The highs and lows of reporting on a budding industry
Last November I was asked to write a feature for an Oregon university magazine about “anything having to do with Oregon’s cannabis industry.” It sounded fun and paid well, and I am well-sourced there, so I said yes.
Fast-forward to today, when I should have been attending a related university symposium with the feature in my hands, but I’m not. In January, days before the issue was scheduled to be printed, the magazine and event folded with no reason given. My editor, who was contracted by the university, had their contract axed as well. I’m not sharing the name of the university because I don’t want to burn my editor, who wasn’t at fault.
It took two months of reporting for me to make that story happen, which included 10 interviews with eight sources, most of whom were alumni. For my efforts, I was paid $1,700, which my editor had to fight to get to me after the issue was killed.
What happened? If my editor knew, they kept mum. I mentioned to them that I’ve written for my own alumni magazine and remember the internal politics behind college publications, coyly hinting at, “You know, is it the weed thing?”
They simply copied/pasted what I wrote about internal politics, bolded it, and sent it back to me without any other comment. In the end, I’m not sure what actually happened, but I have a strong feeling it’s, you know, the weed thing. Maybe a high-volume donor who caught wind at the last minute and hates weed pulled the plug, or a parent who is a cop or preventionist raised enough hell. I’ll never know for sure, but call it a hunch.
Cannabis is a different beat
If you’ve spent more than five minutes around me (or you follow me on social media, which, I’m sorry/thank you/Jah bless), you’ll know that, lately, I’m equally excited by and frustrated with reporting on the cannabis industry. I commented on it in this SF Weekly (RIP) article by Veronica Irwin, who has since left the beat to report on tech. I also commented on it in a recent San Diego Reader piece that detailed the various hustles of nut job media workers trying to survive a pandemic with careers intact (myself included).
I told Irwin that I felt there aren’t always opportunities for freelancers like me to do harder-hitting cannabis stories because it’s hard to convince a publication to throw that much weight, time, money, and trust behind a stringer. And for those who want to go on staff, there are not many full-time jobs dedicated to cannabis reporting, especially at newspapers or other mainstream media properties, compared with other beats.
For me, whose world revolves around the still-legalizing cannabis industry, it’s hard to understand why, outside of dedicated cannabis media properties, newspapers and other media companies aren’t paying more attention to this more than $5 billion industry in California alone (legal sales — it’s estimated that the total market is around $12 billion).
In reality, I know the economics of media in 2022. Newspapers, like the San Diego Union-Tribune, which I freelance for, are barely able to keep printing as it is. Adding a whole new beat while other reporters are being cut, especially one that is historically maligned and misunderstood, even if it is a giant industry with tentacles in government and beyond? It’s not likely right now.
“It’s all trickle-down fucked economics from the consolidation of media,” LA Weekly-and-beyond pot critic and policy reporter extraordinaire Jimi Devine said, echoing my thoughts about why the cannabis beat is in such a tough spot these days, relative to other segments of media. If media, in general, is hurting, then its more marginalized corners are even more so. Devine, who is based in Berkeley, CA, is a long-time freelancer, too, and a prolific one who structures his work similarly to mine: we both have a small stable of publications we regularly send work to.
I’m not going to lie, it’s a good life. I’m not Scrooge McDuck, swimming in a vault filled with gold coins, but I get lots of great weed and I make a decent, honest living writing about a subject I love. Being freelance affords me the opportunity to write about whatever I want, so long as the bills are paid, and at this stage in my career, people really let me run with my own ideas. Despite the difficulties of reporting, I feel infinitely lucky and I hold on to this career with a death grip.
But since I love this work so dearly, I also feel the need to look at it critically. The biggest issue I’ve experienced with reporting on the cannabis beat, apart from the lack of full-time reporting gigs available and the relatively low rates, is the general hostility shown towards any kind of accountability. This is something I’ve heard from reporters on other beats, too — The Washington Post reported that PR specialists now outnumber journalists more than 5 to 1, according to 2019 Bureau of Labor Statistics data.
Sponsored content, which is paid for, is a popular revenue stream for publications nowadays and is only sometimes labeled, even though it’s required to be by the Federal Trade Commission. On the strictly editorial side, many journalists and editors are overrun with neverending content needs and non-commensurate pay, so they will run quick-hit, thin stories based on press releases without fact-checking. It has created a cozy environment between publicists and journalists that feeds the content beast and keeps clients happy, but it also results in lazy, poor-quality journalism.
