The backlash came fast and fierce. "Get ready for some hate mail," warned one Facebook commenter about 30 minutes after the post went live. Within hours, the boycott calls began.
On Aug. 10, the Lost Coast Outpost posted to its news site the full list of marijuana growers and manufacturers who have taken steps to register their operations, future and existing, with the county. As of the Outpost's publication, there were 846 of these folks who had registered with the Humboldt County Planning and Building Department, putting pen to paper to officially report who they are, what they're planning, where they're planning it and what, if any, existing commercial marijuana activity is already there.
For an industry that's long operated in the shadows, fearful of prosecutions, forfeitures, rip-offs and lists, these 846 took a marked step into the light. But, as they knew — or at least should have known — those permit applications and registration lists are public documents, available to any cop, neighbor, speculator or reporter who walks in off the street to ask for them. Enter the Outpost, which posted to its website four county lists detailing those already permitted, those in the application process, those who asked the county for help preparing applications and those who have registered their scenes with the county.
In a Facebook post teasing its story, the Outpost urged its followers to "meet your friends and neighbors who are looking to get into the legal weed game," and, well, people freaked out. There were excoriations, f-bombs, plaintive pleas and threats.
In the documents, readers can access the names of land and business owners and brief descriptions of their marijuana cultivation and processing plans. LoCo redacted the most sensitive information — the parcel numbers and addresses for the operations — but seemed to do so somewhat reluctantly. "We're not sure why we're doing this, exactly. I suppose just because publishing 850-odd street addresses of active grow operations still feels too much like weird taboo juju," wrote LoCo editor Hank Sims in the post, going on to add that in addition to that bizarre journalistic logic, the fear of pot rip-offs is still pervasive and there's the "odd" chance those signing up didn't realize the information would be made public.
Sims declined to comment for this story but warns sternly in his post, "The reality is that this information is already out there, and not difficult to find."
Well, it's a whole lot easier to find now. And that's a problem in the eyes of many. Commenters on LoCo's site argued that while the average shithead with a gun might not know to go to Planning and Building to pull public records to see who might be an easy robbery target, he or she might happily follow the home invasion road map LoCo provided to anyone with an Internet connection.
In LoCo's defense, there is clearly a lot of newsworthy information in these lists. They are loaded with prominent names and begin to answer some of Humboldt's biggest and longest held pot economy questions (who, how much, where). Could LoCo have reported the newsworthy tidbits — the public figures and general trends — while protecting the identities of the other 800 or so operations, those who make up the roughly 20 percent of Humboldt County's marijuana industry that is trying to take a bold step into the world of regulated legitimacy?
California's marijuana industry is changing at breakneck speed. Growers, cops and regulators are all being forced to adapt. Journalists must do the same. After all, new paradigms come with new rules.
But I've always been told it's not so much what you do as how you do it. Would LoCo's posting the lists have been taken differently had the news site reported the hell out of the documents, analyzing the prominent people, political relationships, business models and trends they unearthed within? Would it have helped if the site used a slightly less small-town, voyeuristic teaser on Facebook?
Did LoCo pull a "dick move," as one commenter alleged, or just a journalist move in a decidedly dicky way?
Really, though, there's a bigger question at play here; bigger than LoCo and, yes, bigger even than weed. How do we as journalists make sure that — especially as we cover this shadowy industry coming into the light — we report the news in a way that's honest and direct, but also one that thoughtfully balances the public's thirst and need for knowledge with a modicum of discretion and decency?