Will cannabis save journalism?

I asked myself this question while reading Willamette Week’s “Harvest Issue,” an “ode to outdoor cannabis.”

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The issue features articles about marijuana and sustainability, rooftop pot gardens and the relationship between hemp and cannabis farmers.

“The Potlander” (as WW’s branded coverage is called), also includes more than 30 ads from Oregon pot businesses: growers, retailers, consultants and more.

Thirty display ads! An embarassment of riches in today’s impoverished print media environment.

A bit of history: Known as the “Fourth Estate,” the press serves as a check on the powers that be.

Journalism got its start as a vehicle for advertising. And behind our industry’s high-minded ambitions is a wholly pragmatic business model.

A model that has imploded over the past decade as advertisers flee newspapers and magazines like rats on a sinking ship. 

Pot businesses are one exception. Unlike athletic apparel, beer and other established business sectors, newbie marijuana companies have yet to sort themselves into dominant brands or create sophisticated, in-house marketing platforms attracting tens of thousands of followers.

In Oregon’s fiercely competitive green rush environment, cannabis enterprises are eager to get their names in front of as many potential customers as possible. And that includes forging partnerships with legacy media outlets.

Publications like Willamette Week are reaping the rewards.

“It’s a revenue stream we never had in the past,” said director of advertising Iris Meyers. Meyers declined to disclose cannabis ad revenues but noted the new industry is “impacting the newsweekly on multiple levels.”

In addition to display ads, WW sends out cannabis exclusive content online and also hosts pot-themed panel discussions and conferences. 

As marijuana moves from the counterculture into the mainstream, other newspapers and magazines are eyeing pot’s money making potential.

Oregon Business, for example, is making forays into marijuana display advertising. And next week (shameless plug), we are hosting our second  Hot Topics/Cool Talks breakfast forum on the nascent pot industry: From Pinot to Pot.

But not all media are jumping on the bandwagon.

The Portland Tribune doesn’t accept marijuana advertising, said J. Brian Monihan, vice president of The Pamplin Media Group. “It’s company policy,” he said.

Monihan said the revenues have been good for alternative weeklies but are not a good fit for community-based publications.

Is that a smart business move? The question is moot at Pamplin, whose eponymous owner is known for his vehement opposition to marijuana legalization.

On the other hand, news weeklies (and other media outlets) might want to restrain their passion for pot.  In a recent post, International Business Times writer Joel Warner sounded a cautionary note about the dangers of a pot-media alliance.

While [alternative weeklies] maintain strict firewalls between the advertising and editorial sides, there’s a risk that some outlets could be seen as becoming so financially intertwined with the marijuana industry that their objectivity could threatened, such as how ESPN’s dependence on NFL contracts has led some to suggest the organization can no longer accurately cover football,” Warner writes.

One wonders if the last paragraph of the Harvest Issue’s editor’s note (written by WW culture editor Martin Cizmar) fits the bill:

And since we hope you’ll finish reading these stories with a new appreciation for cannabis and the industry behind it, we finish up with some of our favorite outdoor products and our four favorite new pot shops where you can find them.”

Finding new sources of revenue is the number one challenge facing all journalism outlets. The alliance between pot and media is helping shore up the coffers for a few publications — at least temporarily. But the partnership has also become part of the broader confluence of forces reshaping the relationship between editorial and advertising in the news business, an industry whose trajectory is perhaps less certain than that of the pot sector it is now courting.

Update:  Martin Cizmar tweeted a response to this article asking why he was not given an opportunity to comment. We did contact WW news editor Aaron Mesh, who did not respond by press time.