The rise, fall and possible rebirth of The Cannabist, once the darling of the cannabis media industry

June 15, 2018
Category: Business & Work

Ricardo Baca was at his desk in the heart of The Denver Post’s (then) downtown newsroom on Nov. 7, 2016, plotting strategy for what he called “the most significant election in cannabis history.” Nine state initiatives for legalization were on the ballot — including recreational in California and medical in Arkansas, squarely in the Bible Belt.

The Post’s top editor swung by with what she called “good news.” The Cannabist — an ambitious mix of tough, investigative reporting and cannabis strain reviews that had been drawing monthly traffic that topped High Times — would get to convert a part-time producer into a full-time slot.

But to Baca, who’d steered the site to industry and personal fame as editor since its launch in 2013, that wasn’t good news. Far from it. He’d spent the previous two months in serious talks with the executive editor of the San Jose Mercury News, Neil Chase, about taking The Cannabist to California. He and The Cannabist’s new general manager, Brad Bogus, had met with potential additions to the sales team at the Merc. Their plan was to double The Cannabist’s full-time staff to 14 from seven.  

So when Baca got the “good news” of just a few more hours for one employee, he knew he’d have to leave The Post.

“I was pretty broken about it,” Baca said. “I just knew if we weren’t growing the site then the site was going to be shrinking, and I needed to get the hell out of there and do something else.”

By January, Baca was indeed gone. And so started the 16-month decline of The Cannabist. By May 2017, Bogus had been laid off and the site’s two ad salespeople were absorbed back into the general sales pool. While The Post hired a replacement for Baca, the site’s two producers soon followed Baca to the new venture he’d started in March 2017 called Grasslands, a “journalism-minded” public relations and marketing agency.

The coup de grace came this April, when yet another forced round of cuts by Digital First Media’s owner, Alden Capital, gutted The Post’s newsroom from 100 to 70, prompting a front-page newsroom revolt that garnered headlines nationwide.

Gone was the new Cannabist editor, Alex Pasquariello, with the site’s heavyweight reporter, Alicia Wallace, and another staffer already having announced they would be leaving soon.


Related Poynter Training: Covering Cannabis


Not Alden’s call

Post editor Lee Ann Colacioppo said she decided to redeploy The Cannabist’s remaining staff to The Post’s more promising entertainment vertical, The Know. (Ironically, The Know is the latest permutation of a music site, Reverb, that Baca started back when he was the paper’s music editor.)

The Cannabist will continue without a full-time staff, serving more as an aggregator with occasional fresh copy from Post reporters working elsewhere in the newsroom, Colacioppo said.

It was a call she said she made, not Digital First or Alden, though she admits she might have given The Cannabist a bit longer were it not for the incessant budget pressure.

“It’s a hard decision,” she said. “If you build these verticals and they never make a penny, you have to move on. The Cannabist was never profitable — not for one day. Not a penny.”

The Know, on the other hand, “speaks to Colorado readers. It goes right to our core audience,” she said. “It’s a younger audience, a local audience, a loyal audience — all those things The Cannabist never had.”

Coming to that realization, she said, was the culmination of her participation over the past year in Poynter’s Local News Innovation Program. A primary goal she’d set for the yearlong consultation with a media expert was to focus her ever-dwindling resources as directly as possible on her immediate market. And The Cannabist, both she and Baca said, had always derived the majority of its readership from California and elsewhere.

That’s why Colacioppo agrees that the launch of The Cannifornian, a publication that focuses on cannabis in California put together by 25 California-based DFM newspapers, was a turning point.

She, Baca and Chase said the Cannabist deal fell apart when top management in Denver and San Jose couldn’t agree on how to split the site’s revenues or any potential profits. In Denver, they didn’t have to wait long to see the result: The Cannifornian launched the day after the 2016 elections.

On the cusp of profitability?

