High Times played the long game.
For most of its 42-year history, the magazine — a chronicle for stoners around the world — has been an advocate for the legalization of marijuana and a clearinghouse for cannabis culture. It accumulated a counterculture following and published essays and criticism from the likes of Hunter S. Thompson, William S. Burroughs and Charles Bukowski.
So, when states began softening their stances toward pot over the last decade and growers began moving out of their closets, the magazine was ready to capture the increased attention.
In three years, web traffic to High Times' various web properties — Cannabiscup.com, 420.com and the flagship, HighTimes.com — has grown from an average of 2.5 to 3 million monthly unique visitors per month to between 5 and 6 million, said Larry Linietsky, the chief operating officer at High Times.
The growth in audience has been accompanied by an uptick in advertising, he said, with monthly editions regularly featuring as many as 80 pages of advertising. The magazine has increased its headcount to keep pace with the growing demand, adding salespeople, a video unit, a business editor and a social media coordinator.
"Over the last five years, there has been an explosive growth in the industry, with most of it happening on the West Coast: California, Washington, Hawaii and Colorado," Linietsky said. "We have had to meet the need by bringing in more staff onto the West Coast."
High Times did just that this week. On Tuesday, the magazine announced the opening of an office in Los Angeles which will initially be staffed by seven employees — four journalists and three business-side staffers. The news coincides with the hiring of Vice journalist David Bienenstock as head of content and the pending launch of a new, mobile-friendly website.
I took the occasion of High Times' expansion to catch up with Linietsky to see how the magazine is riding the wave of legalization to bring its journalism to a wider audience. The back-and-forth has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Let's start with today's news. Why the expansion to California?
We have to be where the business is. For the first time ever, we have a salesperson in Denver, we have a salesperson in Northern California, we have three people in Southern California. These businesses like to have a relationship-based personal touch. Especially since it's such a nascent business.
And a sensitive one, I would think?
Yes, very. A lot of the people that have been in this business, historically, have been in illegal doings, and now they have converted into legal. That has changed the complexion of the business quite a bit.
With the legalization movement budding all over the country, how are you covering the story?
The states that have allowed for that adult consumption have been booming. We've had a lot cases where our editorial staff will fly, interview people at grow facilities or in stores, which are called dispensaries in this space. Or, they'll find companies that are coming up with technology around this space
So, have you seen an increase in audience to go along with the increase in marijuana use?
Yes. We have. And we also see a seasonal factor, too. Our web properties — and we have three — one of them is HighTimes.com, the second is 420.com, the third is cannabiscup.com, which is our events business, have all grown substantially from a base of about 2.5 million a month to five to 6 million a month, with an especially high month in April.
There's a holiday on April 20, and that's when we really have a spike from the whole industry. Traditional media also covers 420 as a holiday.
High Times also has an extremely popular Instagram feed, with 1.1 million followers and more than 3,000 posts. What do you find works with your brand on Instagram?
I would say memes that have humor about cannabis, as well as features around new products that are in this space. For example, over the last three years, the big winner has been vape pens, which are electronic cigarettes for putting cannabis into, and they're super popular. We do a vape pen review every year where we rate and test and rank them and that has been hugely popular across our web properties and Instagram.
As legalization came to Colorado, the Denver Post launched The Cannabist, a website devoted to covering the growing pot industry. Have any other competitors popped up? How do you distinguish yourself from them?
With us as the leaders in the space, there have been new digital entrants that have come in, like Leafly and Weed Maps and a company called Merry Jane that's run by Snoop Dogg — yes, that Snoop Dogg. Those are three of the newer brands in this space. But they don't have 42 years of authentic and original history. And they're digital-only. So it's different.
We have invested heavily in events where you can actually experience and meet other people in the space, called Cannabis Cups [where participants compete to grow the best weed]. We have built a digital team, and a newsletter, and an Instagram and a Facebook following. All of these things didn't exist in the early days of the magazine. And we have maintained a battery of journalists that focus specifically around the growing of the plant, which I think is really at the core of our editorial.
Has your advertising grown alongside the audience?
As a cannabis-based magazine, we have been almost the only game in town. So, we have over 80 pages of advertising in our magazine, on average. I've been told that rivals September Vogue. Why are we so blessed? Because there aren't a lot of places where you can put a page that features a vape pen or a grow light or cannabis seeds in other magazines. It just wouldn't fit — or you'd just never be able to sell it. Because we are a counterculture media brand that's caught the wave of legalization, we have really been blessed with a lot of pages of advertising.
I would also add that I think — and this is my own personal view — a lot of the people that buy the magazine buy it because they can also see the advertisements, which they would not see elsewhere. It's like a bazaar of the latest new products in pot.
How has business been? Where does most of your revenue come from?
It's a private company, so I'm not going to give you specific numbers, but I will tell you a majority of our revenue is from our events.
No kidding. Our events range from 10,000 people to 50,000 people coming to them on average. And they pay to come, so they're big. We're doing 11 of them this year.
I imagine these events are popular because there are so many people using cannabis in isolation.
Absolutely. It's a place where people can safely learn about Cannabis, be together, celebrate it. And that's rare. We create a safe environment for what I would consider to be like-minded individuals
Has the magazine retained its countercultural identity as marijuana has gone mainstream?
I have tried to make sure that, as we continue to evolve, there hasn't been a revolution in the brand message at all. It's always been about preserving the right for people all over the world to utilize this plant for medicinal and recreational purposes and supporting that legalization from the very beginning. And, fortunately, we've been on the correct side from the very beginning and now the state government is catching up.
The founders aren't around anymore, because they have both passed away. But their siblings and their heirs are around. When you talk to them, they say that when the founders created this magazine, they never imagined a day when it would actually be legal. So society came around to where we were, as opposed to us coming around to where society is.
Correction: A previous version of this story said High Times' office would be staffed by seven new employees. In fact, the employees were hired before today's announcement.