The Rise and Fall of Cannabis Reporting in Canada

Illustration by Taesa Hodel.

Legalization has created jobs for reporters, but the beat’s survival isn’t guaranteed

By Nick Laba 

The public reacted with excitement last October when cannabis was legalized in Canada—and media attention surged along with public interest. But early signs of decline in the cannabis beat south of the border—in American states where marijuana is legal— leaves an uncertain future for reporters in this country.

Falling off the bandwagon

Mike Hager of The Globe and Mail is among those who have been assigned to the cannabis beat at mainstream Canadian outlets. He’s been excited to report on such a historic shift in policy.

“It’s been fun for me because it’s the first time in my career where I’ve developed a beat, really,” says the Vancouver-based reporter. “Over the past few years, I’ve collected contacts and sources and understanding of what’s important in the cannabis journalism field.”

The Globe and Mail, Daily Hive and the Georgia Straight have all dedicated sections of their publications to cannabis. In the time since legalization, stories have moved away from reporting predominantly on legislative issues, replaced by a wealth of stories on economics, human health and consumer interest.

Part of the rush has passed with legalization, as many of the journalism questions—about the business model and regulations, for instance—have been answered.

Hager isn’t writing about cannabis as much as he used to; he says the beat takes up 60 per cent of his time, where it used to take up 80. Vancouver Sun reporter Nick Eagland says he was working on cannabis stories every day in the weeks before and after legalization, where now he writes one every couple of weeks.

While the legalization of cannabis has lead to journalistic opportunities, some people in Canadian media aren’t confident the boom will last—especially given the layoffs and abandoned websites seen in the United States.

The decline of cannabis websites

Ricardo Baca, the first marijuana editor at The Denver Post, says he witnessed declining interest—from publishers and readers alike—post-legalization, and Canadian reporters will likely experience the same.

In November 2013, two months before the recreational sale of cannabis was legalized in Colorado, the Post’s editor-in-chief appointed Baca to lead cannabis coverage from a serious, journalistic perspective.  

A month and a half later, he says, they debuted the standalone website The Cannabist, days before the first recreational sales began on Jan. 1, 2014.

In December 2016, Baca left his editorial post at The Cannabist. The following April, six months before legalization in Canada, The Denver Post gutted the last of its Cannabist team.

“What you ultimately see is that when you live with legal marijuana for a while then inevitably normalization sets in,” Baca says. “It becomes more normalized. It becomes less interesting. The public starts caring less and then you see outlets start to fade away, or the coverage starts to fade away.”

The decline isn’t unique to The Denver Post. The Chicago Sun-Times’ initially successful cannabis website Extract posted its last story in July 2017; the San Francisco Chronicle’s Cannabist took an eight-month hiatus last August.

Some journalists believe that time will weed out the weakest publications. “It’s going to do what a lot of other trends in the media do, which is peter off and leave the strongest pillars standing,” says Piper Courtenay, cannabis editor of the Georgia Straight.

The Straight, building on five decades of cannabis reporting, launched Straight Cannabis in April 2018. Unlike many publications, says Courtenay, the Straight has been reporting on cannabis since its very beginnings.

The future of cannabis reporting

Courtenay thinks that most Canadian publications who’ve jumped on the bandwagon will drop their cannabis-dedicated reporters in the next five years, but she’s not cynical about the overall future of the beat.

“The thing about cannabis is it’s really the beat that keeps on giving. You can talk about sports. You can talk about wellness. You can talk about politics, investing and economics. There’s no shortage of stories and there won’t be for a very long time,” she says, adding that journalists who put the time in to become knowledgeable, expert authorities on cannabis will outlast the trends.

Mike Hager, for one, sees the need for cannabis journalism enduring so long as people are making money in pot. Or trying to.

“If you buy the hype that Canadian pot companies are going to go worldwide and have first-mover advantage and become the global giants, then that provides endless fodder for coverage and scrutiny,” he says.

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