Rich story ideas abound in emerging marijuana industry

Story by Agnel Philip
Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication at Arizona State University

Video by Kat Lonsdorf
Northwestern University Medill School of Journalism

News publications have a responsibility to objectively cover the marijuana business, according to two key players in the Denver Post’s recent efforts to ramp up coverage of the burgeoning industry.

“To be able to talk about this in a modern perspective, to have a frank conversation about what this means has been a gift,” said Ricardo Baca, editor of the Post’s marijuana-focused website “The Cannabist” at the “Covering the Business of Pot” panel at the SABEW 2016 annual conference Friday in Washington, D.C.

Baca and Kevin Dale, the Post’s former news director, said that business journalists have opportunities to cover a wide variety of stories concerning marijuana from banking to agriculture. Covering marijuana has allowed the Post to debunk myths and expose the good and bad of the drug, he said.

With some states having legalized or being in the process of legalizing recreational marijuana, money has flowed into an industry without an established financial and regulatory infrastructure. For example, due to federal regulations, few marijuana-related businesses have bank accounts, meaning that the vast majority of the nearly $1 billion industry in the state is conducted in cash.

Dale, the current executive editor of Arizona PBS’s Cronkite News, said the Post attempted to cover marijuana like any other legal substance, but the effort was not without backlash, especially in rural Colorado.

“We did take some heat in writing about ‘12 Great Brownie Ideas’ or the reviews or the best vape pens, but to balance that, we were able to show just the harder edge reporting that the newsroom had been doing throughout,” Dale said.

If the Post hadn’t put effort into covering the growth of the marijuana industry, it would have failed to cover significant economic trends, Dale said. In Denver, the growth of the marijuana industry has had a profound impact on commercial real estate in particular. Facilities associated with the production of the drug occupy more than 3.7 million square feet of industrial space, while leases on warehouses have jumped 56 percent over the past five years, Dale said.

Covering cannabis
Ricardo Baca and Kevin Dale recount their coverage of Colorado’s nascent legal cannabis industries. (Cassidy Trowbridge/ASU Walter Cronkite School)

Baca and Dale said audiences have appreciated the effort the Post made to cover this industry objectively.

“That’s our place as journalists, to be looking at all angles and trying to bring a little more enlightenment to stories,” Dale said.

Jason Shaltiel, a freelance writer and recent graduate Baruch College at the City University of New York, said that the panel strengthened his belief that marijuana offers an abundance of coverage opportunities.

“It did reinforce that there is legitimate journalism behind this, there is good reporting behind it,” he said.

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