Meet the ‘world’s only full-time hemp reporter’— right here in Colorado

News readers in Colorado might recognize the name Kristen Wyatt, who wrote for The Associated Press for 17 years— her last seven as Colorado’s statehouse reporter.

But she recently got married, and now goes by Kristen Nichols. And she underwent more than just a byline reinvention, too. She left the AP for Marijuana Business Daily where she is, she says, the world’s only full-time reporter covering the hemp industry in a state responsible for half the nation’s hemp trade. In the past couple months, she’s written about New Mexico’s infant hemp law, how North Carolina is welcoming the hemp industry, and how hemp growers are getting help in a battle against pests. When retailer Target started selling and then backed away from selling Cannabidiol products (a cannabis compound that’s federally illegal and often used to treat illness, but doesn’t get people high), Nichols was all over it.

I recently caught up with Nichols (neé Wyatt) about her transition from being a straight-laced AP scribe with a desk at the Capitol to a marijuana-slash-business-slash-agricultural reporter for a pot trade publication and about her life on the new beat. Our conversation has been edited for clarity.

Your Twitter byline says you’re “literally the world’s only full-time hemp reporter.” You’re a former AP reporter so I take it that’s been fact-checked?

Nichols: [Laughs] Of course. No. To my knowledge, I am. I left AP to kind of start more hemp coverage for Marijuana Business Daily. There are activists who write a lot about hemp. There are full-time professional marijuana reporters who do a lot of great work on hemp but they also cover marijuana and other things. As far as I know and can tell, there’s not anywhere in the trade press or the consumer-facing mainstream press anybody that does nothing but hemp coverage. There is limited coverage of hemp whether you’re looking at agriculture journals, those kinds of for-farmer publications, or there are lots of publications for the marijuana industry but nobody who does all hemp all the time.

When I hear ‘hemp’ I immediately think of those necklaces sold at Spencer’s gifts in the ’90s with clay mushrooms in them. Or a rope. What is it?

Hemp and marijuana are the same plant grown differently. They are both cannabis sativa. Let’s say you have a field of pot. It will, over time, naturally turn into hemp. If you do certain things to cannabis sativa … to hemp, it produces these buds that are strong in THC, which is marijuana. It’s all the same thing. At the same time, hemp growing is legal. The feds told all the states in 2014 you can grow hemp with permission as a pilot project from your state department of agriculture. That is the beginning and the end of the guidance. It didn’t tell states what that had to look like … what they could allow. So we have this huge rainbow and patchwork of states. We’re in Colorado, which grows about half the nation’s hemp crop right now. It’s pretty loosey-goosey, you can pretty much do anything you want with it. In other states, you can only make soap and rope out of it. Other states you have to be on university property and growing it in that limited way. And states disagree dramatically about what kinds of hemp are legal and when it becomes pot. So if you’re a business and you’re operating and planning any kind of business plan you’ve got to really look at what different states allow, and states can change their minds three times a week whether they consider your product legal or illegal. So it’s really the early, days, I would say, for hemp.

How do you describe Marijuana Business Daily? 

It is the biggest industry trade publication [for marijuana]. It’s business-to-business news. It’s not consumer facing. It’s really like any other trade publication, like Denver Business Journal, but only about one industry. I like it so you can wonk out on things that might not be interesting to most people, like new business regulation, changes to tax code, super nerdy policy stuff that I like to read and write about but I know isn’t interesting to Joe Consumer, because most people don’t use pot. You always had to keep that in mind when you’re writing for a general interest publication, but now I’m writing for a very, very, not-general audience so I can kind of be more of a geek.

How would you say you approach the journalism differently than you might at the AP?

You don’t have to find in every story the opposing voice, or what I call the cranky mom. When you’re writing about marijuana for a general audience there’s always a cranky mom or cranky dad somewhere in the story who is concerned about whatever is happening— legalization, they’re concerned about pot clubs, they’re concerned about kids all getting high in school or people losing their jobs. That person is in every story. When you’re writing for the industry you don’t need the cranky mom in every story.

Are you an advocate for the industry?

It’s definitely a different perspective. I don’t think that you actively advocate in stories what policies should be because what businesses need is really straight-laced information. At the same time, it is a trade publication that supports that it should be a legal trade. It’s different than other marijuana publications where you have a lot of activists who are trying to persuade readers. There’s nothing like that here, but at the same time it is definitely coming from a perspective that we’re writing for people who do business here, we consider this a legal business and it’s presumed that it should be a legal business.

