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Aug. 16, 2018, 9:13 a.m.
Reporting & Production

How The Globe and Mail is covering cannabis, Canada’s newest soon-to-be-legal industry

Just for starters, the Globe will have an expanding hub of coverage online, more live events, and a high-priced premium subscription newsletter for industry professionals.

When life gives you nationwide legalization of recreational cannabis, you make high-priced subscription products covering the industry. And hire at least five new journalists focused exclusively on the cannabis beat. And build out major live events around demystifying the industry.

In October, Canada is set to become the first G-7 country to fully legalize the recreational use of cannabis nationwide. (Uruguay legalized it back in 2013, and a top Georgia court made it legal there a couple weeks ago.) As each province irons out its own policies, Canada will be entering uncharted territory when it comes to how marijuana should best be regulated, grown, marketed, sold, and consumed. How to best cover a Canadian industry that’s growing with global consequences, is also uncharted territory.

For The Globe and Mail, it’s an enormous business story that touches every part of its newsroom, from reporters in regional bureaus to the investigations team. Medical marijuana has been legal and regulated in Canada now for nearly two decades, and the Trudeau government had been making overtures around recreational legalization for some time.

“Our coverage evolved slowly at first, with the legalization of medical marijuana. We’d done some coverage around problems in the supply chain, and problems in quality of product. But I’d say we probably didn’t get really serious about covering the business of cannabis until early 2017, when the government’s timeline became clear,” Derek DeCloet, who leads The Globe and Mail’s business coverage, told me. “More companies grew up, went public, got large. There were acquisitions. They made financing moves for their businesses. Activity increased markedly in 2016. So last year, we started to cover it more intensely.” That included dedicating one reporter, Christina Pellegrini, entirely to the business of cannabis.

“To be honest, I don’t have the formula for you for how we’re organizing it,” DeCloet said. “It’s a thing that has evolved quickly enough that we’ve also been doing things a little bit on the fly as well.”

One new reporter will likely be focused significantly on the government/policy side of cannabis (e.g., controlling sales through government entities versus encouraging many more private retailers). Others will focus on the business side (e.g., cannabis companies will try to build brands the way beer and wine companies have done — what will that look like?). Or the corporate side (e.g., there are lots of individual companies; maybe mergers are coming, maybe some companies will crash). Then there’s a consumer side as well (e.g., what’s the etiquette around consuming marijuana?). The Globe and Mail’s wider newsroom stands at around 260 people.

The paper’s overall cannabis coverage push includes a three-pronged approach, according to Neal Madan, managing director of corporate development and strategic planning at the Globe. First, it’ll continue to build out coverage for a newish cannabis hub on its main site (like many Globe stories, some of these are also behind a hard paywall).

It’ll invest in events, with a series starting August 22 that explores the Canadian landscape after legalization. And it’ll soon launch a very pricy subscription product, initially in email newsletter form, which will be its own premium tier on top of a regular Globe and Mail subscription. The newsletter is set to launch sometime in September and will start at $999 CDN per year.

“It’s pretty clear the cannabis industry will be an area of frenetic activity. The world’s eyes will also be on Canada as we become a hub of financial activity in this sector,” Madan said. “We’ve been tracking internal data around readership that shows us cannabis is one of our most searched and highly read topics. Readers are consuming it in large quantities, both in terms of the number of articles that they’re looking at, as well as the amount of time they spend on them.”

He wouldn’t share subscription targets, saying only “it’s fair to say that this is being priced appropriately for a premium, professional-grade product,” and “our idea is that we can add value to this area that lives by standards of the Globe, and we think that this has tangible value.”

As a privately held company, the Globe and Mail doesn’t release specific numbers on its finances or subscribers or readers. The company says it’s profitable, at least as of this J-Source story from December. (There’ve been whispers, though, that The New York Times has more Canadian digital subscribers than the Globe, or any other Canadian news organization.)

The premium newsletter is supposed to be an “even deeper dive that’s distinct from our regular cannabis coverage on our site,” Madan said, into “regulatory rules, corporate development and operating strategies, M&A activities, research and development, robust industry data, and analytics.” The Globe has been in touch with various industry professionals to gauge interest in such a product; potential subscribers include everyone from people working in the cannabis industry to policymakers and financial or legal advisers.

“When we evaluate any potential new product, we try to address questions using external and internal data, while also drawing upon own experience and intuitions,” Madan said. “Does the Globe have credibility in this content area? Is there a sizable audience interested in this subject matter? Do they have a need for this specific product, or can we create a need? are there enough people willing to pay for it so as to make it profitable?”

Usable industry news will be more conducive to a high-priced subscription product.

“I think what [the Globe and Mail is] doing is smart,” said Nushin Rashidian, a co-founder of the subscription-driven publication Cannabis Wire, which covers the socioeconomic, policy, and research issues facing the global cannabis industry. (Rashidian was also a lead researcher on the Tow Center for Digital Journalism’s work on platforms and publishers.) “Canada’s industry is roughly the size of California’s, but their real value proposition is the fact that all these companies are going global or going to go global, so their potential subscriber base is actually massive. These companies are exporting to Germany, they’re looking at Brazil, Australia.”

The Cannabist, once a standout project from The Denver Post, has struggled to maintain its editorial offerings (cuts delivered by Digital First Media’s owner Alden Global Capital certainly didn’t help). The Canninfornian, a project of a group of Digital First newsrooms in California, doesn’t seem to have a strong business model to back it, either. Meanwhile, in New Jersey, NJ.com has been selling its premium Cannabis Insider newsletter for $29.99 per month (or $299.99 for an annual subscription). The Boston Globe seems to be making moves for a dedicated cannabis section, based on its job postings for a cannabis reporter, as well as a dedicated section producer.

“We’re certainly not alone in covering this, but I think we’re probably alone in the level of investment we’re putting into it going forward,” DeCloet said. “It’s not untilled terrain, but it’s quite new terrain, so there’s a lot we have to do to cover it properly. We think the industry has a lot to learn as it goes from being primarily a black-market industry to a legal industry. We’ve got a lot to learn.”

Photo by Douglas Sprott used under a Creative Commons license.

POSTED     Aug. 16, 2018, 9:13 a.m.
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