Everyone was curious about Ricardo Baca's new job when he was named The Denver Post's first-ever marijuana editor in 2013 (actually, he was the first-ever marijuana editor at any major media outlet in the U.S.), and he appeared on shows like The Colbert Report and The View to field questions about his unique editorial gig, good-naturedly accepting the ribbing that came his way during those interviews.
Jokes were being made on Saturday Night Live and The Tonight Show, too. "Even The New York Times profile on us had a big picture of me and kind of opened up with the idea that this position is a joke," Baca tells Co.Create.
While the media had a field day poking fun at the idea of anyone at a newspaper covering weed full time (and, well, the jokes were pretty easy to make), it made sense that the Post, the biggest newspaper in Colorado, would devote more resources to covering pot in late 2013—the state's residents had voted to make recreational marijuana legal in 2012, and selling pot in the state would become legal in January of 2014. (Medical marijuana has been dispensed in Colorado since 2010.)
If any outlet should dominate the coverage, it was the Post. And since launching The Cannabist, the newspaper's dedicated site for all things related to pot, in December of 2013, Baca has expanded the outlet's coverage (which to the Post's credit was robust even before The Cannabist debuted), relying on veteran reporters, including Eric Gorski and John Ingold, to cover news, bringing in marijuana enthusiasts like pot critic Jake Brown and pot and parenting columnist Brittany Driver and assigning other writers to delve into food, sports, style and entertainment as these subjects relate to pot.
The Post's investment in The Cannabist has paid off with enhanced editorial cred, and it's also paid off financially, Baca says. While editorial and advertising is "church and state," the site is profitable, he reports, noting, "We more than pay for ourselves."
Now, we're getting a more in-depth look at how Baca and his colleagues have made The Cannabist the valuable resource it is through the documentary Rolling Papers. Directed by Mitch Dickman, the film, which will be in theaters and on demand starting today, documents how Baca put together The Cannabist and how he and his team cover a legalized marijuana industry still in its infancy.
Here, Baca, a journalist with more than 20 years of experience, talks to Co.Create about how he got his job, his mandate to cover both the good and the bad and his latest hire: a sex and intimacy columnist who joined The Cannabist this month.
Baca was surprised when in November of 2013, the higher-ups at the Post, where he had worked as the newspaper's entertainment editor and music writer for 12 years, asked him if he would be interested in becoming the newspaper's marijuana editor. "I told them flat out at that first meeting, 'I'm far from the biggest weed nerd. We have people in this newsroom who can tell the difference between some strains of pot just by smelling them,'" he says. "The powers that be, and my boss at the time, said, 'That's exactly why we want you for this job.' "
They weren't looking for a stoner or the world's foremost expert on pot. Rather, the Post's management wanted a journalist who could create a team and venue for coverage—what eventually became The Cannabist—from scratch. And in his role as music editor, Baca had created Reverb, a popular blog for the newspaper, and co-created a popular music festival known as the Underground Music Showcase. So they had faith that he had the journalistic chops as well as the entrepreneurial skills it would take to get the project off the ground, and Baca was willing and eager to give it a go.
Having covered music for so long, Baca had been around marijuana, but as noted earlier, he hardly considered himself a weed expert.
In fact, in his early days on the beat, Baca worried he wasn't getting up to speed fast enough. "I remember going on Colbert and those early news shows, and I didn't have a level of knowledge that I felt comfortable with," he reflects. "There was a lot of pressure, and I didn't want to make a fool of myself or the newspaper. Weed nerds—they're a passionate bunch. They're passionate about their cannabis, and they're passionate about the news about the plants, the regulations that comes out on this beat. They are a very discerning group of individuals. I didn't want them to think I was a sham."