My own story
Cannabis reporting comes with stickier issues than other beats do, no pun intended. The industry is not entirely legal yet. Many people operating in it are not even used to being out in the light let alone getting taken to task in public. I get it, to a point, but it’s also a convenient cover for others to get away with extremely bad behavior.
A publicist once offered me $5,000 to kill a story I was working on that had a good amount of public interest. When I said no, the harassment by the subject’s public relations representatives ratcheted up to the point I was fielding daily messages and calls — in the early mornings when I woke up, late at night, and on weekends – begging me to see things their way despite the mountain of evidence I was collecting showing otherwise. The publicist later claimed that, supposedly, the subject of the story had no knowledge of money being offered and I was asked to keep quiet about it.
At one point during the reporting process, the publicist insinuated that if one of the company’s employees had a miscarriage as a result of the stress of this story, I’d be responsible for it. That if this company was harmed as a result of my reporting, I would be hurting the industry and, in turn, the movement.
At several points, I asked that my editors be copied on all communications. It never stuck and the barrage of texts and calls resumed, and so did alternating messages pumping me up and appealing to my ego, countered with insults, threats, and general hysteria. I blocked the publicist on social media, but they kept sending me messages through other mediums during this time referring to things in my personal life that they couldn’t have known unless they were still monitoring my actions from another account that I didn’t know about.
Simultaneously, my sources began receiving messages from the publicist attacking my credibility. I hadn’t done anything other than defend myself and my reporting, continue to ask questions and gather information.
Sometime during all of this is when the lawyers showed up. The publicist continued to make vague threats, so I retained my own counsel. The publicist and a legal team cherry-picked and compiled my communications with them to send to my editor and the website’s publisher to allege that I had been dishonest in my framing of the story. Before it even published. Before it was even written.
In reality, what happened is that once I started fact-checking and reporting outside the publicist’s sphere of influence, other sources emerged and provided me with more information that suggested a much deeper story. In most circles, this is called journalism. I was obsessively transparent with how the scope had changed over time, but the company’s PR team lost control of their client’s narrative and, in turn, seemed to have lost their head.
My bosses, who had the full record of our correspondence, including text messages referring to the offer to pay me to kill the story, stood behind me. Along with me, they weathered another month of aggressive communication, legal threats, unfounded allegations and other general intimidation, unpleasantness and weird behavior.
The story published, the information I reported was even-handed and correct, and, after two months of sustained harassment, they disappeared from my life (I also told them in no uncertain terms to fuck off). “I’m a good person,” one of the final texts from this publicist read, just before I blocked their number.
That was an extreme example. But I have other stories of my own, as well as anecdotes from other reporters, that paint a similar picture. While pushing back on accountability is a problem in all types of journalism, I think the intricacies here do speak to a larger tendency within an industry used to doing things differently.
There are less egregious forms of harassment and intimidation that have become low-level constants in the background of my work. To give just a few examples: unsolicited dick pics to my inbox; getting called “annoying, nosy, ruthless and uppity” in a professional setting after publishing an accurate story a subject didn’t like; being blocked from a popular and controversial gossip page for unknown reasons; getting harassing messages for printing the first and last name of the founder of a licensed company with legacy ties, despite that being required in AP style; being screamed at and called a “gossip rag columnist” for merely asking if a man I was interviewing was still CEO (he was not).
To be clear: pushback is expected in this line of work. In fact, I get energized by a certain amount of it. Any good journalist does. But there’s a certain point where it crosses a line. Being a woman complicates things in addition to being freelance and without traditional institutional support. Cannabis is a macho industry and culture. I have definitely considered that this could all be a “me” problem, but I really don’t think it is. Others have made the same observations, like Irwin, the author of that SF Weekly article I was quoted in, or Rachelle Gordon, another cannabis journalist who wrote about her experiences with sexism in cannabis last fall.
I’ve successfully freelanced full-time on a few beats for over six years now. I get a lot of work, I’ve won a bunch of awards, I’ve never had a major correction, my editors like me and readers seem to, as well. My boyfriend, for example, is a 12-year veteran investigative reporter who often takes cops, politicians and others to task for doing bad things. In many respects, it’s much higher-stakes work. He has never experienced a shred of the harassment I have, even during the years he reported on, say, murder-for-hire plots in San Diego’s cannabis industry, and has been a little shocked watching it all go down beside me.
