So What Do You Do, Ricardo Baca, Marijuana Editor for The Denver Post?

RicardoMost of us both inside and outside the media world can appreciate the occasional (dated) joke about marijuana — but the world’s most popular weed is now big business, and some would argue that there’s no going back. For evidence, look no further than The Denver Post, the paper of record for the state that may now double as the safest place in the world to grow, sell and consume cannabis.

The Post launched The Cannabist, a vertical dedicated entirely to the business and culture of marijuana, in December 2013 right after Colorado passed laws legalizing what remains a tightly controlled substance in much of the United States and the world at large. The paper didn’t have to look too far to find a reporter who was more than ready to handle this new challenge.

Ricardo Baca, a veteran journalist who worked on the Post staff for more than a decade as a music critic and entertainment editor, now has a new title to add to his resume: the first American journalist dedicated to covering all aspects of the (legal) marijuana industry.

He spoke to us about challenges, controversies and day-to-day operations at his high-profile gig.

Name: Ricardo Baca
Position: Marijuana editor, The Denver Post; founding editor, The Cannabist
Resume: Worked as a pop culture and media critic at the Corpus Christi Caller-Times from 1999 to 2002. Hired by The Denver Post as music critic in 2002; given the added title of entertainment editor there in 2011. In late 2013, anointed the marijuana editor of the Post and founding editor of its newly created marijuana news site, The Cannabist.
Hometown: Denver
Education: Bachelor’s in journalism, Metropolitan State University of Denver
Marital status: Engaged
Media mentors: John Moore (formerly of The Denver Post), Jon Caramanica (of The New York Times), Whoopi Goldberg (a writer at The Cannabist)
Best career advice received: “Thinking about making a big change in your coverage? Just try it. If it doesn’t work, you can always try something else.”
Guilty pleasure: Taylor Swift
Last book read: The Goldfinch, by Donna Tartt

How did you arrive at your current position?
After graduation I moved to Corpus Christi, Texas, and lived there for about three years while working as a television critic. I found my critic’s voice and founded a music blog and festival that are still around. Eventually I was promoted to editor at The Denver Post, and over the last couple of years I’ve been both the paper’s music critic and its entertainment editor. In November I was approached about [the marijuana editor] job; I was excited and thrilled and accepted it immediately, and the rest was history. I’ve been running The Cannabist ever since, and every day is truly different. It adds new life to what we do at the newspaper and how we cover marijuana.

What was the strategy behind the creation of The Cannabist?
The Post‘s move to not only appoint a marijuana editor, but start a related vertical through full-time hires and a health freelance staff was bold and brave. At the same time I think it’s the right thing to do, especially since marijuana is more legal in Colorado than anywhere else in the world.

[At the Post], we dipped our toes in the water throughout 2013, when it became legal to possess and ingest marijuana. So we expanded our cultural coverage projects; for example, we put ‘Cooking With Cannabis’ on the cover of our prestigious, award-winning food section. That morning we were biting our nails wondering if we would get hundreds of calls from subscribers ready to cancel their subscriptions, but it never happened.

More people thought it was really interesting how the metropolitan, Pulitzer-winning newspaper was actually throwing that on the cover of the food section. Next thing you know, our gardening section had a piece on growing marijuana at home. A lot of people don’t know the differences between Washington and Colorado law, but that’s one of the big differences: in Washington you can’t grow your own; while in Colorado you can grow up to 12 plants per household.

There was a lot of interest among our readers, so in December 2013 we launched The Cannabist, which takes all of that coverage and expands upon it.

How many freelancers do you have at The Cannabist?
We have about a dozen freelancers: two freelance pot critics; one product critic; one freelance hemp writer; a style/fashion writer; and food writers who contribute once a week.

You’ll see how incredibly professional all of this looks: for example, our food writer is a professional chef and photographer who provides a nice diverse set of recipes for cooking with cannabis. We also have freelancers who write about video games and entertainment, and we’ve begun working with a writer who will bring more music coverage into the fold.

We also have an advice columnist: people write her with questions like, ‘If I get high and fail a drug test, can I get fired?’ or ‘Will I fail a drug test if I use cannabis-infused massage lotion?’

Because the law is so new, there are so many unanswered questions, and more questions come from every story we write. That fact just proves that people are reading our content — and it couldn’t make us feel better about what we’re doing.

Is your goal to cover every aspect of marijuana culture?
We’re not covering every aspect, but every time we think of a new one, we jump on it. A former freelancer of mine recently approached me with a story about working out with weed, and we found that lots of people were interested in a topic that has been very popular in the underground for decades. [Lucas Dean Fiser] is a very talented creative writer who is learning more about journalism through this experiment. He does everything very safely: he’ll go fishing or rock climbing while high, but his partner is always totally sober. The coverage has been controversial, but it’s been a lot of fun.

