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Distinctive reporting gives voice to fastest-growing US county

Pump jacks stand near apartments on the outskirts of Watford City, N.D., Aug. 26, 2021, in McKenzie County, the fastest-growing county in the U.S. according to new figures from the Census Bureau. ​The oil boom transformed the region over the past decade — not always for the better — but it also brought youth, diversity and better wages, breathing new life into somnolent towns that had been losing population since the 1930s. (AP Photo / Matthew Brown)

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Billings, Montana-based reporter Matthew Brown upended stereotypes with a deeply textured, intimate examination of a North Dakota community transformed by sudden growth.

As part of the AP’s ongoing coverage of the 2020 Census, Brown went to McKenzie County, North Dakota — the center of the western oil boom and the fastest-growing county in the U.S. — to examine the impact of dramatic growth on a sleepy community on the western prairie. He charted the growth through the eyes of the people, from the old-timers who remembered riding horses through fields now lined with housing developments and oil wells, to newcomers finding their way into the fabric of the community.

The story that emerged in Brown’s evocative words and photos came as something of a counternarrative to preconceived notions about how divided Americans are from one another. As demonstrated in graphics by Francois Duckett, a significant portion of McKenzie County’s newcomers are Hispanic, but many of those Brown interviewed described being embraced by the locals: the new restaurant owner helped along by customers who responded to social media pleas after the pandemic shut down in-person dining, or a transplanted family touched by the small-town charm of friendly faces saying hello in the grocery store.

Brown’s nuanced reporting and writing gave his story a compelling narrative arc and showed the value of going to see firsthand what happens when a community is confronted with dramatic growth.

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