Almost 100 years ago, the iconic Tribune Tower opened its doors in Oakland, California and became both a symbol of the growing city and the home of its flagship newspaper, the Oakland Tribune. Today, the tower still stands tall, but the newspaper has since shuttered, becoming another casualty in the journalism industry’s ongoing struggle to adapt to the age of digital media.
This October, cannabis industry professionals will gather in the shadow of the iconic tower for a conference that will discuss, in part, how marijuana media companies can avoid the Oakland Tribune’s fate. The New West Summit will feature panel discussions, a job fair, speakers and presentations on the topic of the future of media, technology and investment in the cannabis industry. And the headlining act — a conversation between cannabis journalist Ricardo Baca and musician George Clinton — will feature a man who has been ahead of the curve on cannabis journalism for years.
The founder and former editor of the Denver Post’s The Cannabist, Baca is now on the cutting edge yet again. This time, he’s created a cannabis-specific content agency called Grasslands that builds new territory in the space between public relations and marketing.
“Everything we do is about creating a narrative,” said Baca. “We’re working with the industry to get the word out about the industry, but we’re not doing traditional PR nor are we doing traditional marketing.”
Grasslands creates any material that a cannabis company might need to stand out in an increasingly crowded market, which includes doing anything from managing social media accounts and writing books to editing proposals and co-writing applications for state marijuana programs.
But while Baca is renowned for his work as a cannabis editor and writer — he was named one of Fortune’s seven most influential people in the cannabis industry in 2016 — he is adamant that the work he does for Grasslands is not journalism, even though he is applying the narrative and writing skills he cultivated over decades working as a journalist.
“I’m still producing journalism, but that’s completely separate from Grasslands,” he said. “Newspapers are the last bastion of legitimate ethics in media, and I take that very seriously, and all of my clients know that the minute they sign on, I won’t be writing about them in the context of what I do as a freelance journalist.”
Baca currently writes a column for Cannabis Now and for the Daily Beast, among other projects. He just hired two journalists for his Grasslands team, one of whom, Emily Gray Brosious, formerly was the lead writer for the Chicago Sun-Times’ cannabis vertical, Extract.’
Five years ago, he says he never would have guessed that now he’d be building his own company, as he was “having a blast” at The Cannabist. When he was running The Cannabist, Baca says he and his team “took journalism into a more modern and more fact-based, science-based direction” by approaching cannabis without the misinformed perspective that most mainstream outlets approached the substance — a strategy that large newspapers around the country are now following.
And when he surprised himself by announcing his departure from The Cannabist last December, Baca says two editors at the Denver Post reached out in support.
“Completely separate from each other, they sent me emails saying I was the most entrepreneurial journalist they’d ever worked with,” said Baca.
“That was encouraging to hear,” he laughed.
In under a year, Baca has already built Grasslands up into a blossoming small business, based in Denver but working with clients around the country. At October’s New West Summit, which Baca is emceeing, Grasslands will have its “coming out” party, where Baca is looking forward to celebrating legalization in California, Colorado and elsewhere with friends, clients and potential clients.
Ultimately, while both Denver and Oakland are far from the eastern prairie and mountain wanderings of Walt Whitman, Baca’s Grasslands shares an ethos with the “Leaves of Grass” author.
“This is the grass that grows wherever the land is and the water is, this the common air that bathes the globe,” Whitman wrote about the thoughts of humankind. And so too is Grasslands — working to build up the cannabis industry, each business a single blade of green with a story to tell, from the roots up.
TELL US, what stories should be told about cannabis?