Colorado made history in 2012 when it became one of the first states in the nation to legalize recreational marijuana for adults. The Denver Post soon followed suit and became the first major American newspaper to have a marijuana editor. The paper tapped longtime music journalist Ricardo Baca to cover the cannabis beat for its new vertical: The Cannabist.
Having dedicated journalists on the marijuana beat heralded a new era of cannabis coverage. For decades, mainstream media outlets relied on law enforcement sources as drug “experts” who inevitably overstated of the dangers of weed. Lacking expertise, those that covered the occasional pot story would unwittingly advance drug-war propaganda. Then there were the niche, counter-cultural publications like High Times. In the past, no major newsroom found the subject serious or newsworthy enough to dedicate a reporter to the beat, much less an entire team. Now, The Cannabist’s entire editorial staff has been let go.
Building out a cannabis vertical paid off in terms of journalism. Eschewing industry cheerleading that is often found at marijuana publications, The Cannabist filled an important role in keeping the industry accountable. The site exposed the presence of banned pesticides in marijuana products, propelling an investigation from the state Department of Environmental Health. The story prompted deeper analysis of the challenges facing regulators in state marijuana programs. It also resulted in an executive order from the governor, instructing regulators to remove and destroy tainted marijuana.
“[The Cannabist] has cut all editorial staff and will replace them with bots. This is the story of stupid, stupid hedge funds,” tweeted Jake Browne on Friday. Browne was one of the first hires at the site and gained prominence as a strain reviewer, an enviable position for many a cannabis enthusiast.
The latest developments at The Cannabist reflect ongoing controversy with The Denver Post’s ownership, New York-based Alden Global Capital. A round of newsroom layoffs in March prompted the paper’s editorial board to take on its hedge-fund owners in a scathing editorial: “Since Alden took control, the decline of local news has been as obvious as it’s been precipitous,” it read. “The inevitable result is that the reduction in quality leads to a reduction of trust.”
A similar fate awaits The Cannabist. “Content will be aggregated based on what’s tagged ‘marijuana.’ There will be no editorial team to give the site a voice, perspective, or blood. Readers will pick up on this, and it will wither on the vine,” tweeted Browne.
Not, however, if the site’s founding editor can help it. Baca resigned from the publication at the end of 2016 to start Grasslands, a content agency serving the cannabis space. Grasslands is now in early discussions with The Denver Post “about potentially purchasing The Cannabist should they decide to sell it,” according to a press release.
“It’s devastating to have helped create a news and culture site that changed the way so many people, journalists included, talked about marijuana—and to watch it fall apart, especially now that legal cannabis is increasingly becoming the law of the land,” Baca said in a statement.
Baca had built up the vertical to seven full-time staffers in less than two years and grew an audience that surpassed High Times by the time he left. Then, the cuts started coming and didn’t stop until all of the positions were eliminated.
“If The Post’s most recent staff reduction broke my heart, which it unquestionably did, this news about The Cannabist losing its dedicated staff is thoroughly drubbing the rest of my internal organs with a meat tenderizer,” he said.
But not all is lost. What The Denver Post started is continuing in other newsrooms around the country. Earlier this year, The Associated Press announced that it was creating a team of reporters to cover issues surrounding marijuana legalization.
“Now more than ever, we need serious journalists covering these state-legal marijuana markets,” said Baca.