Medical and recreational cannabis laws have been changing across the country since California legalized cannabis for medical use in 1996. Despite the growing acceptance of marijuana and an increasing number of cannabis consumers nationwide, mainstream media outlets have been hesitant to cover relevant cannabis news. Occasionally, readers might find an article about an exceptional story related to the booming legal cannabis industry in news outlets like Fortune, the Washington Post or USA Today, and once in a blue moon we might discover a story on CBS or CNN highlighting the miraculous wonders of cannabis for pediatric epilepsy. However, most cannabis news and information is left to cannabis culture magazines like High Times, which dominated the ganja counterculture scene for decades, and alternative news sites like Leafbuyer. So, when voters elected recreational cannabis into existence in Colorado in 2014, The Denver Post quickly launched The Cannabist, a journalism vertical dedicated to the cannabis space. The first of its kind, this was an opportunity for cannabis to finally receive quality coverage from a reputable, mainstream media outlet. Under the helm of Richard Baca, The Cannabist quickly grew a huge following, casting a shadow on High Times' monthly internet traffic with more than a million visitors.
The Beginning of the End
In spite of this massive following, The Post simply wasn't interested in expanding staff or budget for the cannabis-centric division. Speaking in an interview for Poynter, Baca stated, "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." Thus, Baca left The Cannabist and the Denver Post in 2016 to start his own unique venture: Grasslands, a journalism-minded, full-service communications firm for the cannabis industry. This single event seemed to be the turning point, or the beginning of the end, for The Cannabist.
Jake Browne, one of the original writers for The Cannabist, tweeted in April, "One of the great experiments in journalism is, for all intents and purposes, dead today. The Denver Post’s marijuana vertical, The Cannabist, has cut all editorial staff and will replace them with bots. This is the story of stupid, stupid hedge funds."
Browne clearly saw the writing on the wall, as he officially left The Cannabist back in December of 2017, for a position with Sensi Magazine. Prompting his tweet, in April the message became clear when The Denver Post, and Alden Global Capital, terminated the remaining skeleton crew who was keeping the marijuana-centric publication afloat.
Meanwhile, Denver Post leadership denies the move was prompted by Alden claiming it was merely a business decision to merge the content into a more profitable silo, an entertainment division of the Post known as The Know. However, the cuts forced by Alden drew backlash and front-page attention across the entire organization as the Editorial Board condemned the massive layoffs in the newsroom, which degraded the staff at the Post from 100 to only 70.
Will The Cannabist Survive?
While the name still exists, the periodical has been reduced to a digital news aggregator, which simply hunts for the word "marijuana" to re-run headlines from other sources. This comes much to the chagrin of writers everywhere, as no one wants to see a creative job replaced with a search engine robot, which pulls headlines from previously published articles from all across the internet. Human content curators and creators – who provide a voice, a personality and a perspective relative to their audience – are no more.
Naturally, the drastic change in direction leaves plenty of room for speculation about the future of The Cannabist. The Denver Post obviously has a national readership, yet 78 percent of its readers are located in Denver. Without human intervention to manage local content and style, The Cannabist has essentially lost its voice and regional expertise within the pioneering city of recreational cannabis consumption.
Baca had a few of his own scornful words about the de-evolution of The Cannabist, in a statement, he’s quoted, "These vulture capitalists are literally hated throughout Denver, and while everyone from Gov. John Hickenlooper and May(or) Michael Hancock stands in support of The Post, we need to continue to let Alden Global Capital know that they are not welcome in Colorado, and they need to sell The Denver Post to a more responsible owner who will finally curb this undemocratic bloodletting."
All Hope is Not Lost
As the industry continues to proliferate across the United States, other states are seeing an increase in cannabis-focused journalism. After receiving voter approval for a recreational market in California, the California Newspaper Partnership launched The Cannifornian, a publication dedicated to cannabis news and events.
Baca's hope for the Denver publication is to find enough investors to buy The Cannabist and continue to watch it grow and succeed. The brand and identity of The Cannabist deserves to live on with the voice and perspective which made it come alive in the first place. Whether Baca can find the investors himself, or someone else steps in to take over the legacy, the industry, the investors, and the consumers deserve trustworthy, accurate representation from more mainstream media channels.