What has been bizarre has been who calls you back when you work for a big media operation versus who calls you back when the first word out of your mouth is marijuana. It’s hard to say We’re a trade publication, we’re not advocates but also we are in the industry somewhat. We’re kind of in the pot business, so a lot of folks don’t call you back. Academics don’t necessarily call you back, or they’ll call you back and say, “I didn’t want to call you from my business phone.”

Working for the AP is pretty close to the top of the journalism food chain aspirationally. Why’d you bolt a union job at 40 after being there 17 years?

I felt for myself kind of philosophically I’m about halfway through my working life. If I don’t leave I’m just never going to. [I thought] it’s OK, I could probably ride this sinking ship out for another 20 years until it’s time to retire but if I ever want to do anything else I should just go. I never had a grand career plan, but it seemed like a cool opportunity and a cool time to try something new.

Kristen Nichols, everyone. On the hemp beat for us here in Colorado.

Why a small nonprofit news site is suing Delta County government

The Delta County Citizen Report, which bills itself as “an apolitical, nonprofit media organization” in the western part of Colorado near Grand Junction, says it has filed a lawsuit against the Delta County Board of County Commissioners “alleging violations of state statutes designed to promote transparency in government.”

From the site:

On behalf of DCCR, attorney Michael King with Gunnison Law and Mediation filed a complaint and motion for permanent injunction in District 7 Court today citing routine practices of the Board of County Commissioners that violate Sunshine Law and the Local Government Budget Law of Colorado.

You can read the complaint here. The group has also launched a fundraising campaign for its legal expenses. This was the first I’d heard of what looks like a small operation, which says it has, for a little over a year, “blogged on County Commissioner public meetings, county projects, county development plans, county policies, and county budget and finance.” The goal, the site says, “is to help ensure that county government is properly serving all Delta County residents and its objective is to promote a transparent, responsive and engaged county government.”

A preview of group’s lawsuit got a write-up in The Grand Junction Daily Sentinel, which reported the county government said the site “misread, misinterpreted, and misapplied state open-meeting laws and state budget requirements,” when the county responded to a formal budget complaint against the county last month.

A former Greeley Tribune reporter wrote a book about a haunting story he covered— 40 years ago

Mike Peters, a longtime reporter for The Greeley Tribune who retired about six years ago, has penned a true crime book called The Cornfield based on the 1977 murder of a young woman in Weld County that wasn’t solved until 2010. Peters covered the story for the newspaper 40 years ago— and again in 2010 when the local sheriff solved the case with DNA evidence.

From The Tribune this week:

The story unfolded with some wild twists and turns from the beginning. Two brothers, John and Jesse Batista, had just been paroled to Greeley before Pierce disappeared. The two had a habit in Utah of abducting women, raping them and leaving them in cornfields — though they had never killed them. Greeley police were sure they had their guys, but there was no evidence that could link to them to the crime. A year after her disappearance, police brought in a psychic, who had proven helpful in many law enforcement cases in the past, even a couple in Colorado. He helped Greeley authorities chart a fascinating trail of how he thought the crime occurred, weaving in and out of county roads in and around Greeley, becoming a central character who commanded three chapters of “The Cornfield.” More than 30 years later, DNA evidence would uncover an unlikely suspect who was in Greeley for just a month when Pierce was killed.

“Peters attempted to write the book several years ago, but he threw it out,” the paper reported. “He just didn’t have enough detail. But after the conviction, local law enforcement allowed the author access to files, photos and old evidence. “It’s such a good feeling to have it finished, to have something done,” Peters told his former paper.

What you missed on the Sunday front pages across Colorado

The Loveland Reporter-Herald did a good job localizing the effect of federal Net Neutrality policy. So did The Boulder Daily CameraThe Greeley Tribune reported how rising groundwater is flooding more area basements each yearThe Longmont Times-Call fronted a holiday miracle for a homeless familyThe Grand Junction Daily Sentinel ran a feature on the rapid growth of charter schoolsThe Steamboat Pilot put the return of International Nordic on its coverSummit Daily reported marijuana sales are down in BreckenridgeThe Gazette published a piece by its editor on General MattisThe Denver Post continued its Colorado Divide series with a look at disappearing rural doctorsThe Durango Herald reported on a 21-year-old school shooter who posed as a studentThe Coloradoan in Fort Collins fronted a profile of local GOP County Commissioner Lew Gaiter who is running for governor.

