Staff at Denver Post Marijuana Site The Cannabist to Be Replaced by Bots | Westword


Staff at Denver Post's Pot-Centric Cannabist to Be Replaced by Bots

The Cannabist, the Denver Post's marijuana site, is the latest victim of downsizing at the the newspaper. According a tweet by Jake Browne, who reviewed marijuana for the section and hosted its signature video program, The Cannabist Show, the Post "has cut all editorial staff and will replace them with bots."
Jake Browne reviewed marijuana for The Cannabist.
Jake Browne reviewed marijuana for The Cannabist. Twitter
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The Cannabist, the Denver Post's marijuana site, is the latest victim of downsizing at the the newspaper. According a tweet by Jake Browne, who reviewed marijuana for the section and hosted its signature video program, The Cannabist Show, the Post "has cut all editorial staff and will replace them with bots."

Browne's epic tweet thread is on view below.

The Cannabist was launched following the January 1, 2014, debut of legal marijuana sales in Colorado, and founder and original editor Ricardo Baca, who'd previously focused on music, got plenty of attention; his work on the project was the focus of a 2016 documentary, Rolling Papers. But Baca left the Post at the end of that year to start his own company, Grasslands, described as a full-service agency for cannabis businesses. A press release he issued about the end of the Cannabist is shared here as well.

In recent months, the operation has been kept afloat by editor Alex Pasquariello and reporter Alicia Wallace, whose recent decision to accept a fellowship at Columbia "was kind of the nail in the coffin for what had been at one point an incredibly successful site," Browne believes.

Meanwhile, Alden Global Media, the hedge fund that owns the Post, continued to slash staff at the paper, announcing last month that thirty employees, or roughly one-third the newsroom staff, would leave.

As for the Cannabist, Browne, who's currently the managing editor for the Denver-Boulder edition of Sensi magazine and co-founder of The Grow-Off, a cannabis-growing competition, says its demise was foreshadowed by events late last year.

"I officially left the Cannabist in December," he notes. "We had filmed almost 150 episodes of The Cannabist Show, which I was hosting at the time, and they told me that the next week would be the final episode. Then, on the day of that taping, they told me they didn't have the budget to make it."

He adds, "I wasn't approaching the show with any animus. We just wanted to say goodbye to the audience we'd developed over the years. But we were left in the lurch, with no sign-off and nothing to let people know it was ending — not even a post to address it."

After that, a skeleton crew kept the Cannabist alive as speculation circulated about the site being for sale. "The rumors were certainly out there," Browne acknowledges. "But at this point, I can't imagine them getting pennies on the dollar for what was once a thriving digital property. The only solace I can take is that the hedge fund won't be able to flip hard work we were grossly undercompensated for into more profits."

It's Browne's understanding that "the site will become an aggregator that will pull in some Denver Post content. But what we'll be missing are important stories for consumers like the Cannabist has done. And there's an absolute need for investigative reporting in cannabis. To lose an institution like the Cannabist is disheartening to say the least."

Following a sample episode of The Cannabist Show, see Browne's tweet thread and former editor Baca's take.

Jake Browne tweets:

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.

I started as one of the first "hires" back in December of 2013, brought on to review strains and cover the occasional event. There was an excitement around The Cannabist — my EIC @bruvs was fresh off appearances on The Colbert Report and The View.

A major daily dedicating an entire vertical to cannabis coverage hadn't been done before. Bill O'Reilly accused us of promoting pot. Colbert renamed Colorado "Bongistan." But others asked the question: "Can weed save the newspaper business?"

I'm not being hyperbolic — that was an actual Salon headline from a review of a documentary covering our first year on the beat.

What made The Cannabist special was this was a journalistic approach to pot. The landscape had been dominated by advocacy from institutions like High Times, but we were telling both sides of the story. (No offense to HT and what they did for cannabis education)

Stories on inaccurate THC levels in edibles or pesticides in products being consumed certainly didn't curry favor with those in the industry. Watch "Rolling Papers" on Netflix and wait for the scenes with one of those edibles manufacturers. It's hilarious/cringeworthy.