To educate himself, Baca relied on his colleagues in the newsroom who had written about marijuana issues longer than he had, and he also read a lot of books—including, not surprisingly, Eric Schlosser's Reefer Madness—and conducted hours of research online. "Ultimately, I think about 13 months into the job as we were wrapping up that first year of legal sales, I suddenly had an epiphany of sorts—I had finally arrived at the place I wanted to be," he says. "After writing more than a hundred or two hundred stories, I finally felt like I was there, like I had the knowledge of cannabis the job required."
From that point on, Baca believes his writing got better, and he says he even started speaking about the subject of marijuana differently. "I think before I spoke about it carefully and perhaps too carefully," Baca says, "but I just wanted to be responsible, not step beyond my own limits of knowledge. Then a year in, 13 months in, suddenly I was able to not only talk about the plant but talk about my own history with it from a different perspective."
Baca grew up hearing only negative things about pot. "I realized how much we'd been lied to by our government and by our schools and educators when we were kids," he says. "I get that you have to tell kids strongly to stay away from drugs because they have developing brains, but I don’t think you lie to children. Hopefully, we get past all those lies that we were told in the '80s and '90s. We get past that with good information, and that's what we put out."
This isn't to say that Baca is a cheerleader for everything the burgeoning legal marijuana industry does. "I think most people who come to the site can tell this is not activist journalism. This is straight-forward journalism—the good and the bad," Baca says, pointing out, "I spent five straight months reporting on pesticides and how the industry has been using them incredibly irresponsibly and continues to do so in many ways. That's a big story, and it doesn’t shine necessarily well upon the industry."
Baca worked on that story with David Migoya, one of the Post's investigative reporters, and he is proud of it. "We both just spent that five months reporting on pesticides and how far behind the state of Colorado was with its own regulations with the Colorado Department of Agriculture and how the marijuana industry had such a loud voice that they had persuaded the state not to make definitive regulations about pesticide application on this very unique plant," he says.
As we see in Rolling Papers, Baca also broke news about a grower misleading the public about the THC levels in its edibles.
The Cannabist tackles hard news, but the site also covers everything from gaming to food and, now, sex and intimacy.
Baca spent more than a year looking for a freelance sex and intimacy and weed columnist before he found the right person. "I think that's a really important part of this conversation because now that we're more than two years into legal sales and more than three years into outright recreational, personal use and legalization, we need to focus more on the issues behind normalization. I'm passionate about that, especially coming from a culture reporting background," Baca says, stressing, "The news will always be first and foremost, but now let's talk about this—let's talk about sex and intimacy and how legal cannabis changes that realm."
While everyone else who writes for The Cannabist writes under their given names, the sex and intimacy columnist is using a pen name. "I'm okay with that," Baca says. "It's a unique position, and she is really making herself vulnerable.' "
Before the sex and intimacy columnist signed on for the gig, Baca told her she should think and hard about whether she really wanted the job because she would be putting herself out there in a way that nobody else is right now. "Yeah, there are some websites that have weed and sex columnists, and High Times writes the occasional column about it, but she is going to be weekly," Baca says, "and judging from her first three columns, she is absolutely ready to put herself out there and make herself vulnerable, which I think is really wonderful."
While Baca runs The Cannabist, he isn't a one-man band and stresses that when he talks about the site, giving credit to everyone from digital producer Aleta Labak to the aforementioned Post reporters Gorski and Ingold. Having worked at the Post for so many years, he appreciates the insights and camaraderie that comes from being part of a team.
When Britta Erickson, one of Rolling Papers' producers, approached him about doing the film, Baca recalls the working title was Lead Character, and he wasn't comfortable with the film focusing on him. "I felt guilty because we had staff reporting on marijuana for years, and I was not a part of it," he says. "I just happened to be the person who they asked to take this position, so I wanted to make sure the film would share the love with some of my colleagues at work and also my colleagues on the site. Britta allayed my fears and said they would follow Ingold and Gorski and Jake Brown and Brittany Driver. Once I heard that they were fine doing it as an ensemble piece and that I just happened to be one of the main members of that ensemble, I was fully on board."