Colorado newspapers were smart to localize the net neutrality policy 

Two Front Range newspapers did a great job this week using their Sunday front page real estate to localize a looming potential policy change by the FCC about internet regulation.

Here’s The Boulder Daily Camera’s Alex Burness:

Net-neutrality rules bar cable and phone companies from favoring certain websites and apps — such as their own services — and give the FCC more oversight over privacy and the activities of telecom companies. Supporters worry that repealing them would hurt startups and other companies that couldn’t afford to pay a broadband company for faster access to customers. Critics of the rules say that they hurt investment in internet infrastructure and represent too much government involvement in business. Phone and cable companies say the rules aren’t necessary because they already support an open internet. While libertarian and conservative think tanks and telecom trade groups have spoken up against net neutrality, everyday people have been vocal in protesting the rules’ repeal.

Colorado is fertile ground for the debate and to localize coverage given the history of our state-level broadband policy. In 2005, state lawmakers here passed a law saying local municipalities couldn’t create their own broadband. So broadband is an issue local voters have been seeing on their ballots for years.

Here’s The Loveland Reporter-Herald’s Sunday piece by Julia Rentsch capturing that context and citing a local expert, Richard Toftness, who the paper says “has spent more than 35 years in technical management and authored broadband informational site” and “thinks a repeal of net neutrality would be disastrous:”

Toftness said that over 80 percent of the lobbying for Colorado Senate Bill 152, which was passed in 2005 and made it illegal for the state’s municipalities to create their own broadband networks, was funded by Comcast. (Since its passage, dozens of Colorado communities have opted out of Senate Bill 152. In 2015, Loveland voters chose to override the law.)

One of those communities was Fort Collins just last month. In the days before Thursday’s vote to rescind net neutrality, The Coloradoan in Fort Collins had its own piece localizing the issue in a different way. “Consider this paradox,” the paper’s Nick Coltrain reported. “If federal rules protecting net neutrality are rescinded, it could prove a boon to Fort Collins’ municipal broadband efforts.” How? Because if the worst fears of critics of the policy repeal materialize, “it could be a marketing tool for Fort Collins’ planned municipal broadband effort.”

On the day of the vote, The Denver Post rounded up where Colorado’s nine members of Congress stood on the issue. Meanwhile, The Colorado Independent’s editor, Susan Greene, spoke out at a rally against the policy change. “I don’t know if you know this, but reporters don’t do rallies, we cover them, but we don’t rally,” she said. “But today I am rallying because this is not just about my job, for example, this is about the First Amendment. This net neutrality issue is the free speech issue of our time. It’s about a level playing field for your information.” On Friday, six of Colorado’s largest newspapers put the FCC vote to end net neutrality on their front pages.

Here’s CJR on how the loss of net neutrality could affect local news.

The Gazette’s editor traveled to the Mideast with SecDef Mattis and wrote about the general’s press relations

Here’s a dateline you don’t often see accompanying a locally produced newspaper dispatch:  “ABOARD A MILITARY AIRCRAFT.” But that’s where Vince Bzdek, editor of The Gazette in Colorado Springs, reported a Dec. 9 front-page column for the paper about a swing he took through Egypt, Jordan, Pakistan and Kuwait covering U.S. Defence Secretary James Mattis, whom Bzdek describes as an “internationalist in a nationalist administration.”

From the piece:

One of the reasons he doesn’t like much press around, especially when he is with soldiers, is so that he can be himself, talk like a Marine. He got into trouble again in August when he used macho language to urge submariners on in their duty. According to the transcript of a speech he gave at Naval Base Kitsap in Washington, he told sailors they faced the best and worst days of their life ahead. “That means you’re living.” He said. “That means you’re not some pussy sitting on the sidelines. But to see the 67-year-old Mattis in action in the Mideast in his blue blazer and purple tie and thoughtful, scholarly approach to leaders and defense ministers is to see more of the “warrior monk” as he is sometimes called, than “Mad Dog” Mattis, a nickname given to him “on a slow day” by a journalist. The lifelong bachelor often carries a volume of “Meditations” by Marcus Aurelius, the Roman emperor and philosopher, with him on the road from his vast library of 6,000 books.

