There is a cultural shift taking over North America. Legalized marijuana isn’t just coming; it’s here, and it’s likely here to stay—the proverbial genie that refuses the confines of her bottle. That’s good news for fans of the plant, and exceptional news for businesses and governments ready to cash in on this new industry crop. It’s even great news for daily newspapers across the continent as they find themselves in the perfect position to seriously and thoroughly cover the topic from a range of angles: business and industry, health and public safety, law enforcement and crime, real estate, labor force, culinary and agriculture, and more.
E&P spoke with some of these publications who have entered this emerging market and discussed what the legalization of marijuana means for editorial coverage and advertising dollars.
An Editorial Gift
Not everyone embraced Nevada’s evolving legislation on marijuana—certainly not Las Vegas Review-Journal owner Sheldon Adelson and the editorial board. Editor-in-chief Keith Moyer recounted the editorial journey from prior to Nevada’s decriminalization of recreational marijuana to today, when it “seems like there’s a dispensary on every other block.”
“From an institutional standpoint, we were opposed to the passing of the initiative,” he said. “Our owner is one of the biggest opponents of legalized drugs in the country.”
From an editorial perspective, however, Moyer saw the profound impact the legislation would have across Nevada and saw to it that the topic was more frequently covered and fairly.
“Leading up to the vote and the passing of the initiative, we were publishing both sides—stories about groups who were for it and groups who were against it,” he said.
Once the vote gave the green light to legislators, the newspaper further amped up its coverage of the multifaceted topic. One of the team’s political reporters was also tasked with the “pot beat,” and other journalists are assigned to related stories as needed.
Moyer marvels at how profoundly Nevada—and Las Vegas, in particular—has been impacted by the lifting of prohibition on marijuana in the state. In fact, the plant and its derivatives were so popular in the early stages of the rollout, dispensaries ran short on supply.
“The tax numbers have far exceeded what they thought they’d be getting,” he said.
It hasn’t been all sunshine and roses on the pot path, however. Moyer noted that Las Vegas is embroiled in ongoing legislative battles about marijuana consumption on the Strip, where it’s currently still a criminal offense to possess and smoke it. The Las Vegas Gaming Board continues to adhere to federal laws governing marijuana.
It’s the economic ramifications of legalized recreational marijuana that fascinates the editor most, and that’s been the primary focus of articles written on the subject—economic and business stories.
“We’re covering it like any other business or health topic,” Moyer said.
When I spoke with Moyer, the paper had just published an article about a marijuana convention that came to town—an event for business people hoping to capitalize on the “new gold rush” and get in on the industry’s ground floor.
And those types of articles have been very popular with readers, he added. “It is kind of a gift that we’ve been handed, a new thing to cover, and there’s a lot of interest in it. We find that when we do run some of the marijuana stories, they appear at the top of our leader board online, in terms of interest…Most of our marijuana stories get pretty good traffic on the website, so that tells me there’s a high interest level.”
On the Lobster and Pot Beat
Maine is in legal pot limbo.
Cliff Schechtman, executive for the Portland Press Herald and the Maine Sunday Telegram, recalled how the state got here. “Voters voted to approve the referendum. We had committees for months trying to write the rules. Then, the Republican governor, at the 11th hour, vetoes the rules because he says that the federal law is unclear. So now, it’s in limbo, and the legislature has to come back and decide how to deal with this and overturn this veto. Meanwhile, there’s a lot of money at stake.”
To understand just how much money, Schechtman offers a comparison to Maine’s most illustrious industry—lobster—which brings in about a half-billion dollars to the state each year. Recreational pot, he noted, is expected to be a $300 million industry, which may not sound like a lot to states like New York or California, but in Maine, that money will prove transformative, he predicted.
“And we’re not even talking about the medical marijuana industry here, which is legal, with dispensaries in place,” Schechtman said. “So, yes, it’s important, indeed, and we’re trying to cover it pretty aggressively.”
A little more than a year ago, the newspaper started a pot beat. Reporter Penelope Overton was assigned to it.
“She splits between the pot beat and the lobster beat,” Schechtman said. “A heck of a beat, right—lobster and pot? It sounds boutique, but it’s actually a really hard beat.”
