Sidney 2.0: Dancing with Roughnecks and Other Thanks Yous

When in Sidney, do as the Sidneysiders do.

Should you venture into eastern Montana oil country, don’t leave without completing the following:

  1. Walk into a solitary confinement cell in the county jail—escape before the assistant chief major of police and mayor decide to lock you inside.
  2. Set off the hotel’s fire alarm—by flicking matches underneath the smoke detector.
  3. Punch a boxing machine (illegal in parts of North Dakota)—harder than the men in line behind you.
  4. Attend a Republican rifle raffle dinner—pray, pledge your allegiance to the USA and listen to a karaoke mash-up of “America the Beautiful” and “My Country ’Tis of Thee.”
  5. Dance with roughnecks. Three of them. In a club. You’ll surprise yourself. You’ve got better moves than all of them.

I definitely prefer reporting from the field rather than filing a story while sitting in a newsroom. Every moment, even when your recorder’s turned off, adds to the story I will ultimately be writing.

I owe so much more than a thank-you note to the Sidney Herald staff. I bombarded them with question after question for more than 12 hours over the past three days. Plus, I can’t imagine how weird it must’ve been for a journalist to be the focus of another reporter’s story, but my Sidney Herald subject, Louisa Barber, didn’t complain.

She opened my eyes to a kind of reporting I’ve never considered doing. I don’t want to say good-bye to my dream of a glamorous life crafting stories of culture, corruption and concern from exotic lands overseas.  However, if I had to put it on hold for a while, I could survive by writing about the same issues in small-town USA.

There’s something to be said for learning the ins and outs of such a close-knit town. Even though only 3,150 people pick up the Sidney Herald every Sunday and Wednesday, its articles shape the community. Just look at its coverage of Sherry Arnold’s murder.

Between the paper’s website and Facebook page, more than 100 people commented on a recent article releasing details of her kidnapping. When national media outlets ran earlier stories claiming that Sherry Arnold was killed in a hit-and-run accident and her body had been found, Herald staffers called the police department to verify every single rumor. Guess what? The Herald got its facts straight. Others didn’t.

I need to mention several others who welcomed us into town. The mayor took us under his wing for more than three hours. People living in trailer parks invited us inside their doors. A high school principal let me wander around the school to take photos while kids were still in class. The owners of a printing shop swamped with orders and planned to work until 10 p.m. on Sunday spent more than an hour and a half chatting with me and leading me on a tour of the facility.

We were one of dozens of media crews from around the country to set foot in Sidney since the start of the year. I’m amazed people didn’t slam doors in our faces.

I have 20 interviews to transcribe and more blog posts to write when I get home. Although I am headed back to Missoula, neither MJR nor I will forget about Sidney.

Stay tuned!