Gazette publisher in Colorado defends controversial marijuana series

COLORADO SPRINGS, CO — On Sunday, The Gazette, the daily newspaper here in Colorado’s second-largest city, published the first of a four-day series called “Clearing the Haze,” about the state’s marijuana legalization experiment.

So far, based on much of the public reaction, it might have been better called “Blowing Smoke.”

The newspaper teased its project in a Sunday front-page print banner as a “perspective series by The Gazette.” On the newspaper’s website, the launch page bills the project as an exclusive that “examines health, social, regulatory and financial issues associated with the world’s boldest experiment with legal marijuana.” By any measure it looks like a big investigation, coupled with a slick, parallax Web design.

But casual readers of the series would be easily forgiven if they thought the four days of “Clearing the Haze” was compiled by a team of The Gazette‘s reporters. It wasn’t.

Instead, the series is a product of two of the paper’s editorial board members, Wayne Laugesen, and Pula Davis, along with a Denver-based freelancer hired by the paper. The Gazette editorial board is staunchly anti-legalization, and the freelancer, Christine Tatum, is a legalization opponent—not identified as such by the paper—whose husband, quoted in the series, is an anti-pot addiction specialist, which is disclosed in one instance but not everywhere.

“The general public reading this will have no idea that Christine is extremely opposed to marijuana legalization and that she’s married to a doctor that has been one of the most vocal voices in this whole process warning of the potential unintended consequences of all this,” says Ricardo Baca, editor of The Denver Post‘s marijuana news and culture blog The Cannabist.

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When it comes to the content of The Gazette‘s series, made up of some 20 individual stories, it reads like a fact-dumping, throw-everything-at-the-wall-and-see-what-sticks approach to proving the argument that pot legalization in Colorado was a bad idea. Consider the headline of a piece likely to elicit some serious eye rolls: “Teen: Colorado voters were duped into legalizing recreational marijuana.” An authoritative source, indeed. But, hey, as the paper’s publisher told me in an interview, the writers have their perspective and they didn’t feel the need to include information or sources that might counter or complicate that perspective.

Examining, as the paper put it, “whether the claims of legalization are on a path to becoming realized”—sort of, how’s recreational legalization going for Colorado a year or so in?—is a worthy question for a news organization to tackle. Hiring an opponent of legalization to report this out for you, failing to adequately disclose that to readers, and avoiding information that doesn’t fit with your perspective? Not the best way to examine, let alone begin to answer, that question. Not exactly “clearing the haze.”

Not surprisingly, the series has come in for local criticism—outside and even inside the paper’s newsroom.

The word “propaganda” pops up in the many negative comments on online pieces and on The Gazette’s Facebook page. The marijuana reporter at the local alt-weekly, the Colorado Springs Independent, slammed the project in a blog post asking if the series is a joke. The Denver-based alt-weekly Westword and the Independent have both rounded up social media comments from ex-Gazette staffers and responses from Tatum. It’s basically turned into a beat. This Facebook thread of ex-Gazette staffers, including the paper’s former editor Jeff Thomas, is worth the read, as is this one. And an anonymous Gazette reporter also told Jim Romenesko that employees had been “strongly discouraged from commenting on or sharing opinions about the series” and that “privately editors have mentioned that public criticism could jeopardize reporters’ jobs.”

Two Gazette reporters who asked not to be named confirmed that last part to me, with one saying, “I have never seen management issue all these caveats for what we can and can’t say on social media. Being told to not do that is different and new and unusual.” The other reporter was worried a lack of transparency with the series might jeopardize the newsroom’s credibility when trying to cover marijuana issues in the future. The Gazette‘s news director punted to the publisher via email, and didn’t respond to my questions about the Romenesko item. The publisher, Dan Steever, told me that he “didn’t know anything about that,” that it “seems far-fetched,” and that “we don’t ususally find reporters criticizing our own reporting.”

Since I’ve been here, and that includes the Pulitzer Prize, I haven’t received so many positive emails from so many different states around the country.

Newspaper editorial writers publishing a days-long series on a big issue isn’t anything new. The New York Times produced a six-part “editorial series” on marijuana legalization last July with the stated position that it’s time to repeal pot prohibition. But the content of the Times series was clearly marked as opinion, and stories carried the bylines of an editorial writer. The Gazette‘s disclosure should have been much, much better. While an online sidebar to stories names “the reporting team,” bylines aren’t present in print. Nowhere could I find a disclosure of Tatum’s history with marijuana issues in Colorado. And in print, while the paper disclosed in its first installment that editorial writers wrote the series, that note hasn’t appeared in subsequent editions.