The newsroom here has been challenged and excited by the multi-faceted topics related to this cultural and legislative evolution. “It has huge political, economic, health and public safety implications,” Schechtman said, adding that other local industries are seeing an economic boost, which is making news, too. For example, real estate in Maine is hot right now because land and warehousing is sought-after. That means that contractors and builders are also thriving.
In addition to the pot beat, the newspaper also launched an e-newsletter called “The Maine Cannabis Report.” Right now, it’s a weekly publication that aggregates all of the marijuana-related content the paper has published during the week, as well as picking up related syndicated national news.
“A lot of people are signing up for it, so the frequency is probably going to increase,” he said.
Event marketing at marijuana conferences is on the newspaper’s radar, too. This year, they participated in one. Next year, they plan to be at four.
“We are planning to offer several events in 2018, where we assemble experts to discuss and help educate business and the general public on this emerging industry,” Schechtman explained. “There’s been some strong advertising interest in our events and our Maine Cannabis Report.
Online, marijuana content has proven quite popular with the newspaper’s subscribers and readers who find the content through social media or other channels.
Schechtman said that covering pot has been a learning experience for the news team. For example, they had to learn about federal banking law, prohibitive for marijuana businesses like growers and dispensaries. They’ve also learned a lot about their audience.
“From my point of view, there are two things you need to remember,” he said. “First, pot still has a stigma. And you want to be respectful of people who don’t think it should be legalized, because there are ramifications that are not positive, so you have to be respectful of readers.
“Also, we’re not coming at this from the consumer’s point of view. There are enough ‘weed maps,’— information on how to smoke it, types of pot. We’re not doing that. We are focusing on the industry of cannabis and the implications for society and business, politics and health. That’s an important distinction.”
Connecting the Dots
The editorial leadership at the Associated Press has been hip to the tidal wave of news content coming thanks to marijuana legislation. As the AP’s deputy managing editor, U.S. news, Noreen Gillespie has been paying close attention to states where recreation marijuana has been legalized or soon will be.
“This has become a hot legislative issue, so we have looked at our editorial coverage to make sure that we are reflecting that,” Gillespie said. “We have a team of reporters around the country who cover this issue.”
AP journalists are currently reporting on pot from Maine, Las Vegas, Alaska and California. At press time, the AP was in search of an additional reporter in California who would be tasked to cover pot and law enforcement. The new hire personifies an editorial phenomenon that Gillespie inherently understands. Covering pot is never one dimensional.
“I think we’re in a position to really connect the dots for our customers, not just from state to state but from topic to topic, such as the intersections between economics and health or economics and law enforcement, for example,” Gillespie said.
She added, “One of the things we’ll be looking at next year is which states will take another run at (marijuana legislation), which will try to get something on the ballot before election day, or which are likely to pass legislation.”
As has been the case with newspapers trying to set a serious tone with their pot coverage, the AP has made a similar concerted effort.
“The challenge with marijuana coverage is that there are plenty of stories out there that you can’t do. It’s very easy to go for some of the cutesy, trendy types of stories, but this is really a story about economy, legislation, health insurance, medicine and more,” she explained.
The scope of the coverage is so broad the reporting team will likely experience reassignments, with a greater number of AP reporters to cover all the related issues. According to Gillespie, the AP will also be working on some special reports about marijuana in America, which will “connect the dots” based on geographically deployed journalists’ work.
Love for “The Leaf”
The decriminalization of marijuana has been a little less dramatic in Canada than in the U.S., though it hasn’t been without some surprises. Paul Samyn, Winnipeg Free Press editor, recalled the political tipping point: “During our 2015 federal election, when the then-liberal leader Justin Trudeau talked about this thing, it didn’t necessarily get a lot of attention because at the time, he wasn’t expect to win.
“And then he won, and it became clear that he was going to move forward. Over the last two years, there’s been a steady uptick in coverage about this looming legislative change, in all media. At Free Press, we’ve done a number of stories about it and have started to pay much closer attention to what’s happening in the United States, especially at newspapers. It’s had a profound impact. If you think about it, something that just a few years ago could land you in jail has suddenly become legal, and that opens the door to a flood of questions and a number of stories attempting to provide answers to those questions.”
In many ways, covering the legalization of marijuana is like reporting on any other fledgling industry.
