October 16, 2018

The growing cannabis industry is making for some interesting professional shifts in the media sphere, especially as Canada moves to legalization this week. 

Lots needs to be covered, but the established news media, including state and national newspapers, largely don’t have the resources to cover the marijuana industry in detail.

This lack of in-depth coverage comes in the context of long-running lifestyle and pro-legalization publications, such as High Times, seeing an influx of attention (and money).

This vacuum in hard coverage has led to a media opportunity, as journalists seek to carve a name for themselves and become ears-to-the-ground in the burgeoning industry. It involves publicly listing “cannabis” or “marijuana” as their beats.

RELATED TRAINING: Covering Cannabis

As a new, legitimate industry, it needs coverage. However, the Trump administration has made no moves toward legalizing the substance on the federal level.

Cannabis thus remains classified by the U.S. federal government as a Schedule 1 substance, on par with the likes of heroin.

It makes for some amount of professional dissonance for those who cover the drug as a consumer product. What kinds of difficulties, professionally and personally, are those covering cannabis encountering? 

Chasing the green rush

“(Cannabis coverage) happened for me a little bit further along, professionally. My last job was as news editor as Salon,” said Alex Halperin, a dedicated cannabis industry reporter.

A freelancer for The Guardian, Halperin is also editor of Los Angeles-based WeedWeek.net, which consists of a news website, popular weekly newsletter and podcast.

In November 2014, Halperin  went to the industry’s big conference, MJBizCon, which is in Las Vegas every year. “I realized this was a really big deal and nobody was covering it,” he said.

He moved to Denver a few months later and started WeedWeek in the summer of 2015.

Despite having moved to a state that had legalized recreational cannabis, it hasn’t been all smooth sailing for Halperin. The practical issues that the cannabis industry has experienced with cashflow have seemingly seeped over into the media realm — even among unaffiliated outlets. Halperin has struggled.

“I’ve had payment systems shut down on me — at least two. I can’t get too specific, because I don’t want to have to deal with more shutdowns.”

While Halperin said he has struggled with financial services, the impact of a name like “WeedWeek”’ is undeniable. As a weekly newsletter that covers the cannabis industry, it’s about as succinct a title as you could hope for. “I think it’s a good name,” he said.

He said his outlet aims to provide coverage without blurring the lines with sponsored content or outright advocacy. These murky connections would be big no-nos in the old-school media sphere, but it’s a practice Halperin points out as an issue within the dedicated cannabis media.

“At WeedWeek, we try to work with the established approaches of traditional media,” he said. “We’re a small shop, but our editorial staff don’t do sales.

“Our coverage is independent of who is advertising with us. For a lot of the cannabis media, that’s not the case. Sometimes, the subjects of articles will literally be paying for the coverage. It’s sponsored content, but not labelled as such, or the article only exists because the company bought a sizable chunk of advertising.”

For Halperin, the challenge is pushing forward without the financial support of that cozy relationship. He said he’s confident the sector contains more than enough compelling stories to power the outlet.

“It’s an aggressive industry, and some people say it’s predatory, but it touches on all of the major fault lines in American life. It is under-reported.”

Not volunteering any red flags

New York-based cannabis journalist and Forbes contributor Mona Zhang identified a similar gap in how the flourishing industry is covered. She said she sees similar issues in the media sphere.

“I would say that the overall quality isn’t there yet (with cannabis coverage),” she said. “I don’t want to name specific publications, but for cannabis publications, there can sometimes be a lack of journalistic ethics.”

Conversely, she pointed out that for mainstream publications, there is still a habit of quoting substance abuse experts, or law enforcement officials. “There’s this idea that they still need something negative for balance.”

She got started covering the cannabis industry after noticing a lack of reporting as the first U.S. states began to legalize, so she decided to take it on as a topic of special interest.

“I’ve been reporting on cannabis since about 2015,” she said. “Freelance journalism isn’t a very lucrative type of work. Now, I’m in a position where I actually have to turn down work, which is a nice position to be in. A lot of publications are really hungry for cannabis coverage.”

Zhang is the creator of Word on the Tree, a dedicated cannabis news outlet. Like WeedWeek, the site makes use of the popular newsletter format, but on a daily basis.

Her outlet’s name happens to lack any direct reference to an established cannabis term. She said she didn’t experience any of the same kinds of operational problems.

“There’s nothing specifically there that makes it stand out (as a cannabis publication). I didn’t have any problems getting a bank account opened for it.”

For Zhang, it’s a case of not trumpeting your beat to officials who might cause problems.

On a recent trip abroad, which involved attending and speaking at a cannabis-related convention, she described the purpose of her trip as attending the overall event that included the convention.

That event name didn’t include the word “cannabis.”

She made the trip and delivered her talk with no issues.  

Borderline tension

Jesse Staniforth, a journalist based in Montreal, covers a number of issues and topics, including cannabis for Leafly and Herb.co. Not being tied to any one issue, he’s not keen to describe himself as a “cannabis journalist.”

"The policy and legislation is what I’m excited about," he said. "When you’re a reporter, you want to see stories, and this is just story after story.”

For Staniforth, it was a once-in-a-generation opportunity to watch the gears of the system adjust to something it previously rejected.

“I’m just happy to write stories about the many splendors of something illegal becoming legal, and all the fantastic and ridiculous things that happen when that occurs.

“As far as I know, I am not profiting from cannabis, no more than somebody who reports on health is profiting from illness. I just report on what’s going on.”

Similar to Zhang, Staniforth said he has found that not volunteering unhelpful information is the best course of action. Being truthful to the nature of his work as a journalist with numerous topics of coverage plays into that.

“I’m going to write about a dozen things this week. Why would I tell them about the one thing that’s going to cause me trouble?”

Why do it?

The payoff for these media professionals seems to be substantive.

WeedWeek has expanded to Canada and shortly will have a California-specific offering. It will also be re-launching its hosted podcast in the coming weeks. Zhang is clear that WordontheTree.com has contributed to what she describes as an abundance of work.  

Furthermore, while there can be operational struggles in setting up cannabis-related outlets and delicate situations at borders, none of the individuals interviewed have suffered any major professional fallout.

They’ve entered a space where a lot needs to be covered.

“I think a lot of young journalists coming into this will be coming in without a prohibitionist mindset,” noted Zhang. She encouraged new journalists to look at the substance alongside another controlled but socially accepted drug — alcohol— and see if the same standards are being applied. She points to some of the recent negative coverage on cannabis concentrates as a good example.

“If you take alcohol for example, and I’m not saying that the two substances are the exact same in that regard, but this was an article on, for example, a new way to distill whiskey, there wouldn’t be those concerns there.”

For Halperin, more good journalists in the sector can only be a good thing. Getting more coverage will ultimately help the unreported aspects of the industry come to light.

“Right now, we’ve seen some revived energy and interest in journalism during the Trump administration, but that doesn’t necessarily apply to the cannabis industry. It may not be the most urgent story happening now, but that doesn’t mean it’s not an important story or a unique story.”

“I would just say, come do it! It is a drug and has goofy elements, but it’s a real industry. There are so many great stories.”

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