Sarasota Herald-Tribune launches new effort to cover pot industry

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The Sarasota Herald-Tribune has a new web page and a veteran business reporter dedicated to pot. An editor explained the move is in response to a “sea change” in state policy concerning the regulation of marijuana.

The Herald-Tribune’s Medical Marijuana site is designed to follow the implementation of a medicinal marijuana law signed last month by Gov. Rick Scott and the campaign for a November ballot initiative that would further loosen state restrictions on the use of cannabis to treat sick people.

“The whole idea is to establish a baseline to educate voters and go forward,” said Matt Sauer, an assistant managing editor for the Herald-Tribune. “I moved to Florida in 1975 and I could not conceive of this vote 10 years ago.”

In 2009, Denver-based magazine Westworld was the first non-cannabis publication in the U.S. to hire a dedicated pot reporter. Since then more than 20 states have loosened marijuana laws and papers in California, Colorado and Washington have assigned reporters to the marijuana beat.

They have been exploring a host of issues that arise when marijuana moves from being an illegal plant to a lawful commodity. The change forces states to develop taxing and licensing procedures, and growers and consumers to become familiar with the different chemical makeup of recreational and medicinal marijuana.

Pot is no longer part of the crime beat. It’s a consumer item.

“Journalism has to respond (to legal changes) and has to respond in a variety of ways. There are business, regulations, consumer and safety angles,” said Kelly McBride the Poynter Institute’s Media Ethicist. “A responsive newsroom is going to figure out a strategy to help its community to understand all of those angles.”

The Herald-Tribune’s site, quietly went live Friday and the paper noted its existence in the Sunday edition. It contains original reporting and links to stories published by other organizations.

“Our focus will be across the board, politically, culturally, financially, and our stories will reflect that,” said Sauer. “Our readers are interested in knowing if Amendment 2 passes what our region will look like.”

Veteran business reporter Michael Pollick is assigned to the Herald-Trib’s pot beat. An Air Force veteran, Pollick wrote about marijuana issues when he was stationed in California in the 1970s.  He has already made a trip out west, reporting on how California and Colorado handled removing legal prohibitions on marijuana.