“Off the plane, the press was mostly sidelined, secondary to the secretary’s central mission of private talks with leaders, a focus that caused not a small amount of grumbling,” Bzdek reported. “Only eight of the 18 seats in the press cabin were filled on the Mideast trip, and he’s taken to including press from beyond the beltway, such as the Christian Broadcasting Network, Breitbart, and of course, The Gazette.”

Here’s more about Mattis and the local press from the column:

Even though the Gazette is a small regional paper, he came over and chatted extensively with me. “I have a lot of respect for your newspaper,” he told me, mentioning, to my astonishment, one Tom Roeder article about soldiers killed in action specifically. “We’re going to have more regional newspapers on these trips.” His emphasis on the little guy throughout his career carries over to the press, apparently. “I see these other guys all the time. They’re a pain in the ass,” he joked aloud about representatives of NBC, AP, Bloomberg and Reuters. CNN, The New York Times, Wall Street Journal and Washington Post were conspicuously absent from the trip.

“Thrilled that he asked a little guy newspaper like @csgazette to come along for the ride,” Bzdek posted on social media.

Meanwhile, Mr. Stensland went to Washington…

Who? No, not Mr. Smith. We’re talking about Matt Stensland of The Steamboat Pilot who covers “crime, courts, breaking news and puppies,” according to his Twitter bio. This week the local reporter filed a dispatch with a “WASHINGTON, DC” dateline.

From the report:

My primary goal for this trip was to visit the capital during a period of heightened social and political unrest and to see an important institution that might disappear. The Newseum museum has been open in Washington since 2008, following the completion of a massive, 250,000-foot building dedicated to documenting the history of journalism.

Later, Stensland wrote that he found himself at a bar in Alexandria, Virginia where he met an attractive older woman who was on a date. “She eventually asked me what I did for work, and I told her I was a journalist,” he wrote. Her response: “Are you afraid to tell people what you do for work?” For Stensland, telling people he was a reporter had never been a concern, he wrote, “but now things are apparently different. I’m still very proud of what I do and of telling people what I do, but that question made me think that maybe I should possibly exercise caution and get to know people a little before I reveal I’m a journo, even though I mainly work in a small ski town.”

Colorado Press Association prez: Just do good work

That’s was the advice of Matt Lubich in the CPA’s quarterly magazine. He’s one who thinks President Donald Trump has done journalism a favor by bringing so much attention to our work. Read more about that here.

Should CO judges be able to seal court files without a uniform secrecy standard?

The state’s preeminent First Amendment attorney Steve Zansberg doesn’t think so. And he’s not being shy about it, despite the State Supreme Court’s recent rejection of the Colorado Freedom of Information Coalition’s call for a uniform standard for how judges decide to seal court records.

From Jeffrey Roberts of the CFOIC:

More than a year ago, the Colorado Freedom of Information Coalition asked the state court system to adopt such a rule, noting that disputes over the closure of records in high-profile criminal cases often focus not just on whether records should be sealed, but on the appropriate legal standard to apply in making that determination. CFOIC President Steve Zansberg, a media law attorney with Ballard Spahr in Denver, proposed a rule modeled after one set by the American Bar Association and previously applied by the Colorado Supreme Court in resolving the closure of a preliminary hearing. But in a one-paragraph letter sent in November, Colorado Court of Appeals Judge John Daniel Dailey told Zansberg that his recommendation had been turned down by the Supreme Court’s Advisory Committee on Rules of Criminal Procedure.

Roberts goes into detail about why such a rule would be important for the press in Colorado and offers some examples of questionable record-sealing in Colorado public-interest cases, like one in the case of the admitted Planned Parenthood shooter. Zansberg told Roberts he finds it “profoundly disappointing” that the Supreme Court advisory committee took so long to consider CFOIC’s proposed rule “without taking up our offer to appear and discuss it with them … Rule-making committees should be well-informed and receptive to hearing from various stakeholders in the criminal justice system.”

Meanwhile, Zansberg is still helpingThe Colorado Independent unseal secret records in a death penalty case.

*This roundup appears a little differently as a published version of a weekly e-mailed newsletter about Colorado local news and media. If you’d like to add your e-mail address for the unabridged versions, please subscribe HERE.

Photo by David J for Creative Commons on Flickr