How do you get college students interested in public affairs reporting? Central Washington University (CWU) journalism professor Cynthia Mitchell did it by making her COM 308 course all about marijuana legalization.
“It really has seemed to capture the students’ attention,” she says. “I’m getting far better stories than I normally do, and they seem far more engaged. So it’s going great, and we plan to continue” after this quarter, which ends next Thursday.
Students cover city and county government, business and economic development, public safety and other beats – all with a focus on recreational pot.
“We literally cooked up this idea the week classes started,” Mitchell writes in an email. “We’re at this amazing juncture in history and right smack dab in the middle of it — everyone’s eyes are on Washington and Colorado. As other states fall – or as it all goes south with a Republican president – we think journalists who are smart about marijuana legalization issues will be in high demand. (Ugh, I really didn’t intend that pun!) So it just makes so much sense to pursue it as an area of specialization for our student journalists.”
Word about the revamped COM 308 spread quickly around campus at the start of this semester.
“On the first day of class, one student sent a text message about the class to a friend, who happened to be playing at a local golf course,” CWU journalism lecturer Stephen Woodward tells me. (He came up with the idea of a marijuana-focused course, I’m told.) “The friend abandoned his game, rushed across town and got to class in time to enroll.”
Mitchell, who worked at the Wall Street Journal and Atlanta Journal-Constitution before going into academia, says:
The class has all been commanded to sleep with [Washington Marijuana Initiative] I-502 and the Liquor Control Board’s FAQs under their pillows, and we all subscribe to The Denver Post’s Cannabist website and to the Seattle Post-Intelligencer’s pot blog. We also start nearly every class by chatting about what people have learned about legalization from working their beats and from scouring the web.
Each week we tackle a different public affairs beat. Monday’s are a lecture from me and a Skype session with a beat reporter, Tuesdays are usually a field trip, and Thursdays are for in-class writing exercises on those beats.
The class is responsible for the CWU Observer’s “EverGreen Scene” page, one of the weekly paper’s most popular features, according to Mitchell.
“EverGreen Scene,” she says, has had “an impressive run of serious stories, which I think are pretty damn good and could run in a professional paper.
“The next step we’d like to take is creating a website devoted to these stories, with a one- or two-credit practicum attached so as to be able to continue coverage even when the Public Affairs Reporting class isn’t being taught.”
J-lecturer Woodward, a former Oregonian reporter, adds: “Cynthia and I are thinking way beyond a single course. As the rest of the nation contemplates the future of recreational and medicinal marijuana, we anticipate a growing demand – no pun intended – for journalists with serious expertise in the complexities of the marijuana industry.”