The rise and fall of The Cannabist: Why prohibition outlasted these weed journalism pioneers
The Denver Post’s marijuana journalism site fired its entire staff last month.
Denver Post newspapers await distribution after being printed at the main Denver Newspaper Agency printing facility, where the Denver Post, USA Today, and The Wall Street Journal are printed, in Denver, Colorado, U.S., on Tuesday, March 2, 2010. More publishers are considering charging readers for access to online news to help replace lost revenue as circulation and print advertising continue to decline. Newspapers lost an average 11 percent of daily circulation in the six months ended in September, and advertising revenue for U.S. newspapers fell 28 percent in the third quarter. (Photo by Matthew Staver/Bloomberg via Getty Images
The Cannabist, The Denver Post’s pioneering marijuana journalism site, laid off its full-time employees at the end of April.
The pioneering cannabis news site covered the dawn of legal marijuana in the industry’s most important early market. It launched days before January 1, 2014, when recreational weed went on sale in Colorado.
While it covered cannabis culture, its most important innovation—both to Denverites and to the culture of journalism—was to grasp that marijuana is significant as both an industry and a community issue, worthy of dedicated coverage and attention.
“We weren’t blindly repeating activists and we weren’t repeating prohibitionist propaganda,” says Ricardo Baca, The Cannabist’s former Editor-in-Chief.
The firings came as part of a cost-cutting strategy imposed by Alden Global Capital, a hedge fund which acquired the paper in 2010 and has reportedly run it at high-profit margins while making deep cuts to newsroom staff. The already weakened Denver Post employed roughly 200 journalists when Alden acquired it in 2010 and now employs fewer than 100, with 30 more cuts coming by the summer.
It’s a trend in newsrooms across the country, particularly at legacy newspapers like The Denver Post which are trying to navigate the digital age while turning profits. In January, The Oregonian, the oldest continuously published paper on the West Coast, laid off 11 staffers. The paper’s parent company, Advance Publications, sent shockwaves through the journalism industry when it decided to start publishing The Times-Picayune, New Orleans legacy daily paper, just three days a week to invest more on its website. And last year, amid financial challenges, The Los Angeles Times offered buyouts to a large portion of its staff, citing hardships facing the entire news industry. The examples go on and on.
Digital First Media has followed the same cost-cutting strategy at its other properties as it has at The Denver Post. Alden, the company which owns Digital First, also operates almost 100 other newspapers including The San Jose Mercury News and the Orange County Register, both of which have been gutted.
Baca, who led The Cannabist from its founding in December 2013, called the hedge fund “fucking evil.” Alden president Heath Freeman did not respond to a request for comment.
Baca had been at the Post since the early aughts and was the paper’s music critic for years. He left The Cannabist at the end of 2016 to found cannabis marketing company Grasslands, when it was clear the site didn’t have much of a future.
Before The Cannabist, the marijuana press had consisted largely of legalization advocates pointing out the hypocrisies, racism and cruelties of the war on drugs. And while they weren’t necessarily wrong, it was largely preaching to the choir. By bringing objective reporting to the subject matter, The Cannabist sometimes published stories that were tough on individual actors, but ultimately did a great deal to bring the plant into mainstream American life.
Baca said The Cannabist’s first big scoop came following a tip from a dispensary owner who said 400 customers had returned edibles made by Dr. J’s Hash Infusion, then one of the better-known brands in Colorado. The problem? The edibles appeared not to contain any THC.
“I knew there was no weed in there,” Baca said after testing the product. At the time, Baca had a low tolerance, but after eating a few, “I was completely sober.”
He investigated further and ended up lab-testing 10 different brands, none of which contained as much THC as they promised. But the worst offender was Dr. Js. The story ran on the Post’s front page and “put the industry on notice,” Baca said. The company’s owner accused Baca of trying to sabotage the business. But soon after the piece ran, the company announced it would change its extraction methodology. As far as Baca knows, Dr. J’s is no longer in business.
The Cannabist also published important work on the dry and complex topic of pesticides, raising awareness about the importance of regulating new legal markets and educating consumers on the risks of contaminated cannabis. Colorado has since ordered numerous recalls.
The Post also became the first mainstream American newspaper to ever hire a pot critic, Jake Browne. Of Browne’s many reviews, his favorite was a longer piece on G13, a storied strain rumored to be the output of the federal government’s one sanctioned cannabis farm at the University of Mississippi.
In his years at The Cannabist, Browne said he never had any contact with Alden, the paper’s hedge fund owner. “They kind of approached this as “You guys are making amazing profits for us, what can you do with fewer people?” he said. “That kind of becomes a death sentence.”
Browne is now the managing editor of Sensi Denver, a lifestyle cannabis publication and runs The Grow-Off, a competition where each grower receives the same clone and the resulting plants are evaluated for potency, flavor, and yield.
Alex Pasquariello, a Colorado native who moved back to Denver to replace Baca as editor, called the end of The Cannabist “a great tragedy intertwined with the Denver Post.” He declined to discuss his experience working at the site.
While The Cannabist is knocked out, its strongest advocate, Ricardo Baca, wants to revive it. In early May, he submitted an offer to acquire the site for what he called a “very, very fair price.”
As a person of “pretty modest means,” Baca said he would likely buy The Cannabist in collaboration with partners. While talks are in early stages, he says he has spoken with industry and non-industry investors including three mainstream publications (two major newspapers and a prominent website).
Baca is now in the awkward position of negotiating with The Cannabist’s hedge fund owner while criticizing them loudly “in any platform that will give me the opportunity.”
As someone now marketing for marijuana brands, he wouldn’t be able to make editorial decisions for The Cannabist but could contribute as an advisor or another supporting role.
The hedge fund, Baca said, has not responded to his offer.