“What we wanted to do was what I think a newspaper always needs to do, which is to write about things that connect to the community, providing distinctive content that adds value and ensures that people are rewarded for their time and their dime when they come to the Free Press on any of our platforms,” Samyn said.
In early 2017, the newspaper’s board met and did something remarkable. At a time when other North American newspapers are plagued by layoffs and line-item cuts, this one invested. Samyn was challenged to grow online readership. He envisioned a vertical online publication devoted to marijuana topics. He wanted it to be popular with the newspapers current subscribers, naturally, but he also wanted the publication to appeal to North American readers from coast to coast.
Samyn said he studied what other newspapers had done: The Cannabist by the Denver Post and the San Francisco Examiner’s great coverage, for example. He knew that the online resource had to be credible and serious, just like the newspaper’s brand. He wasn’t interested in stories about popular strains with cheeky names or smoke-shop products.
The result became The Leaf, a marijuana-focused companion site to the newspaper that is wildly popular with readers. In November, Samyn told The Canadian Press that in the first 12 hours of The Leaf’s launch, it had inspired roughly 1,300 page views. The Leaf wasn’t the only editorial addition. The newspaper also publishes an advice column called “Dear Herb,” dedicated to answering serious and practical questions about pot.
Samyn told me in December that The Leaf had 13,000 page views since it launched with about 1,000 of those coming from Toronto readers and 1,500 from United States IP addresses. Today, as much as 20 percent of The Leaf’s readership comes from outside of Manitoba, especially in Montreal and Toronto.
The paper’s vice president of sales and marketing Grant Suderman oversees the business side of the publication, developing advertising and sponsored content programs. To date, the publication has not been supported by advertising only because of the legislation status. Recreational cannabis won’t be legal until July 1, 2018, and there’s the limbo of advertising law for the burgeoning industry. Canadian laws on pharmaceutical advertising is very restrictive, Suderman pointed out.
“All they are allowed to talk about in advertising is the drug and the disease,” he explained. “They can’t produce lifestyle ads, like the ones with the man and woman in bathtubs, holding hands. That’s not allowed.”
The plan is to allow for display and banner ads on The Leaf, while sponsored content could offer richer, more informative marketing content. Suderman has been paying close attention to cannabis publications in the U.S., which are good predictors of what readers crave.
“I expect that some of our advertisers may want to talk about the quality of their products—for example, if it’s organic or not, what the level of THC is, and what goes into the growing process. People are a lot more sensitive to what they’re putting in their bodies, now more than ever before,” he said.
While the ad team awaits definitive rules from the federal government, they are also having discussions about in-house rules about the types of ads they’ll ultimately accept.
“They will have to be tasteful, or at least not in bad taste,” Suderman said. “They can’t be inflammatory. It is our prerogative to determine whether we’ll publish the ad. As an example, we are not a gun culture here in Canada, but from time to time, we’ll have an advertiser who wants to run an ad of that kind. I have to make sure that it’s within the bounds of the legislation and the newspaper’s internal guide. It will be the same with cannabis.”
The paper leverages its print platform and an email newsletter to help with retention and growth. Currently, readers may access The Leaf for free, but Samyn hinted that it may eventually go behind a paywall or follow the a-la-carte pay-per-article model, a great option for international readers.
In addition, there has been no pushback or negative feedback from readers. “I hear from our readers, and if they don’t like something, they’re emailing or writing letters or picking up the phone,” Samyn said. “I think the only thing that people have sometimes questioned is whether it’s the best priority to spend resources on. And I say, ‘Yes, it is.’ It’s big. It’s important. And we need to get expertise and up to speed, so that we can cover this in a way that our readers deserve.”
Samyn is cognizant about the far-reaching tentacles of the topic. He sees opportunity not only for investors, taxpayers, the government, industry stakeholders, but especially for the news business.
“This drug is going to be something that’s part of people’s recreational time and pursuits,” he said. “And we can pretend that it’s not happening, or we can say it shouldn’t be happening—if that’s what we believe—but newspapers are in the reality business, and we need to get on board with reality. It’s coming. This is happening. People will be making money.”
Gretchen A. Peck is an independent journalist who has reported on publishing and printing for more than two decades. She has contributed to Editor & Publisher since 2010 and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.