High Country: Damn the Man! Save The Cannabist! | AspenTimes.com

High Country: Damn the Man! Save The Cannabist!

Katie Shapiro
High Country
High Country author Katie Shapiro with Ricardo Baca, center, and cinematographer Zack Armstrong at the SXSW premiere of "Rolling Papers" in 2015.

When I received an email last Thursday morning with the subject line “Update from The Cannabist” from my editor, I dreaded opening it, already knowing what it was about to reveal.

My fear is a reality. The utter decimation of The Denver Post in recent months thanks to its New York City-based hedge fund owner, Alden Global Capital, has put the pioneer of pot journalism in jeopardy. As stated in an announcement from the company in March, 30 employees — or one-third of the masthead — will leave the newsroom and Alex Pasquariello is the latest journalist they’ve let go.

As editor-in-chief of The Cannabist for the past year (FYI, it was a position that took The Denver Post four months to fill), he shared, “With the editorial cuts The Denver Post was forced to make, they were unable to keep The Cannabist staffed. It’s obviously a huge disappointment and the result of a series of no-win decisions they’ve had to endure.”

The site, however, will stay online, but The Denver Post will automatically populate it with stories filed by remaining reporters with articles tagged “marijuana.” Longtime Denver Post reporter Alicia Wallace, who officially joined The Cannabist in 2016, will continue contributing to the site until she leaves on her own volition for a prestigious Columbia Journalism School fellowship in June.

“I definitely fought for The Cannabist until the end. Ultimately, this decision is just a huge loss to cannabis journalism and credible industry news is more important now than ever as legalization advances on the federal level,” Pasquariello added.

Later that afternoon, a tweet-storm followed, starting with an epic thread from Jake Browne, one of The Cannabist’s first hires as a marijuana critic.

“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,” tweeted Browne. I encourage you to read it in its entirety @fakejakebrowne; @beingalexp’s is also poignant.

I feel forever lucky to have been an active participant in said experiment during the greatest shift in cannabis culture to date: first, as a producer of the documentary “Rolling Papers” and soon after, as a staff writer for The Cannabist since its inception. I lived and breathed The Cannabist for those first few years even nabbing the designation as “the nation’s first-ever cannabis style writer” from Vox Media’s fashion site, Racked.

We were at the genesis of the green rush and The Denver Post became the first major media outlet to appoint a marijuana editor. Starting on Jan. 1, 2014 (day one of recreational cannabis sales in Colorado), our camera crew followed founding editor Ricardo Baca as he assembled a team of straight-laced staff writers and fish-out-of-water freelancers, together navigating an unprecedented beat.

After wrapping one of our early shoots over beers at the Satellite Bar on Colfax Avenue, I asked him if he had hired anyone to cover cannabis style yet. Half-joking, half-serious, we brainstormed about what that actually meant while laughing at my cashmere, fingerless gloves emblazoned with peace signs I had on that day. He told me to go for it and I filed my first story a week later (a cringe-worthy roundup of the worst “Stoner Bowl” T-shirts in honor of the Denver Broncos facing the Seattle Seahawks for XLVIII).

While my byline frequency has fluctuated over the years, it is only in writing this piece that I’ve realized I’m the last freelancer from the original team still contributing. Partly due to former longtime “Postie” and now Aspen Times editor David Krause for allowing me to pen this very column (in which a content-share agreement allows The Cannabist to republish my content). Most notably, Browne has gone on to Sensi Magazine as managing editor and his fellow marijuana critic Ry Prichard has gone on to host Viceland’s hit show “Bong Appétit.” Baca, who worked at The Denver Post for 15 years, saw the writing on the wall following its last major round of layoffs, leaving in late 2016 to form Grasslands: A Journalism-Minded Agency.

I saw the writing on the wall, too, watching on my newsfeed from afar as Cannabist staffers Aleta Labak, Polly Washburn and Lindsey Bartlett jumped ship one by one to join the Grasslands team, matched with some of the brightest public relations minds in the cannabis industry.

In one “Rolling Papers” scene, The Denver Post’s then-executive editor Gregory Moore says it best, which I’m repeating here for anyone who’s left there: “We knew that the recreational sales of marijuana were going to be much bigger than the medicinal. We’re ground zero for it, so we knew we had to cover it in a way that we hadn’t covered it in the past. People are watching very closely what’s happening here. For us to take it seriously is just smart journalism.”

If Baca knows anything (which trust me, is something about almost everything), it’s smart journalism. On Friday, I received an email from his Grasslands managing partner Shawna Seldon McGregor with the subject line, “Statement: As the Denver Post Cuts Staffing to Groundbreaking Marijuana News Vertical The Cannabist, Site’s Founder and Original Editor Laments its Unjustified Collapse” wherein Baca stated:

“I am absolutely gutted today. 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.”

In less than two years under his leadership, The Cannabist grew to a seven-person full-time team that surpassed High Times in digital readership while earning accolades from the likes of Fortune as one of the “7 Most Powerful People in America’s Marijuana Industry” and the Brookings Institution as one of “12 Key People to Watch in Marijuana Policy.”

Daunting shoes to fill and a proven track record of success to maintain, Pasquariello worked tirelessly to keep The Cannabist running robustly under an unfathomable, understaffed and stressful environment — even having to relocate to The Denver Post’s new-ish headquarters in suburbia — a shell of its shiny, former offices in downtown Denver.

But Baca is The Cannabist. So it makes more than perfect sense the news release ended with, “Grasslands is in early discussions with Post leadership about potentially purchasing The Cannabist should they decide to sell it.” Baca also shared a post on his own social media pages that said, “This wasn’t how it was supposed to end.”

With an offer on the table and a built-in team at the ready, I have a hunch it’s just the beginning (again).

Katie Shapiro has a heavy heart, but is hopeful. She can be reached at katie@katieshapiromedia.com and followed around high country @kshapiromedia.