For example, Lucas’ first column was about going on a really long bike ride while stoned. He tweeted it out and immediately the Denver Police account tweeted back at him just to let him know that it is absolutely against the law to ride your bike while under the influence. He’s setting a responsible example so hopefully other people can remember: I really do like going to the swimming pool on a Saturday afternoon while stoned, but I shouldn’t do anything that would put myself or other people in harm’s way.

How often do you get product samples from producers?
Some imagine a world in which people are constantly dropping off eighths or edibles or gear at our desks in the hope that we post something, but that hasn’t happened once. We do receive product samples on occasion.

Ben Livingston, who writes our gear reviews, needs to try the products personally, so he does receive product samples. I don’t know whether he keeps them or sends them back, and I don’t care because he does a great job.

How does the editorial process work? 
We take the journalism of The Cannabist very seriously, and we have some very experienced professionals on our staff who don’t need the handholding. Most of the pot critics are that way — terrific writers with vibrant voices and expert authority. They don’t have to tell us anything beyond what they’re doing. One of our critics even shoots all his own photos.

We also have a critic who visits shops and writes sprawling essays about the experience you’ll find at a given shop. That writer is the only one on staff who’s anonymous; everyone else writes under his or her legal name.

How many of the writers have journalistic backgrounds?
I’d say maybe half the writers have journalistic backgrounds; many of our contributors write for the Post itself. All of the cannabis-related content in the Denver Post is published through Cannabist, and that’s a huge part of our success: having the integrity and the quality reporting of the Denver Post coming through us.

Outside of that, l’ll get pitched about stories for a cannabis spa with all these facial treatments and I’ll say, ‘that’s fascinating for a staffer,’ and she’ll write it.

For example, the Post‘s lead comedy writer on the entertainment side recently pitched and wrote a column about how the reggae scene in Colorado has changed since legal sales began. Post staffers contribute to the site pretty regularly.

Do growers contact you in order to get coverage?
We don’t usually hear directly from growers because, under current law, all of the growers are linked with specific sellers. Makers of edible products, on the other hand, contact us often; I’m currently working on a piece right now about low-dosage product, because there’s been a lot of controversy about edibles.

Maureen Dowd’s experience is just the tip of the iceberg. There have been two deaths attributed to edibles [according to the Denver police], and many other cases of people overconsuming. One of the leading ‘edible’ factories in town is called Dixie Elixirs, which is known for weed soda. The bottle I had most recently contained 70 milligrams, while the official dose for edible marijuana is 10 mg, so that’s seven servings. The company just released a five-mg product, because people generally don’t want to split a soda among seven people or a candy bar among ten.

It will be an interesting experiment for tourists who come to town and say, ‘I just want to try something that’s not going to mess me up.’

Have you seen any particularly interesting marketing efforts tied to the new laws beyond a local sushi restaurant’s ‘cannabis-pairing menu?’
Hapa Sushi’s effort disappointed me tremendously because I do think there’s an opportunity here for people to start doing legitimate pairings: marijuana with beer, with wine, food, etc. Beer and cannabis ‘pairings’ sound like a joke, but now they’re happening every week all over the state.

The Hapa [campaign] was smart, but when I went there, the manager told me ‘That wasn’t real. That was just a marketing stunt.’ I lost a lot of respect for them for treating it as such.

In other examples, I recently wrote a short piece about a cheap hotel in Pagosa Springs that recently advertised 420-friendly rooms. This happened just six months after legalization.

What has the site traffic been like? What about the general response to the coverage?
We’re very happy with our traffic. It’s not the biggest thing going on, but it’s growing and meeting my expectations. We haven’t encountered as much controversy as I would have thought. There’s a real backlash, but it’s not constant. People think we’re a pro-marijuana media organization, and I welcome that conversation, but I don’t respond to the majority of reader conversations. We’re covering a now-legal substance from a cultural perspective, and people are very passionate about the issue.

What is something about your job that would surprise our readers?
Many people hear about what I do and think, ‘Oh, you must have all the free marijuana you can smoke and you must get high at work.’ But I only eat it; I don’t smoke it — and it’s not a regular thing. Something that might surprise them about me is that a documentary film crew follows me all the time. As journalists, we’re used to asking the questions, but it’s bizarre when you’re on the other side.

What’s the film crew working on?
They’re making a feature-length documentary. It’s called The Rolling Papers, and it will be released in early 2015. You can call me a central character.

Any final thoughts?
Yes. We’re still looking for freelancers!

Patrick Coffee is senior editor of Mediabistro’s PRNewser and AgencySpy. Follow him on Twitter @PatrickCoffee.

@PatrickCoffee Patrick Coffee is a senior editor for Adweek.