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The Cannabist in Crisis: Ricardo Baca on the State of Marijuana Journalism

Last week the Denver Post laid off all staff from its groundbreaking marijuana news site The Cannabist. We caught up with the original founder to get the lowdown.

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Photo via Emilybrosious

Last Friday, news hit that the Denver Post would no longer be staffing its groundbreaking weed-centric news vertical, The Cannabist. The decision devastated fans and readers throughout both the cannabis and journalism industries, and hits home especially hard for journalist Ricardo Baca, who founded The Cannabist in 2013. In fewer than two years, Baca had lured more readers to young Cannabist than the veteran High Times website was pulling in, while in less than three years he grew the staff from just himself to a full-time team of seven, including four editorial and three advertising employees.

After Baca resigned from the Denver Post at the end of 2016, however, the cuts began, starting with a general manager advertising position, two Cannabist-focused sales staff, and a Cannabist editorial position. This past April, following news that a third of the Post's employees would be laid off, two Cannabist staffers announced they would leave for other opportunities, and soon after, Cannabist editor-in-chief Alex Pasquariello was informed of more Cannabist cuts, including his own position.

Heartbroken, Baca is pursuing perhaps the one silver lining available: a bid to buy The Cannabist from the Denver Post. MERRY JANE caught up with Baca to find out more about his feelings on the news site he created, as well as his thoughts regarding the state of cannabis journalism at large.

Ricardo Baca; photo courtesy of Grasslands: A Journalism-Minded Agency

MERRY JANE: So from your perspective, what's going on?

Ricardo Baca: The basics are that on Thursday, we got an email from The Cannabist editor Alex Pasquariello with a heads-up that Friday was going to be his last day. He had been let go from the Post, and The Cannabist was no longer staffing employees. That broke us. I started [The Cannabist], built it up from myself to a staff of seven people, from something that didn't exist to something that was beating High Times on the regs. So I found myself thinking of it that night, talked to my friends and a couple investors about if I set out to buy The Cannabist, would they have my back and want to invest? These individuals said absolutely. So that's when we put the word out the next day on Friday...I had a conversation with [Denver Post editor] Lee Ann Colacioppo, told her what's going on, and she told me about what's going on in the newsroom.

The hedge fund that owns the Denver Post is decimating the staff. A Nieman Lab report by Ken Doctor basically talks about how the Denver Post and all the newspapers in the Digital First Media group are making a ton of money and insane profit margins, and instead of taking the average profit margin of 10 percent and reinvesting the rest into the business, this evil hedge fund is taking all this money and not reinvesting it into the business. It's continuing to make severely detrimental cuts, even though the businesses are profitable. So that's why we don't have a fully staffed Cannabist.

So if they have the money, why are they making cuts?

There is no point; the cuts are not needed. But these people are cutting regardless, it shows how ruthless these vulture capitalists are. This is unprecedented, there has never been a blood letting that rivals Digital First Media...a lot of this has been reported. The news is that I am sending a letter of intent to the Denver Post with a formal offer, but I still don't know how that will be received. I'm in this odd position. Now I'm ultimately trying to buy the site I created from a hedge fund that I've publicly called out a number of times, and which I will continue to call out because this hedge fund is the worst possible ownership for the Denver Post, and I care about journalism. I wrote an editorial column that called out the hedge fund for being vultures, for being heartless, for being ruthless, so will the hedge fund want to sell this to me? I don't know, but that's the rub.

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What happened when you announced your plans to buy The Cannabist?

We put out the release, "Hey we're interested in trying to make this happen," and then we were flooded with more calls from potential investors. The more the merrier. Whereas I knew a couple friends would be interested in supporting this effort, I'm finding more and more people coming out saying "The Cannabist was meaningful to me, I would love to be part of a group that takes it back and to continue giving to quality information and legitimate journalism for years to come." There are a couple directions we could go, maybe it's approaching this using [cannabis] industry money, or approaching this using non-industry money. We're talking to a number of established media outlets about their potential interest, plopping The Cannabist to [another] daily newspaper.

The Cannabist still exists, at thecannabist.co. Only, instead of being a product of the Denver Post, it could be a product of [a different] media outlet. The small bit of news that's interesting is that I’m finally in better contact with the business side of the Denver Post. They asked me for a letter of intent; I made an offer. I guess we're starting to talk numbers now. They basically emailed back and said they don't discuss mergers and acquisitions, but they welcomed a letter of intent and we're drawing one up and probably will have one over to them by [this week].

So where do you see the future of cannabis journalism going? Do you think it will veer toward more cannabis-specific outlets, or toward mainstream publications with quality cannabis coverage?

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I think it's clear to everyone that journalism is under attack, and as a result, cannabis journalism is absolutely under attack right now. You can't look at everything that's happening across the slate comprehensively and think that cannabis journalism is healthy.

There are certainly some bright spots without a doubt: What Leafly is doing is really fantastic, I'm a fan, and I love MERRY JANE. Marijuana Business Daily gets better and better, and some of the work coming out of the L.A. Times is fantastic. Tom Angell [publisher of Marijuana Moment] is killing it, so is Mona Zhang at Forbes. And there's a proliferation of good magazines, whether we're talking about Cannabis Now, MG, Sensi, or any number of outlets. But at the same time, cannabis journalism, especially with a capital J, is getting cut like at The Cannabist. David Downs is no longer at GreenState [the San Francisco Chronicle’s cannabis vertical], and he started it. [He’s a] true legend in this space alone as one of the first people to apply journalistic principles to cannabis reporting to not just erase the stigma, but to spread quality journalism. This certainly affects everybody.