A concern about transparency is one I’ve heard from current and former Gazette journalists, and at least one of them was willing to ask her publisher if she could speak to me on the record about it.

“It was an opinion piece produced by our editorial board, and I think that opinion and editorial content is an important part of journalism,” said Megan Schrader, The Gazette‘s statehouse reporter. “I wish that it had been labeled more clearly than what it was, especially online … I thought that there was a lack of transparency with that element.”

A Gazette journalist who asked not to be named told me, “Everyone in the community thinks it’s a news piece and that we wrote it— and we’re not responsible for it at all.” The journalist said management told reporters not to answer questions about the series if asked, but rather to refer people to a hotline the paper had set up.

Yesterday I had the chance to speak over the phone with The Gazette‘s publisher, Dan Steever, to talk about his paper’s approach to “Clearing the Haze.” He thinks the paper labeled it as “perspective” well enough, and he had some elbows to throw at critics and some rival papers. There’s plenty to challenge about what Steever says, but he doesn’t seem to be talking to many reporters, so I offer this lightly edited transcript of our conversation.

So, the big question: Why use the editorial board and a freelancer for this instead of any of the several talented reporters The Gazette has on staff?

First of all, I’ll start by saying it’s not unusual for an editorial board to do long-form journalism. There are even award categories for that kind of thing, so doing long-form journalism that has a lot of research and fact-based reporting is not something unheard of certainly for editorial boards. So this is not an unusual thing, it’s done on a regular basis, usually by some of the larger papers.

So, with that in mind, if you’ve read our editorial board over the last couple of years we have had a pretty strong opinion on legalization of marijuana. And that opinion has been twofold: Number one, we don’t think that this state has a good handle on it. Regulation is the key word here, and if you read these stories you’re going to find a lot of examples where it’s not really being regulated.

So because we’ve been so vocal on the editorial pages we thought, well, we have a point of view on this so we’re going to do this as a perspective piece. And perspective to us means, yeah, we have a perspective, but we’re going to use hard facts, and we’re going to use real reporting to report. The second reason for doing it this way is that [we feel] this is being underreported. The national press is picking up things from Colorado and it’s largely being written by people who have a dog in the hunt. Their revenues are either being based on legalization, or without legalization a lot of jobs would go away. Then you have national media like 60 Minutes that does a report and the reader or listener walks away thinking “That’s really going well out there.”

So, read the pieces, and the facts say that we’ve got a long way to go here in Colorado to make heads or tails of this thing and whether this thing really can be regulated and achieve the benefits that we were promised.

Do you feel your own reporters couldn’t have looked at the issue with a critical eye, though?

Sure they could have. Sometimes we do things also because of time, and people are assigned to other things. So we used our editorial people, we used Christine Tatum who certainly is well-known in the field, and we used her because she knows a lot about it.

I’m glad you brought up Christine. She has a lot of baggage in Colorado when it comes to marijuana and she’s married to a doctor quoted in the series.

One of the sources in the story is Dr. Thurstone, and he’s married to Christine Tatum and we state that in the first quote by him.

That relationship was disclosed in his first quote, yes, but not in subsequent individual stories. Do you feel that you did all the disclosure and labeling as well as you could have? Because these pieces, as you know, are being shared individually online on social media.

I guess that’s for the reader to decide. We did it in the very first quote for that reason. To your point about if you read piece number seven when piece number six mentioned this, I guess you could miss that. But the intent was to state it the very first time. And by the way, most of the people who are writing [comments] in a negative way— some on Facebook, some on the articles— the people who are writing us they know that already. They’re not surprised by that.

Most of the questions we’re getting is about how we did it. But we’re getting very, very little negative in terms of what it says.

So I’ve read all the pieces in “Clearing the Haze” so far, and almost every comment, and I’d say the majority of them are negative. Most of those, yes, are about it being opinion — the word “propaganda” comes up a lot. Do you worry that using editorial writers with a clear stance on the pot issue, and a freelancer with such baggage, opens you up to easy criticism and dismissal?

