Telling Weed Stories: How New Media and Mainstream News Report on Pot

Marijuana news goes from click-bait content to award-winning journalism.

Cannabis and the media have cozied up to one another for what could become a long and storied relationship. Surveys say that more people than ever in America are consuming pot. While masses of us are lighting up, scores of others are writing about the thoughts, feelings, highs, lows, strains, pipes, policies, and politics surrounding the herb. Weed’s spreading acceptance has inspired a new class of cannabis-lifestyle digital publications, and an uptick in marijuana coverage from the mainstream media. To put it simply, there is no shortage of thoughtful weed-related reportage. 

The Washington Post's data reporter Christopher Ingraham consistently produces the most insightful and scientifically sound analysis within the space. Ingraham's perspective on cannabis policy and trending weed news offers readers theoretical context backed up by facts as irrefutable as basic math. The Post columnist extracts his commentary from statistical information that is often freely available, but he makes connections that require more adept reading between the lines than the average writer is capable of providing.  

"Cannabis culture and marijuana media are evolving on parallel lines." 

BuzzFeed’s former national drugs reporter, Amanda Chicago Lewis, has broken some of the cannabis industry’s most thought-provoking stories. Lewis’s “How Black People Are Being Shut Out of America’s Weed Boom: Whitewashing the Green Rush” from 2016 offered readers sharp insight into the racial inequity that plagues the legal cannabis industry.

The Los Angeles-based writer's reporting has not always been free of contention. An April 2016 BuzzFeed news feature centered upon Steve DeAngelo, a legal-dope pioneer and owner of Harborside Health Center––perhaps the country’s most celebrated pot dispensary. DeAngelo is among the weed world’s most capable and influential entrepreneurs.

Lewis’s BuzzFeed reporting strongly insinuated that the marijuana businessman had a bill drafted and proposed to the state legislature “as a favor” that would have empowered DeAngelo to "glide through the marijuana licensing process, while most other cannabis felons, including many of the people of color who were disproportionately targeted by the war on drugs, will need to individually convince a licensing board that they have been rehabilitated.” 

Reacting to Lewis's BuzzFeed contentions, DeAngelo denied seeking preferential treatment and asserted a personal commitment to ensuring diversity in California's burgeoning legal-weed industries. DeAngelo's objections to Lewis's reporting are reflected in the current headline on her BuzzFeed piece ("California Pot Mogul Denies Bill Was Written As a Favor to Him") and in a message KINDLAND received from a Harborside media-relations person directly after this story initially posted. DeAngelo's representative insists that the "preferential" contentions aimed at DeAngelo were "erroneously reported" by Lewis, concluding: "DeAngelo has been an instrumental proponent of diversity in this space, and is committed to freeing all prisoners of the wasteful Drug War waged by the government."

Disparities stacked against people of color are never far from coverage of the new weed order. New Republic writer Josephine Livingstone penned a lengthy assertion that one new-school online weed mag––Civilized––was based on a racist conceit. Livingstone argued that the name of the site carries a colonial sentiment; insinuating that anything less than the bougie, soccer-mom, white weed crowd is "uncivilized."

Image via VSCO

“Business, travel, tech. These words suggest that Civilized is a website for rich people,” writes Livingstone. “So, the people whom Civilized does not serve must include the poor, rather than only the stoner as we might ordinarily conceive of him or her.” In Livingstone's summation, while “Civilized celebrates shorter jail terms for those arrested for possession, it shows no interest in the disproportionate harm that has been done to the Americans who have traditionally been targeted and harmed by police enforcing drug laws.”

Livingstone, or frankly anyone really, viewing weed media through a tight sociological, analytical lens is apt to note that marijuana, both as an industry and as a content category, is in a growing-pains stage. It seems that cannabis culture and marijuana media are evolving on parallel lines. As the business of weed gets more serious, pot media coverage needs to as well. KINDLAND and its writers are currently pursuing a livelihood through immersion in all things marijuana. This site has a vested interest in weed’s coming of age, and is a part of the emerging weed-media platforms, the dozen or more “elevated” outlets reporting on cannabis lifestyle and marijuana news.

Tactful, observant, wholly digestible approach to creating cannabis-centric Internet content seems to drive most of the contemporary marijuana news providers.

Nearly three years after its launch, the Denver Post’s Cannabist is the most recognizable "new brand" (meaning not High Times) in the field. The Cannabist, which up until last week was helmed by writer/editor Ricardo Baca directing a modest staff of reporters, was the subject of a documentary film, Rolling Papers, attracts more than 800,000 monthly unique visitors, and accounts for 13 percent of the Post’s overall digital traffic. The site, according to Harvard University’s Nieman Journalism Lab, “is on track to make $1 million in revenue next year.”

Everyday pot-coverage built for the general reader differentiates the Cannabist from former weed-mag mainstays such as High Times. This tactful, observant, wholly digestible approach to creating cannabis-centric Internet content seems to drive most of the contemporary marijuana news providers competing for social media and search-engine-generated traffic. How VICE packages punk rock for the mainstream––and also puts out its own style of weed-reporting––the new division of cannabis media publications are attempting to give the weed world a greater sense of legitimacy. If marijuana is to be consumed, produced, marketed, and profited upon responsibly and equitably, it should be documented with an exacting philosophy and methodology. 

“The cannabis industry is more malleable than it’ll ever be again.”

Los Angeles, California-headquartered Prohbtd creates and publishes cleanly produced videos that show the human side of the weed world. Snoop Dogg’s Merry Jane is the online representation of how one of cannabis’s most outspoken ambassadors shares weed news spiked with his vision and celebrity presence. Cannabis information hub Leafly’s content team offers thoughtful analysis on pot policy and news, paired to a massive strain database.

Cannabis Wire co-founder Nushin Rashidian told Nieman Lab, “The industry is young enough that if a lot of attention is drawn to a particular aspect of it that’s not working, there can be enough public pressure to change it.” Rashidian, who is also a research fellow at the Tow Center for Digital Journalism at Columbia University, believes, “The cannabis industry is more malleable than it’ll ever be again.”

Image via Vice

The quality of weed journalism is largely becoming more focused and targeted. So too is how marijuana news and other pot-content reaches consumers. To some extent, the email newsletter is the new morning paper, delivered to readers via subscription, and it is one way in which cannabis media is trafficked around the Internet.

Freelance journalist Alex Halperin's byline commonly appears in LA Weekly and SF Weekly, and he has written on cannabis for The Atlantic, Fast Company, and Rolling Stone. Halperin launched his "WeedWeek" newsletter nearly 12 months ago, and now features product reviews, sells ad space and is syndicated with DOPE magazine. 

"I feel like my readers want to absorb information, even if it doesn’t necessarily support their thesis," Halperin said in an interview with HelloMD. "They want to have a good idea of what's going on, whether or not they are happy about it." 

The subscription-based delivery method is also on trend, geared toward the consumer who prefers a curated experience similar to a social media feed. 

New York-based writer and editor Mona Zhang gathers what become the top pot stories each morning and sends out the daily "Word on the Tree," which is syndicated with U.K.-based drugs and cannabis policy magazine Volteface.  And Tom Angell, the marijuana activist founder of the Marijuana Majority who writes for marijuana.com and is frequently quoted in mainstream outlets, recently launched his "Generic Marijuana Newsletter." 

The new marijuana media normalizes and contextualizes modern cannabis-use. It also exposes under-reported sides of the drug's legal and political implications that might otherwise be left out of the news cycle entirely.

Weed would be worse-off without it.