From the ocean to the Oil Patch

ODESSA, Texas — A change of location sharpens the perspective on one’s own landscape.

I’ve spent the last week in Odessa — the Oil Patch. Nearly every aspect of life here is intimately linked to the oil industry and, thus, nearly everyone’s prosperity depends on those many pump jacks bobbing up and down, day and night.

The paper of record here is the Odessa-American (O-A), which might sound vaguely familiar. The paper won a Pulitzer Prize in 1988 for its coverage of Jessica McClure’s rescue from a water well.

The O-A today covers 17 West Texas counties with mainly local news and very little state, national and world news. Its editorial stance is solidly libertarian; I have yet to read an op-ed with a point of view left of Susan Estrich. In West Texas, the paper is preaching to the choir.

In the same way the O-A was thorough in its Baby Jessica coverage then, today the paper’s staff turns regularly to the hometown industry for news. In the same way most papers note the weather on each day’s front page, the O-A notes the price of oil. The Sunday paper this week dedicated three full pages to oil — new drilling contracts, international trading and the like. I read every word like an avid Patriots fan reads the Monday scoreboard page, and I imagine most people in West Texas do the same.

My time here has made me think a lot about our own hometown industry — tourism — and a recent note I received from Provincetown artist Jay Critchley. His comment/question was brief: “How many more stories are you going to run about sharks?” His concern was that the stories had gone from addressing public safety to borderline hysterical. My initial response was equally brief: “I wholeheartedly agree.”

A couple weeks later, I’m not so sure.

Between July 2 — when the U.S. Coast Guard issued an alert to boaters and paddlers to watch for great whites — and today, the Cape Cod Times hasn’t published any more or less stories on sharks than any other coastal Boston-area newspaper. The coverage has been fairly straightforward — far from sensational — and staff writer Doug Fraser’s July 14 story downplayed the initial alarm. With last Tuesday’s shark siting just off Chatham’s South Beach, it seems to me the Times is doing its job by making us aware.

In a community in which the economy is so intimately tied to the ocean, historically and presently, it could be argued that the paper of record should devote even more attention to our natural resources, including sharks.

After just a couple days of reading the Odessa-American, I know a whole lot more about the oil business (and, admittedly, a whole lot less about what’s been happening in the rest of the world). It’s fascinating to imagine how much more engaged Cape residents would be in our neighbors’ livelihoods if we all knew more about the importance of the sea to the Cape’s economy.

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