It’s not all gloom and doom — not by a long shot
I chalk up a lot of the problems in cannabis journalism to two things: media being a shitshow, in general, and also growing pains of a continually legalizing industry. Despite these glaring issues, there are some obvious bright spots in cannabis journalism, like the fact that it exists at all. That there are a decent amount of people who are able to carve out a living reporting on this topic alone is not something that should ever be taken for granted.
To that point, cannabis journalism still serves a political purpose. Prohibition is still in effect and its legacy of propaganda against cannabis informs bad policy, which in turn affects real lives. Ganjapreneur recently published its own report on bias against cannabis in mainstream media, which shows, firstly, what those who are friendlier to the plant are up against. It also provides a roadmap for those who seek to report about cannabis with more accuracy and humanity.
I was particularly interested to hear what Leafly senior editor and California Bureau Chief David Downs had to say about the beat [full disclosure: I write for Leafly]. Downs, who is based in San Francisco, has been doing this work for a long time, also on other beats besides cannabis. His resumé reflects that, and some highlights include being a book author, the former SF Chronicle cannabis editor, a syndicated cannabis columnist for the East Bay Times and a longtime freelancer for just about every publication you’ve ever heard of with awards and accolades to boot.
Downs, who is feeling “pretty psyched” about the state of cannabis journalism at present, gave me a good perspective I hadn’t considered, though it’s also true that his current staff job puts him in a more solid position to dive into and weather the muck. He takes a longer, more holistic view that is informed from his many years of working in journalism and watching the cannabis beat grow up.
“The stigma is way down from when I started Legalization Nation in 2009 and I worried it would torpedo my freelance career,” Downs said, who’s been a reporter since 1998. “Now it seems prescient to have moved into weed writing. Boomers will always make dumb jokes in newsrooms but they are dying off. Universities and other institutions are the last to change, and the most biased—so you're always going to be pushing against that.” [Editor’s note: wink, wink!]
Downs also mentioned that he has a robust travel budget and a mandate to chase stories, as well as an assigning freelance budget, which are things that simply didn’t exist not that long ago. He added that US unemployment is at 3.8%—that’s considered ‘maximum employment’— and that Leafly recently competed for talent that ultimately went to High Times, which signals that some full-time jobs are available. “We’re hiring. Email me,” he said.
“Being at Leafly in 2022 is like being at Rolling Stone in the '70s, I imagine,” Downs said. He’s not wrong. Leafly’s Jobs Report and Harvest Report, which show how robust the cannabis industry really is, displays without a doubt that there is much deserving of media coverage. “We are in the golden age of the professionalization of the cannabis industry,” Downs said, echoing those reports. For their part, Leafly, which recently went public via a SPAC deal, is making sure that the ongoing shift is covered (with traffic numbers to match) when most mainstream news outlets will not.
Boundaries can be blurred when reporting on a nascent industry
I also talked to Jeremy Berke, who is based in New York. He’s a senior reporter at Insider who basically invented the beat there “3-4 years ago” when he convinced his bosses to create it and let him handle it, which he has subsequently done very well. He argues that similar lobbying from intrepid reporters is likely the trajectory for mainstream media properties adopting a cannabis beat going forward. He also anticipates that, in places like New York, the process will become easier as cannabis continues to legalize and media realizes this “new” consumer products segment should be covered like any other.
Berke has experienced some of the same aggressive behavior I have, especially as he’s strictly on a business beat and frequently talks to CEOs and others in the so-called C-suite.
“There are a lot of egos and personalities in such a small industry. It can be difficult to do insightful reporting and keep access at the same time,” Berke said, acknowledging a time-honored reporting challenge that is magnified in the cannabis industry. “In tech, for example, now you have decades of an established relationship with the media. With cannabis, that dynamic is unfolding in real-time.”
“With a lot of emerging industries —cannabis, crypto, green energy, whatever, oftentimes those in the industry expect media coverage to be laudatory. They expect you to be a friend, to gas them up, to use their access to you as a way to generate business,” Berke said. This is especially likely if the reporter is on the younger side and appears to be sociable.
