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Tabloid Swims Against Tide of Oil and Gas Industry

The flamboyant trade weekly Upstream has become a must read both for its bold, irreverent style and its thorough coverage.

September 07, 2003|Dana Calvo | Special to The Times

HOUSTON — Hollywood has Variety. Space alien buffs have the Weekly World News. And the oil and gas industry has Upstream.

The weekly trade paper, founded in 1996 and edited in London, takes a tabloid approach to the exploration and production business. Headlines are bold and stories irreverent. The use of photos is creative: A recent article about Unocal Corp. of El Segundo ramping up to drill off the Vietnamese coast ran under the headline "Unocal gets in tune for a gas boost" and, immaterially, with a picture of a Vietnamese woman playing a xylophone.

The often sensational style is panned by many. Even so, Upstream is a must read in oil patches from Bakersfield to Bahrain.

"Some of the stuff they publish is pretty outlandish, and some of the stuff is pretty good," said Lawrence Meriage, spokesman for Los Angeles-based Occidental Petroleum Corp. "It's certainly a unique publication for the oil and gas industry."

Consider a story on a Houston strip club that accompanied a preview of a major offshore drilling convention here. "Are you looking for a place to relax after a long day at the Offshore Technology Conference?" began the piece, headlined "Bare essentials for business." A photograph of a stripper's lacquered stiletto boot (and scantily clad colleagues in the background) ran across four columns.

"We've gotten a reputation for being the paper everyone wants to read but no one wants to be in," Blake Wright, the newspaper's Houston bureau chief, said with a laugh.

The flamboyance is by design. When Upstream came on the scene, Wright said, it wanted to carve out its own turf, avoiding the more staid approach of its chief competitor, Oil & Gas Journal.

"We wanted to differentiate ourselves from the pack," Wright said.

The paper's photographs and headlines convey its sense of oil and gas humor. The Aug. 1 issue showed a raptor on the cover next to the headline "Buzzard releases its prey," over a story about a company releasing bid documents for a project known as Buzzard.

In the same issue, an article about a project in a region of China -- "Chinese chew on Papua oil targets" -- was illustrated by a photo of panda bears eating bamboo shoots.

Offbeat stories often run in the "Cuttings" section. One recent item followed up on developments in the case of Norwegian employees of Houston- based ConocoPhillips who accessed online porn during their work hours. It was headlined "Natural porn killers."

For all its eccentricities, Upstream is credited with covering news thoroughly. Last spring it provided exhaustive coverage of decisions by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in awarding oil-well fire and cleanup contracts in Iraq. And its pages are filled with stories on exploration and production developments from around the globe.

"You simply have to read it," said Dennis Frakes, vice president of business development for Samsung Heavy Industries, a division of Samsung Group of South Korea. "There's lots of juice. The great thing about Upstream is that they hustle like crazy. They get enough different views of things from enough different people that their reporters do a great job."

Upstream is owned by media group NHST of Norway. NHST also publishes that country's largest daily business paper and an English-language shipping newspaper called Tradewinds. Upstream's business offices are in Oslo, but the paper's news and features editors are in London, giving the tabloid a Fleet Street feel.

The publication takes its name from industry parlance for the exploration and production side of the oil and gas business, as opposed to the "downstream" enterprises of refining and retailing. Industry observers say Upstream's unconventional approach is no coincidence, given its audience of wildcatters and risk takers.

"Explorationers are adventurers. They're willing to take risks to find the future, and the production guys are conquerors," said Lane Sloan, executive director of the Global Energy Management Institute at the University of Houston. "With upstreamers, there's no shortage of ego there."

Downstreamers run the refineries and keep the books. "They're sort of a second-class citizen, and they have to be very prudent and technical," Sloan said.

Although much of Upstream may be written for the beer drinkers of the industry, it's priced like champagne. A yearly subscription is $695. Worldwide circulation is 5,300, according to a 2001 audit. Because issues are mailed to offices and often passed around, readership is estimated at 30,000, with the bulk in the United States and the United Kingdom.

A full-page color ad can cost $10,350 to $14,697, depending on where the ad runs.

Competitor Oil & Gas Journal -- founded in 1902 and boasting subscriptions topping 30,000 -- maintains a more traditional, sober approach to industry news.

If Upstream has an advantage over its competitor, it's in on-the-scene coverage of global oil and gas developments. Both papers have a global network of "stringers" who contribute stories, but Upstream has more bureaus than Oil & Gas Journal -- eight around the world, including in Ghana, Singapore and Rio de Janeiro.

"They put people in places where they can hustle news, and I'm kind of jealous of that," said Bob Tippee, editor of Houston-based Oil & Gas Journal, which has no bureaus outside the United States. "But they're kind of sensationalist.

"Some years ago there was a company president here in Houston who was asked if he read it," Tippee said. "And he said, 'Yes -- I read it every week to see if I need to file a lawsuit.' "

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