By: Deena Higgs Nenad
At least one newspaper is hiring these days, even if its offices are in an isolated area surrounded by thick Canadian forest and the only way out is up a big “scary hill.”
But finding people to work for Fort McMurray (Alberta) Today – let alone stay in an area known for bloated rents, freezing temperatures, and Los Angeles-like traffic jams – is as slippery as the oil sands that surround the unique city.
“We’re getting applications from everywhere in Canada,” said managing editor Jessica McIntosh who, at 24, is striving to bring the 5,500 circulation Monday through Saturday broadsheet into the digital age. “They know that Fort McMurray is where we have jobs. A lot of reporters come in young, apply for all the jobs they can, then decide they don’t want to uproot their lives.”
Which is why the newspaper does everything it can to keep its staff, including paying living costs for some, or dangling the “you’ll get to report on international news” carrot.
That carrot is in the oil sands, an area north of Alberta and home to the second most economically viable oil deposits in the world (Saudi Arabia is first). The naturally occurring mixture of water, sand, and bitumen – a peanut butter-thick oil that doesn’t flow and must be accessed by surface mining or underground drilling – is a constant source of work for companies from Newfoundland, Canada, and the U.S. who buy rights to access the resource and pay royalties to the government on their production.
It is a constant source of news as well – business, environmental, accidents, fires.
“It’s fantastic on your portfolio,” McIntosh said. “Even though it’s a smaller market, it makes international news when something happens in the oil sands.”
Access doesn’t come easy. The oil camps are up a four-wheel-drive-only hill (nicknamed Super Test, because it’s a “super test of your ability to get up there,” McIntosh said), and a blizzard or traffic can make things worse. Once a reporter is on-site, regulations prohibit cameras and cellphones. The international media doesn’t always understand.
“If something blows up … they call us and they want content right now,” she said.
Newspaper employees also have to deal with their own paltry salaries (averaging in the low $30,000s) compared to those who work in the oil sands. A journeyman with little experience can make upward of $100,000 a year in the oil sands with all living expenses paid. Executives might have perks such as a private jet to take them to work.
Fort McMurray Today publisher and sales manager Daren Gawron said staffers can write their own ticket once they’ve worked there.
“We just lost another reporter to (a magazine in) Toronto,” Gawron said. “They put him to the top of the pile because he was from Fort McMurray. A lot of our reporters get PR positions with the oil sands.”
McIntosh, who grew up in Edmonton and edited a community newspaper there, came to Today last June after the editor retired and a managing editor died. Gawron helped secure her move by getting her husband a radio job. When she arrived, the newsroom was half-empty, and morale was low.
“She had some challenges,” Gawron said. “Some older veteran reporters didn’t want to take direction from a young snot, but at the end of the day, get over it.”
A confident McIntosh immediately started shaking things up, adding an online edition and moving up the paper’s 2 p.m. deadline so the print edition would hit newsstands by lunchtime. She also has a plan to keep the website fresh by rotating reporters on the weekends.
It helps that she has the blessing of Today‘s owner, Sun Media Corp. The company, which owns the Edmonton Sun and more than 200 other newspapers, supplied the entire staff with iPhones to upload video for an upcoming Canadian television news network.