Berke said he’s often in conversations and meetings where those present refer to “our industry,” referring to the cannabis industry, which makes him balk. “I may use the product, but I’m not in this industry. I cover it. I have no financial benefit in it, though of course I have my own personal views of how I think it should go,” he said. I frequently correct people on this point, too, even though my pro-legalization views are well-documented.
Berke added that people have asked him to not include their names after giving quotes, so as not to appear connected to cannabis; he is frequently on interview calls monitored by publicists; he has also dealt with pissy execs who didn’t like the way they were portrayed.
Contending with the PR machine
Like I mentioned before, Downs also concedes there’s a “lot of copywriting and sponsored content” seeping into what readers may think is unbiased journalism, but counters that it’s still a boon for sourcing and institutional knowledge. As someone who is still on the Forbes.com platform, I can confirm this is true on all fronts, good and bad. There are more opportunities than ever, but they’re not created equal, and there is a glut of low-quality cannabis “journalism” out there that suggests a need for this kind of content but not enough incentive for people to produce better work.
Public relations often fills the information gaps that poorly funded media leaves open. Mary Carreon, a former Merry Jane editor-turned freelancer, explains that it’s “fucking frustrating” to watch a glut of underfunded, half-assed journalism increasingly dominate the landscape.
“I’m not saying that journalists should only be on the hunt looking for negative or critical things to write about brands or businesses, per se; the goal isn’t necessarily to out people,” Carreon said. “Rather, a journalist's job is to see beyond the narrative being thrust at them and fully understand the dynamics of a situation. You have to research and dig in order to make that happen. The bulk of weed media consists of paid content, news paraphrasing, and press release regurgitation, which are often parts of cannabis publications’ content strategies.”
She thinks, as I do, too, that much in cannabis media is “controlled by PR narratives and brand advertising money. As long as journalists write within the bounds of what’s outlined by them, they are supported by publications, brands, PRs, etc.”
One of the ways this shows up, Devine says, is in what he calls “press release weed,” which are product samples from companies who have public relations representation. He laments all the people “who don’t know what heat is,” referring to the best-of-the-best quality weed known to man, who “write about anything they have access to and pretend it’s good just because they have it.” This is a real problem — it skews public perception in an age where customer education is crucial and favors well-capitalized brands over cultivators who may be growing killer weed but just don’t have the same marketing budgets.
Another way PRs drive the narrative is through the concept of “stigma,” Carreon said. She explained that many brand narratives are “delicately contoured to ‘dismantling the stigma’ in one way or another,’” which can sometimes create an environment that supports the inverse of Reefer Madness – that if you say anything critical about the cannabis movement or industry at all, you’re helping prohibitionists.
As mentioned earlier in my own accounting of harassment I’ve received, I have experienced this, too. All of us reporting or those who are activists have seen how even the smallest slightly negative data point can be twisted and used by other media and those with an anti-weed agenda – and if you ever attend city council meetings, for example, you will see firsthand how it will be used and manipulated for all eternity. So, I get it, but, again, only to a point.
Carreon echoes what Berke also told me: “The truth is that real weed journalists are in the journalism sector of the media industry, we are not part of the cannabis industry. We report on it. I think people forget that.”
Everyone agrees: more rigorous reporting is needed
There’s another problem.
“There’s no incentive for writers to put in the effort to create real journalism in a PR-driven system that does not support its writers or journalists to perform at a high-level,” Carreon said. “In fact, the opposite happens: writers, who call themselves journalists, start taking money or other forms of compensation to make up for the lack of financial support. It’s honestly not even their fault, it’s an effect of the system,” she added.
Carreon thinks many in the industry “only want fluff,” not truth in reporting. I share this view to a point — the overwhelmingly positive private and public responses I have received on my accountability journalism, and that I know Carreon has received for hers, as well, does show that there is a segment of the industry and movement members who are borderline salivating for more robust and critical coverage.
But she’s right that many current operators are not willing to face the music, especially considering the many hurdles the industry is currently facing: oversupply, over-regulation, impossibly high taxes, a robust unlicensed market, among other things. Bad coverage could just exacerbate existing problems, many operators think.
Berke also laments the glut of stories with “recycled press releases,” saying it’s not journalism, but an extension of PR. He also doesn’t think everything needs to be a huge investigation.