On the other hand, you have the Pulitzer Prize-nominated piece by @johningold covering families moving here with children that suffered from debilitating illnesses. It didn't make the headlines that Whoopi's ode to her vape pen did, but it's brilliant.

Readership (or eye-balls) followed. By November 2016, we had beaten High Times' comScore in consecutive months, attracting nearly 1 million unique visitors. We had our own awards show, studio talk show, and the mile-high sky was the limit.

Enter stupid, stupid hedge funds. This whole Cannabist thing wasn't raking in money — monetizing digital was something DIGITAL FIRST MEDIA struggled with — but why not double down and launch an identical vertical in California?

I imagine we needed a larger budget. I avoid talking about rates, but I'll say that two years in I was making $50 for 500-word reviews. This doesn't factor in the money I was spending on the weed itself. A little extra cash would have been appreciated.

Instead of bolstering a successful web property, they sent resources to a site that would ostensibly compete. A month after we hit our "high score" my boss, friend, and mentor Ricardo Baca stepped down. Why he left is his story to tell.

He was the face and frankly the soul of The Cannabist. That's not to denigrate what a number of talented people did, day in and day out, to keep it afloat. But losing him was crushing on a number of levels.

It took FOUR MONTHS to find his replacement, @beingalexp, who is stepping down today. Alex worked his ass off, but he was given a dixie cup to bail water out of an ocean liner. Increasingly, our content came from the AP feed. Local was almost entirely jettisoned.

I had taken over Ricardo's role as host of The Cannabist Show, a weekly podcast that I made with the incredibly talented @VinnieChant and @negativenegro. I know it's tempting to overstate the importance of one's own podcast, but it did not suck.

I knew I was leaving when there was no budget for our final episode. No goodbye to our possibly hundreds of listeners. After almost 150 shows, we would simply cease to exist, just as I imagine The Cannabist itself will soon, thanks to its stupid, stupid, hedge fund.

The site isn't ending today. I'm guessing the inimitable @AliciaWallace has a few stories before leaving for her well-deserved fellowship at Columbia. Then, the bots take over.

Content will be aggregated based on what's tagged "marijuana." There will be no editorial team to give the site a voice, perspective, or blood. Readers will pick up on this, and it will wither on the vine.

For me, this is great news. My old stuff is terrible.

But you may have read how Digital First Media (owned by stupid, stupid hedge fund Alden Global Capital) is systemically dismantling journalistic institutions across the country. Scrapping them for cash to buy more mansions for its owner.

Here is the rare story of how they let an incredibly valuable asset slip through their hands and disintegrate before their own eyes. They'd be lucky if they could get pennies on the dollar for it now. They were, in a word, stupid.

So I take solace in that. Today, a stupid, stupid hedge fund made a few fewer dollars off of my colleagues and me.

Best of luck to the incredible people from that team: @bruvs @BeingAlexP @aleta @PollyWashburn @VinnieChant @negativenegro @bradbogus @CannabisEncyclo @s0humshah @brittanyblue @aliciawallace and many more. You're all crushers.

(PS) I encourage you to still read The Denver Post. There are so many talented people in that newsroom and they need your support now more than ever. Also, if you have a few million laying around, maybe join forces with people trying to save them.

Ricardo Baca helped give The Cannabist its start.
Courtesy of Ricardo Baca
Ricardo Baca statement:

‘I Am Absolutely Gutted’: As The Denver Post Cuts Staffing to Groundbreaking Marijuana News Vertical The Cannabist, Site’s Founder and Original Editor Laments its Unjustified Collapse

Once Considered Among the Hottest Brands in New Media, Industry-Leading Marijuana Journalism Site The Cannabist No Longer Has a Dedicated Staff After The Denver Post Lays Off One-Third of its Newsroom

DENVER, Colorado — April 27, 2018 — Embattled Colorado newspaper The Denver Post is no longer staffing its groundbreaking, first-of-its-kind marijuana news vertical The Cannabist, newsroom leadership confirmed Friday — a decision that is surprising cannabis and journalism circles today.

