DENVER — In April, Denver Post staffers poked their heads into a airstream trailer by the backdoor of the newsroom and were greeted by an unusual sight.
The smell of marijuana lingered in the air as the leaders of Colorado's emerging cannabis industry passed around business cards — and joints — in a networking event held by the newspaper.
"It was great," said Ricardo Baca, who emceed the event (held on April 20). "Everybody knew everybody...networking, passing around business cards, saying 'oh, you keep the rest of that joint.'"
Most journalists wouldn't be caught dead anywhere near marijuana during normal work hours. But it was just another day on the job for Baca, a former entertainment editor at The Denver Post who's built one of America's leading marijuana websites from scratch amid a wave of legalization sweeping the country.
Baca (who refrains from consuming marijuana during work hours) is the founding editor of The Cannabist, a website that launched in December 2013, just three days before legal marijuana sales began in Colorado. In the years since, Baca and his tiny staff have grown the website into a fully fledged multi-platform vertical that competes with some of the biggest names in cannabis coverage — High Times, Leafly and Merry Jane. In July, The Cannabist drew 732,000 unique visitors, less than 150,000 uniques behind industry leader High Times.
So, what's his secret? The Cannabist has obviously benefitted from increased interest in marijuana-focused media since several states — including Alaska, Colorado, Oregon and Washington — have permitted recreational use of marijuana. But Baca says The Cannabist has also distinguished itself with its coverage approach — down the middle, traditional reporting that doesn't masquerade as advocacy.
On a beat that gets its fair share of gauzy coverage from trade publications, The Cannabist has pulled no punches, reporting on banned pesticides used by Colorado cultivators, overdoses and drug busts. But they've also provided service coverage, too, helping readers make strawberries dipped with cannabis-infused chocolate, for example, or helping children talk to their parents about using marijuana.
The bottom-line goal is bringing serious journalistic gravitas to a major national story, Baca said.
"We weren't really the first, but I think we were the first to throw these kind of resources and approaching it from a perspective of journalism, not activism," said Baca, who sat down with Poynter before a session at the annual Online News Association conference.
That's paid dividends for The Post, which actually editorialized against the passage of Amendment 64, the measure that legalized recreational marijuana in 2012. Since The Cannabist launched, The Post has added a general manager position on the business side and an ad sales executive dedicated to monetizing the website's coverage.
The site has also added a full-time staffer, a business writer from The Post. It also added a part-time producer on top of the producer the site started with. Those additions are a sign The Post is committed to investing in The Cannabist amid a period of increased advertising for marijuana-related products.
The site publishes between six and 10 stories per day. But The Cannabist has the luxury of publishing content from The Denver Post's parent company, Digital First Media, which has newspapers in states that have plentiful news about recreational and medical marijuana. It also serves as a clearinghouse for wire stories related to marijuana, which helps keep the site current.
"We very much consider ourselves a national site," Baca said. "We don't have a local focus. We're covering where it's legal, where these legalization conversations are happening."
Like most news organizations, The Cannabist is thinking beyond its website. Baca just finished recording the 78th episode of The Cannibist Show, a podcast that gets between 2,500 and 5,000 plays per week. The site is now starting to find sponsors for the podcast, which features conversations with industry experts and regulators. Regular features on the podcast include "The Week in Weed" and a light-hearted segment about the various insider-y terms used by those in the know.
Throughout his tenure as editor, Baca says he's been open about the fact that he's a regular user of marijuana and says his firsthand experience makes him a better journalist.
"This is a very discerning demographic," Baca said. "A readership that cares. I knew there was no fooling them, and I didn't want to even attempt to play coy with the early questions of, 'Do you ingest?' 'Do you consume?'"
The growth at The Cannabist has coincided with a difficult period at The Denver Post, which hasn't been immune from the staffing cuts that have afflicted regional newspapers across the United States. In June, the paper underwent a round of layoffs, the latest in a series of cuts that dramatically reduced the size of the newsroom over the course of a year.
It's been hard for everyone to watch those cuts, even as The Cannabist makes the most of its small team, Baca said. But, like the rest of the newsroom, he's planning to forge ahead and focus on expanding his reach and influence.
"We're a very tight-knit newsroom," Baca said. "I work with some of the brightest people in the industry, and everyone's working their ass off after the buyouts."