“On the one hand, you have people who are way too gullible, like the ‘This cannabis company is set to dominate the world…' headlines,” Berke said. He, like me, is also sick to death of the “Badass XYZ people in the cannabis industry” listicles, especially when we know either the companies aren’t doing well or are acting unethically or both.
“On the other side of the coin, there are a lot of reporters, by nature of being a reporter, who are cynical, and so the coverage is really negative. Stories about evil guys selling drugs, etc., and everything they’re supposedly doing wrong. Good coverage might fall somewhere in the middle,” Berke said, adding that he thinks there’s a lot of good cannabis journalism out there and he just wants to see more of it, which includes encouraging more “talented” reporters to come to the beat.
Downs, who regularly churns out investigative work, agrees that more investigative journalism on the cannabis industry is needed, “especially on the cannabis products side…where most of us live our real lives.” He is excited for more of the type of rigorous policy reporting that Marijuana Moment publishes to be trained on product journalism going forward.
“[Leafly] showed that by ending the VAPI injuries in 2019 with our reporting, and our burner distro expose in 2021,” Downs said, adding, “We saw states enact tough additives regulations. We kicked the DCC's butt into gear regarding inspections. Sunshine is the best disinfectant and there are a lot of gross things going on in criminal justice, illicit weed, the d-8 scene, the transition to adult-use, licensing corruption, and non-compliance among licensed actors.”
He agrees that there’s a lot of “lazy, pile-on cannabis issue journalism and un-checked facts on the cannabis beat” but reminded me that it’s also a broader issue in journalism. “It's just expensive and time-consuming to do investigative, and it won't get as many clicks as the quick-hits. But that's ok,” he concluded, committed to the cause (and, blessedly, with a good budget behind him).
Lest anyone think this is all just sour grapes, I promise, it’s quite the opposite. I have to pinch myself regularly because I just cannot believe this job I get to do is real, happening, and actively paying my bills and keeping me alive. I also have tons of support from lots of readers, family and friends, and editors who really go to bat for their freelancers. But I also know that, though I’ve carved out a good lane for myself, it’s definitely not the same for everyone trying to write about cannabis. If some things don’t change, it’s going to be hard for many to make a living doing this reporting and who want to do it honestly.
Donnell Alexander, who has been a journalist for decades at this point, recently told me he “quit” journalism, opting to start a PR company instead, called Z&D Public Relations, which is a common exit for many ex-reporters. He’s another prolific reporter with years under his belt on staff, podcasting, and freelancing, and he recently completed a killer four-part investigation at Capital & Main, funded by a grant from the University of Southern California’s Center for Health Journalism.
He told me he was tired of the churn and grind, of the consistently low rates. That Capital & Main project wouldn’t have happened without the university grant, he reminded me, highlighting the issues freelance reporters have when undertaking investigative work. At this stage of his career — he’s in his 50s— he’s not really interested in waiting for legalization and legacy media to catch up. “I realized we will always have to suffer at the limitations of editors and imagining what cannabis coverage can look like,” he said, echoing long-held frustrations I share when looking to mainstream media to place a story.
I saw on Twitter that the University of Vermont is sponsoring a class of media fellows to take an evidence-based science of cannabis course, which includes Berke and reporters from the L.A. Times, Politico, Rolling Stone, The Denver Post and a B2B newsletter (which, personally, I love to see). My only gripe is that there are no freelancers, but maybe future rounds will include some. These advancements are wonderful to see and they will only result in more informed reporting across the board.
For my own part, I have more work offered to me than I can reasonably take on, which is hard to put into words how good it feels. Especially after the onset of Covid, which temporarily wiped out all my work in March 2020. These days, I’m commanding decent rates for the most part and I’m doing the best work of my career in many respects. I can’t speak for my colleagues and whether or not they’re happy, but I do know that they are kicking out killer journalism, too, so something somewhere is actually working.
In April, I was asked to speak to journalism students at the University of Nevada, Reno, about the budding cannabis beat (again, no pun intended. I swear!). I’m not sure what I’m going to say yet, but I plan to be honest about the obvious benefits, as well as the struggles. Mostly, though, I think I’m going to psych them up about what I think is the coolest reporting opportunity journalism has seen in a long time.