The details have been just what you might cringingly expect in this A.K. (After Kardashian) era. Gory specifics of the foam leaving Lamar Odom’s mouth, accompanied by a steady stream of back and forth between the owner of the brothel where the former-NBA-player-turned-reality-TV-star was staying and the family of his ex/current/we’re-still-not-sure-her-role-in-his-life spouse.
Even this interview with his former college coach had an awkward feel, as Jim Harrick talked about the fatherly relationship he had with Odom, then admitted he’d never met Khloe Kardashian before the two got married. (For the record, my dad had met my wife plenty of times before our big day.)
And while the Odom clickbait certainly could justify a blog post of its own, it got me thinking about the state of in-depth journalism, and the lengths — or depths — media outlets will go to dig up a seedy story.
More specifically, it begs a question — just because a topic could be considered “sinful,” does that automatically relegate it to the journalism tree branch where TMZ resides?
I’d argue that it does not.
For example, as one of the lead reporters at The Medford Mail Tribune, Damian Mann has been covering the emotionally charged issue of marijuana legalization in southern Oregon for years.
He’s written hundreds of stories on the topic, all the way up through its current legal status, which allows anyone 21 or older to purchase small amounts from accredited dispensaries.
While nearby Ashland has welcomed marijuana, government officials in the more conservative city of Medford have maintained a distaste for the drug, voting down measures that would have allowed recreational use.
And Mann has followed the entire saga — from a four-part series that included this story about what you can and can’t do under the current law, to another about how a police dog might have to be retired because it can’t be “untrained” from finding pot.
Having a number of meaty story projects under his belt prepared Mann for the onslaught of differing opinions that have bubbled to the surface.
No matter which side of the debate his readers are on, he quickly realized this was a topic that kept people talking.
“Even in the era before Parse.ly, when there was no way to really measure how well a story was doing, we knew these stories were being read,” Mann said. “Years ago, we had a story about a big pot farm in the area. The guy who we focused on said we could come and out and take pictures, as long as we didn’t show where it’s at.
“There was probably a little reluctance by the editors to put pot front and center. But it was such a compelling story, we sold out every paper.”
Mann’s pieces have maintained a bright light on Medford’s reluctance to embrace the state’s new laws, but through professional reporting, rather than scandalous storylines and sound bites.
He’s offered sensible, reader-friendly angles like this piece explaining how marijuana users can be fired from their jobs, even though the drug is legal.
And the veteran reporter admits watching the story unfold has been something of a case study in city and state government.
“It’s been really interesting to watch the polarized points of view,” he said. “Medford, it’s almost like it’s still in the ’50s in some ways, while Ashland (which is just 13 miles away) is very progressive. It’s been a long, complicated realization for people who are dead set against pot. It’s taken a long time for people to change their attitudes about this issue. It’s old-school here. For example, even though a council member said he did pot years ago, he now says he’s totally against it.”
Mann’s job is to gauge public support for or against, and offer meaningful context. He’s done this through measuring Medford’s policies against other communities across the region and state, and tackling innovative angles. In other words, he’s maintained a full grasp of the story without necessarily steering it, proving it’s possible to maintain professionalism and decorum while staying firmly entrenched on a controversial topic.
That’s far different than those who, for example, are simply mining for titillating quotes from a brothel, but only have a fleeting interest because a famous person was found unconscious there.
Some have maintained there’s been too much coverage of the marijuana issue in Medford, although Mann said that sentiment has primarily come from those who’d hoped the laws would never change.
Another interesting topic that’s been entwined with the pot debate is one about cost overruns of $6 million for fire and police stations that have yet to be completed.
“It’s made for an interesting time to be around city politics,” Mann said. “Some people say the council should have been minding the store when it comes to these cost overruns, rather than worrying about pot so much. It’s really been a tumultuous situation.”
Recently, the Medford city council approved medical marijuana dispensaries, but rejected recreational pot sales. And, of course, that led to another story by Mann, who’s maintained a professional fascination.
Next up is a plan that would allow Medford residents to vote on recreational use, with a referendum expected to head to the ballot in 2016.
Mann, an industry veteran, said he’s been able to appreciate the intensity from both sides of the fight, yet he’s been able to walk away from the story when the day is done.
“I’ve done this long enough that I don’t go home and worry about it. I can tease the council after a meeting, or even the police chief,” he said.
“But what you’re watching — what I’m watching — is history in the making.
“It’s not the civil rights movement, but it’s seeing people in this community struggle as they come to terms with this change.”