The Cannabist was founded in 2013 by veteran journalist Ricardo Baca as the world’s first adult-use cannabis market was about to launch in Colorado. As the Post’s first-ever Marijuana Editor, Mr. Baca and his team created the site from scratch and developed a robust national readership that appreciated the unique vertical’s journalism-first approach to covering the newly legal industry, the policy surrounding it and the culture that grew from legalization. Feature-length documentary Rolling Papers — a film “more about marijuana journalism than the big picture, and as such it’s a worthwhile endeavor,” wrote Chicago Sun-Times film critic Richard Roeper in his three-star review — documented both The Cannabist’s debut and the 2014 world premiere of state-regulated legal marijuana sales.

As the site’s founder and original editor-in-chief, journalist and thought leader Ricardo Baca was brokenhearted to hear the news.

“I am absolutely gutted today,” says Mr. Baca, who founded Grasslands: A Journalism-Minded Agency in early 2017 after resigning from the Post, where he worked as a reporter, critic and editor for 15 years. “We were so lucky to know The Cannabist as we did, and The Denver Post was lucky that we caught this lightning in a bottle during those historic days. We avoided the blind, pro-legalization activism of publications like High Times, and we also were an objective news source to counter prohibitionist misinformation that had plagued so much of the mainstream media’s irresponsible coverage of cannabis throughout the last eight decades.

“But it’s devastating to have helped create a news and culture site that changed the way so many people, journalists included, talked about marijuana—and to watch it fall apart, especially now that legal cannabis is increasingly becoming the law of the land. Now more than ever, we need serious journalists covering these state-legal marijuana markets, but this trend is not encouraging, as we’re also seeing staff reductions at the San Francisco Chronicle’s Green State vertical and elsewhere. If the Post’s most recent staff reduction broke my heart, which it unquestionably did, this news about The Cannabist losing its dedicated staff is thoroughly drubbing the rest of my internal organs with a meat tenderizer.

“These layoffs are putting The Cannabist on life support and destroying the Post’s ability to comprehensively cover Colorado, and it is entirely to blame on Alden Global Capital, the black-hearted hedge fund that owns Digital First Media and 100 American newspapers, including the Post. These vulture capitalists are literally hated throughout Denver, and while everyone from Gov. John Hickenlooper and Mayor 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.”

In less than two years under Mr. Baca’s leadership, The Cannabist was luring more readers than veteran publication High Times’ website, according to media-tracking organization comScore. In less than three years, Mr. Baca had grown the staff from just himself to a seven-person full-time team that included four editorial and three advertising employees.

But after Mr. Baca resigned from The Post in December 2016, the newspaper started making cuts to the vertical’s staff, nixing the General Manager advertising position and reassigning the remaining two Cannabist-focused sales staff in early 2017. That December, The Cannabist’s editorial staff was cut from four to three during a separate newsroom-wide staff reduction.

And in April 2018, after the newspaper’s editor told newsroom staff that it would be laying off one-third of its editorial employees, two Cannabist staffers announced they were leaving for other opportunities; later that month, Cannabist editor-in-chief Alex Pasquariello was told the paper was cutting editorial staffing to the site and that his position no longer existed.

The Denver Post has been in the national news recently because of a historic staff reduction and the resulting editorial-page public revolt against the newspaper’s hedge-fund ownership via a package of op-eds and columns. Mr. Baca returned to newsprint recently to pen one of the cover op-eds for the Post’s attention-grabbing opinion section.

Mr. Baca, whose agency Grasslands is in early discussions with Post leadership about potentially purchasing The Cannabist should they decide to sell it, is available for interviews.
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