him a few decades to realize that, but with age comes wisdom. Melby, who has long lived and worked in the Minneapolis area, went back to his old western stomping grounds to report on the region’s oil boom. But he didn’t just report; he’s produced an immersive, multimedia, engaging storytelling project called “Black Gold Boom,” which recently won a Sigma Delta Chi Award for best Specialized Journalism Site. With the help of a grant from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting’s Localore project, he spent a year living back in his native state, meeting and telling the stories of people who came from all over the U.S. to find their next (and hopefully steady) job. Melby is an experienced freelancer, having worked in various forms of commercial and public media for most of his professional journalism life.
Give us the “Black Gold Boom” elevator pitch.
The story of the oil boom told through the voice of the people who live and work there.
Why this project, why now?
I proposed this because I knew the oil boom was happening, and it was big news in North Dakota. It was changing the kinds of towns I grew up in. I knew it was a big story in North Dakota, and newsworthy. It was starting to percolate up nationally.
What are you doing with the project that other media outlets aren’t?
I’m from there, and I lived there. I made frequent trips back home (to Minnesota), but once you live there you get to experience that a lot. I really tried to tell the story of the people. I think there is this perception that the oil boom is like the wild west or the new gold rush, but I also thought there is an analogy to “The Grapes of Wrath.” People are showing up to get jobs. Lots of people are willing to sleep in their car or live in a trailer without water to better their lives.
And how did it come about? It seems like there are a lot of backers and moving parts.
I had a budget, and it was paid for by Localore, and it was a big experiment by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. My approach to that was to hire really good photographers and videographers. We got these stunning photos of drilling rigs and pumpers and trucks going down gravel roads. That was just the beginning. At the beginning of the project, I didn’t know we would create that. Zeega created basically a digital player that creates kind of a guided tour through the oil patch. The idea was just to experiment with different story forms.
How do you convince people that this is worth their time, because if you really want to engage and go deep with it, it’s not like a five-minute stop to read an article and move on.
That’s a good question, I don’t know. What do you think I should say to them? That’s not my forte. I just like to make cool stuff. I guess I’d say, well, it’s really hard to describe since it’s so new.
Is there an end goal in mind — how do you know when you’ve achieved what you set out to achieve, or is that fluid?
I think there are different kinds of reporting projects and approaches to reporting. When my wife (Diana) and I were doing a project about sex offenders in the United States, we knew we sort of wanted to challenge whether or not these laws were effective. That project is pretty darn specific. But this project about North Dakota has so many facets. And having spent a year there, I know what was missing. There are things that aren’t being covered that I would like to cover.
Do you ever get frustrated with all the administrative or non-reporting work you have to do with a project like this, as if you’re spending all your time doing project management, not reporting?
Localore did a really good job of minimizing the amount of budgeting and paper work I had to do. It wasn’t particularly onerous. I did receive funding to go back to North Dakota for more documentary work. That’s a lot more in-depth budget work than this past project. But I would much rather be out reporting than doing a budget. I’d much rather be sitting on the back of a pickup or drinking a shot of whiskey at a bar with some redneck. But such is life.
I often hear people say they got into journalism to be “a storyteller,” or that what they’re doing is telling other people’s stories? Is that you? What does storytelling mean to you?
To me, if you say “I’m a storyteller,” it says you’re just a conduit. I’m a reporter who may also be a public radio producer. But I’m a reporter first, and to that I bring my skills and analysis and questioning to the table. I have found in the past year, I really think that our profession doesn’t cover working people or poor people well enough. I do have a passion for that. I did a story on homeless people in the oil patch. Just listening to those stories moved me a lot.
This is your home, or at least where you have deep roots. How do you think that affects or informs your reporting? If you were doing this at, say, the Canadian Tar Sands, would you be doing it differently?
I think it definitely informs my reporting. I know more, especially the western part, and I’m from there, and I can play my North Dakota card and say I’m from here. And to be able to play whatever card we can and be able to relate to whoever we’re interviewing, reporters should do that.
Some young and eager journalist fresh out of school says, “Hey, Todd, I want to do what you’re doing.” What do you say?
I think it depends on whether you’re entrepreneurial or if you need the security of a full-time job. You have to find the projects and have that spirit and you have to know what a good story is because you have to pitch it to other people. But if you’re in a good newsroom that is into experimentation, you could do it there. There are public radio stations who are clearly afraid to experiment. Some organizations are much more open to new approaches than others.