We're seeing the cannabis industry advertising more, with greater funding heading to cannabis publications. Do you think that compromises a publication's ability to remain unbiased?

There's no problem with that whatsoever. There are cannabis-specific outlets, as well as mainstream media that should all take responsible advertising from the cannabis industry without a doubt. In various state-regulated markets, everyone has their own rules regarding advertising. If someone is abiding by these rules, which of course are highly regulated, and based off experience and bad moves from the tobacco industry, then these publications should feel comfortable taking advertisements from the industry.

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As I've said a number of times before, my goal with The Cannabist — distilled into one sentence — was to create something that avoided the blind activism of High Times and completely ditched the prohibitionist Drug War narratives that had been reported so many times before in mainstream media outlets. I wanted to find a modern middle ground that was more representative of what we know and don't know, taking journalism into account, holding the industry and regulators accountable. This decline in cannabis journalism is coming at the complete wrong time. This is the most important era in the history of legalization to date. We need more people on the ground covering the implementation of California and Canada than we've ever had, and instead we have less. I wouldn't say there isn't good work being done, but there's just not enough of it.

Why do you think cannabis journalism is facing these kinds of setbacks at a time when cannabis is gaining momentum in popular opinion and legal reform? Is it all due to the nature of the content itself, or simply indicative of the brutal cost-cutting and ownership challenges faced by contemporary news media at large?

I think it's a little bit of both. I think without a doubt newspapers are under fire. Most newspapers are struggling just because of the business model. They're trying to make this old school business model work in 2018. On the flip side, I would argue that this is in part a result of normalization. If we go back in the time machine to 2013, the public was so hungry for [cannabis] journalism — think about how new and unique it was. In late 2013, when I was appointed marijuana editor, that was one year after Colorado and Washington said yes to adult use [of cannabis]; it was one month before sales were to start in Colorado. This was still fucking crazy, but ultimately that was almost five years ago now. We've been living with the reality of legal adult-use cannabis since that election in November 2012. Even things that are groundbreaking and first of their kind and historic eventually become normal.

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Of course, this is great news for legalization activists. This is a result of cannabis becoming boring. It's legal, now what? And these conversations that are happening in state houses and city councils, while they're still infinitely interesting, aren't as compelling and attention-grabbing as those conversations were in 2012, '13, and '14. So inevitably, people are less interested in a lot of this [news], but at the same time, we're starting to see adult-use [cannabis] more and more becoming the law of the land from state to state.

If mainstream papers are losing their appetite for cannabis-centered verticals, do you think new media outlets purely focused on cannabis can stay objective enough to sufficiently inform the public? Cannabis outlets also face their own challenges, like attracting non-marijuana advertisers, restrictions or censorship of their content on social platforms, navigating evolving regulations for cannabis advertising and live events in legal states, as well as establishing editorial independence while depending on increasingly sparse corporate ad dollars.

So the root of the question is, in absence of these dailies making these pushes, can cannabis-specific online verticals thrive and produce meaningful content? I'm positive that they can, that these standalone cannabis-centric online verticals can produce meaningful journalism that covers all sides of the spectrum, but it's challenging, too, because the media industry is hard. It's in a tougher place than it's arguably ever been in 2018, and now to make a profitable website or magazine, a lot goes into that. And if you start holding the industry accountable and writing about its misgivings and failures, then that could very well impact your bottom line.

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That said, I think some of these outlets are showing that it is a legitimate, viable business model: the work you see coming out of Leafly News in particular is a good sign because they're owned by a weed-adjacent fund, and yet they're doing solid journalism. Is Leafly advocacy journalism? At times probably, but are they also producing legitimate journalism and writing on stories that aren't necessarily good news for the industry? They're doing that, too.

What advice would you give to current or aspiring journalists who wish to focus on the cannabis beat? Can this track really be a sustainable career?

The advice I would tell any aspiring journalist who wants to write about this subject matter is to go in with their eyes wide open and [to produce work] that accomplishes a multitude of goals. Journalism isn't known as a high-paying career, but it's known as an incredibly gratifying career. Be aware of existing challenges and come in with your own ideas. You'll need to bring a lot of skills to the table to make this work.

If you approach it with your eyes wide open and you're looking around at a state-regulated market, you'll recognize that there are thousands of stories dying to be told right now. Here we have a substance that's regulated at the state level; there are different stories to be done in different state markets. Stories that have been done in regulated markets have been impactful, like testing concentrates for chemicals, or edibles for potency. These stories need to be replicated in every state market.

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How do you see the debate around legalization, particularly at the federal level, being affected by a potential decline in quality, objective cannabis journalism?

I think the fewer journalists we have on the beat, the worse we are as a public, as a community. The fewer cannabis journalists, the worse off everyone is, including voters. Journalists represent the fourth estate. So much of their job is to break down the complexities of business, of politics, of government, and of industry for readers in a digestible way ideally representing all sides involved. And the more we don't have that, the more out of control democracy gets. Of course, it's a tagline for the Washington Post: “Democracy dies in darkness.” Democracy is dying without journalism — this is not good news for the public, whether we're talking about state politics or federal politics, this is just terrible news for an engaged citizenry.

And on this subject matter especially, when we have so much education yet ahead of us, I've viewed The Cannabist and my work there as giving the public quality information because we'd been fed garbage. So let's get quality information out there, [such as that] cannabis isn't a gateway drug. The decline of serious journalists covering cannabis isn't helping the cause of getting good information out into the world, but I think there's still plenty of progress and momentum in the political arena, as we have top congressional lawmakers, instead of junior senators, [now] putting forward bills to decriminalize cannabis.

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