Vincent Chandler was a producer for Denver Post TV and, because of his involvement with the site’s weekly show, a part-time member of The Cannabist team. The show was taped on a groovy set in the former downtown newsroom complete with shag carpeting, trippy artwork and 60s-style lime-green chairs for Baca and his guests.

Both Chandler and Baca said that the site was only fully staffed at seven employees (three business, four editorial) for 10 months before Baca’s departure, and for five months after.

“We were in cages and every time we would hit against the bars [with new ideas and strategies], we’d grow an inch or two of our cage, but we still had so much bureaucracy to fight,” Chandler said. “We needed a little more time to prove it was worth fighting for.”

Baca, too, felt that 15 months was far from enough time to prove they could be more than revenue neutral.

During the 10 months when Baca and a general manager steered the team of seven, they pushed to make the site a true “vertical” — newsroom parlance for a content-specific website that also seeks synergies such as events and awards. The Cannabist had hosted two 4/20 events in 2015 and 2016. And a little over a week after the election, The Cannabist hosted its second annual industry awards. This time, rather than staking out the Denver Post’s lobby, they’d set up shop in the Las Vegas Eiffel Tower at the industry’s largest annual cannabis convention.

“I was told multiple times by various people [at The Post and DFM] that it was a sustainable site. We were bringing in enough money to pay for our expenses, everything that was directly attached,” Baca said.

“But that didn’t take into consideration the greatest advantage The Cannabist had over its competition — we were in a newsroom that was constantly fueling us with truly valuable copy … We had a reporter at city council, two in the state house, one in D.C., suburban reporters … The totality of all that reporting was truly substantial and meaningful — and nobody was comparable at the time. Not The Seattle Times and certainly not the LA Times.”

If they’d been able to expand into California, Baca believes by now they’d have “boots on the ground” in D.C., on the East Coast and even in Canada, which is expected to soon legalize cannabis nationwide.

But the same journalistic integrity that made The Cannabist special, Baca said, also “ultimately hamstrings a lot of your ability to make money. When you look at [industry publications such as] mg, Leafly, marijuana.com, they’re monetizing content in a way that editorially doesn’t jive with mainstream newspaper ethics policies.”

As for Colacioppo, she does think they gave it a good shot — from trying to sell it locally and nationally to sponsoring events.

“We did go through a whole series of things, and it included putting more and more resources into it,” she said. “The content worked — it did drive traffic … [But] programmatic advertising just wasn’t there for that sector … There wasn’t any consistency.”

Whither The Cannifornian?

Will The Cannifornian suffer the same fate? The newsrooms of The San Jose Mercury News, the crown jewel of the Bay Area News Group, and the Orange County Register, the anchor of the Southern California News Group that DFM added in April of 2016, have both been decimated. They’ve also been moved, just as The Denver Post was, from their high-profile buildings to cheaper real estate.

Brooke Edwards Staggs, The Cannifornian’s anchor reporter who steers the site’s editorial side out of the Register, said in an email that nothing has changed or is slated to, at least that she knows of. She continues to frequently post cannabis stories. So does Will Houston, who covers cannabis for the Eureka Times-Standard in Humboldt County, and Lisa Krieger, a science reporter for The Merc.

The main advertiser on the site is Weedmaps, a service for finding dispensaries and deliveries, and the National Cannabis Industry Association is listed as a partner.

In a lengthy in-person interview in March, Staggs talked excitedly about a hugely ambitious project she was steering, with input from across the DFM California empire: a pick-your-locality database that sorts out the myriad conflicting laws and even scores them for “leniency” (a high score) or “strictness” (a low score). (California has let each local government decide not only how, but whether to allow legalized recreational marijuana.)

The database debuted in January featuring 10 of the state’s 58 counties. It now includes all 58.

“We’ve never done such a statewide project of such scope,” Staggs said. “I’m really proud of it.”

Requests in March to interview executives at Southern California News Group about its Cannifornian strategy were denied. The site’s advertising and monetization strategy is “something they want to keep close to the vest,” said SCNG Communications Director Eric Morgan.