No, not really. Well, let me put it this way: criticism from whom? The criticism is coming from former journalists, some of them former Gazette journalists—emphasis on the former— and people who have a dog in the hunt. Since I’ve been here, and that includes the Pulitzer Prize, I haven’t received so many positive emails from so many different states around the country. It was unexpected. We didn’t know how that would work out from an email standpoint. I have two to three times more emails than any story we’ve ever done. Ninety-five percent of it is positive in my email box, saying thank you for finally reporting facts and trying to tie these facts to raise questions, and thanks for having the courage to do it because we haven’t seen anybody do it. I’m blown away.

OK, so what’s The Gazette‘s intention with this series?

To put out a lot of facts and data that has not been reported and to try to tie some of those facts and data so that readers say, “Huh, maybe this isn’t going as swimmingly as everybody has said.” But I think our highest priority here and our biggest agenda is to send a message to the state that says, “Listen, legalization is not going that well.” Maybe it will work. But we have to get our act together as a state.

What I see when I read the series is a lot of facts and figures and data and comments from sources that are all negative and all stacked up in favor of the argument that this whole thing is bad. I read opinion journalism. I know it when I see it. I get it. But do you worry that the casual reader might not understand that all these facts and figures and data and sources are presented as opinion at the exclusion of others? Because this is not a balanced report, clearly.

It’s a perspective piece and it’s run through the editorial board for the exact reason that you just described. So we stated up front. We state who did it, how we did it. We call it a perspective piece.

I think we’ve done a pretty good job of telling people this is what we’re doing and why. The introduction piece kind of says we don’t think the reporting has been told and balanced and we’re going to take a different perspective on this.

I don’t think the way we did it changes the data. The data is the data. Now the data doesn’t come to a conclusion, we don’t draw a conclusion. The purpose was to get the data that’s not being reported out there so that the people could make their own decisions about how this is going.

How did the editing process of this series differ from that of a piece that would be in the news section?

Only that when we reveal a piece of data that says, you know, only 1.4 percent of people incarcerated in Colorado are in there for a simple marijuana sentence we don’t go back to the marijuana people and say ‘Is this true?’ The fact stands on its own. In a typical news report we’d go get another comment on this. Because this is so heavy laden with facts we didn’t feel like we needed fact-checking from the industry.

Well, you didn’t feel like you needed to go to the other side for their take at all.

Correct, it is a perspective piece.

Do you really feel other in-state reporting on marijuana— The Cannabist at The Denver Post, for instance— is somehow lacking in some way or context on the marijuana issue in Colorado?

I don’t know what to make of it, but I can tell you two things. When I say a dog in the hunt, there are a lot of jobs depending— at The Cannabist and at The Denver Post— on legalized marijuana. So I start by saying, you know, I would have a hard time having an objective discussion about it when they have a dog in the hunt. Our paper isn’t going to fold up without marijuana advertising. I’m not saying they will, but I’m saying there are a lot of jobs riding on the line.

That criticism seems to imply you believe newspaper advertising affects the news side. It shouldn’t.

I’m not saying it does. I’m just saying that people who depend on that advertising, when they start suggesting that there are opinions and agendas coming into play [at The Gazette], I don’t think that they should be making those comments. Because our paper doesn’t depend on that.

Did the producers of this series learn anything in the writing of this that challenged anything you believed prior to doing the research?

I’ll tell you, I’ve been in this state for a little over two years, so I haven’t been around for all of the history of marijuana in Colorado, and you ask if we were surprised [by anything], yeah, we were a little surprised there are as many unreported issues with it. I didn’t move here knowing anything about what this state was doing with marijuana. When you start really looking at the numbers we’ve got a lot of work to do to try to get this thing under control. We are now the state that has the growth rate of users in the 18-to-25-year-old bracket, the highest growth rate in the country. And that’s not a good thing for the future so we’ve got to get this under control.

OK, last question. Do you know if anyone who researched and wrote “Clearing the Haze” ever tried marijuana?

I have no idea. I never asked them. And frankly, I don’t care.

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Corey Hutchins is CJR’s correspondent based in Colorado, where he is also a journalist for The Colorado Independent. A former alt-weekly reporter in South Carolina, he was twice named journalist of the year in the weekly division by the SC Press Association. Hutchins recently worked on the State Integrity In vestigation at the Center for Public Integrity and he has contributed to Slate, The Nation, The Washington Post, and others. Follow him on Twitter @coreyhutchins or email him at coreyhutchins@gmail.com.