Chase, the executive editor of The Merc/Bay Area News Group, said no one on the business side will talk because “there is no strategy. There’s nothing for them to talk about.”

The site has never gotten any advertising or marketing support, he said, and he can’t imagine it will in the future.

Neither he nor Colacioppo, Denver’s executive editor, he said, “have the marketing budget to invest in building a new product. Companies owned by investors who are not looking to the future don’t generally invest in new products.”

While he and Baca had pushed in 2016 for The Cannabist to expand its staff and expand into California, once that was nixed, he said, he hasn’t more recently pushed for DFM or its owner Alden to more fully support The Cannifornian.

“Where would you make that argument?” he asked.

He pointed out that, since March alone, besides the 30 journalists laid off in Denver, 100 journalists had been laid off by Southern California News Group, and another 55 from the Bay Area News Group. (At one point, he said, the Bay Area papers employed more than 1,000 journalists and now employ a mere 150.)

“And that’s just the latest cuts,” he said.

At this point, he thinks The Cannifornian exists solely because Staggs has managed to keep her job — and she also has other reporting duties.

“When you look at the future of The Cannifornian, it’s just sitting there,” Chase said. “The traffic is low, the revenue is zero, the occasional cannabis story gets put up there, but it’s not a product … If something were to change, that change would have happened long ago. The thing never had a full-time, dedicated staff and got off the ground … You can only go so far with local initiatives that don’t have corporate support.”

In the end, he said, “our mission is to try to figure out how to keep journalism going in large metro areas.” Especially with new news startups in Long Beach and in Denver, he knows they’ll continue to lose the few remaining journalists they still have — not to mention the likelihood that DFM and Alden will force further cuts. “Whether or not to keep owning the [Cannabist or Cannifornian] trademark seems trivial.”

Staggs loves what she does and hopes she can continue, but she’s well aware of the challenges. If The Cannifornian is still around in five years, she said she figures it will be more tilted to the business side on one end and the cultural side on the other.

“Because the news of it — not that that’s going away — but we don’t have a dedicated alcohol site, it’s just become a part of life,” she said. “But we do have reporters who write about the alcohol industry and who write restaurant reviews.”

The Cannabist’s Possible Rebirth?

As soon as the news broke on April 27 that The Cannabist had been gutted, Baca started rustling up potential investors to buy it back.

Baca said that he has “three different buckets” of interested investors. One consists of investors from the cannabis industry, another is non-industry investors and the third involves major media players. Baca wouldn’t say who, but said he’d gotten interest from a top 10 U.S. newspaper, a top 10 Canadian newspaper, and a top digital outlet.

Baca said he would be a minority investor and more of its “public face.” Given his current leg in the industry with Grasslands, he’d likely serve as the site’s publisher, rather than its editor.

Baca first submitted an offer, then an official letter of intent, to Denver Post CFO Justin Mock, but has yet to hear anything from Mock beyond acknowledging he’d received it. Colacioppo also said it was her understanding that Baca wasn’t the only one with an offer on the table. Mock didn’t return emails and phone calls seeking comment, nor did Michael Koren, Digital First Media’s CFO.

Baca said he can’t imagine he’d be Alden’s first choice.

“Every time someone puts a mic in front of my face, I will talk shit about this hedge fund,” he said. One of his most pointed digs was to blast Alden chief Heath Freeman as “a vulture capitalist whose Nixonian legacy will involve the attempted murder of local American journalism,” which he wrote in an editorial the day of The Denver Post’s front-page revolt.

“But at the same time,” he said, “I’ve already got an offer in front of them. I couldn’t not try.

“My hope is they sell The Cannabist, because I believe in this brand and I know how important it is to this industry,” Baca said. “Whether it’s me or somebody else, I’m totally OK with that. I just need it to continue to exist and to exist and thrive and do important work.”

Chase, for one, hopes Baca succeeds — and that he can get The Cannifornian as well.