How a digital media company is challenging stereotypes about the growing landscape of marijuana culture
Image by Flickr user MarihuanayMedicina
By Crissy Van Meter
When I was approached about an editorial gig at a marijuana start-up, I worried that I wouldn’t fit in.
I don’t smoke weed.
I met the weed entrepreneurs in Downtown Los Angeles, at a packed café, where people were focused and intent, heads down, working on laptops. I was nearly late because I couldn’t find a cheap, public lot that wasn’t already full. I didn’t worry because I figured these guys were stoners, and stoners don’t care about punctuality.
The café was far from my westside apartment that’s curled up to bungalows by the beach. I live a few blocks from Venice where there are people casually smoking weed on the boardwalk, and certainly, it seemed like they should have wanted to meet there.
But over the phone, the editor explained that the office was in Downtown LA, and aimed to be part of the droves of creatives taking over empty spaces and building companies on top of Skid Row.
Three men met me for my interview. They were all nicely dressed, and they shook my hand with such seriousness that I wasn’t sure what any of this had to do with marijuana.
I wondered if I should blurt out my confession: I haven’t smoked weed since I was nineteen! Then I would tell them that I started smoking weed when I was twelve and that I know what a stoner is. I considered listing my drug history in verbal resume form just in case it would help my case.
12 years old: I graffitied the school bathroom walls and was suspended, fined, and not allowed to graduate the D.A.R.E. program.
13 years old: Smoked a joint.
14 years old: Jack Daniels in public bathrooms.
The list would be quite long.
But before I could rattle it off, this startup crew made it clear this venture was not about recreational indulgences. It was about making money and diving into new, and unknown territory. They spoke with ease and eloquence: something unexpected, something that made me annoyed and embarrassed about my near tardiness.
By no means were they Jerry Garcia-loving stoners, or frat boys who drank and smoked weed to get fucked up every night. They explained that for them this wasn’t exactly about banding together to passionately crusade for marijuana as a legal, recreational drug. It was about making money, of course. And it was about creating something that hasn’t been done with accuracy yet: A voice for real people who use cannabis. Then, they hired me to edit the new venture.
So far, The Kindland has been an experiment in defining the demographics of cannabis users. We have stats, of course, but I mean we are hopefully writing to real people, and not the stereotypes of marijuana partakers.
Each morning, with a very small team, we plot the daily operations of a media outlet, like all my editor jobs before, but this one lacks censorship and offers a newfound freedom.
We can write about anything we want.
There are no rules here and, so far, no real censorship. Perhaps it’s because not many outlets are doing what we’re doing: Assuming that smart, curious, wonderful people also love cannabis.
In my experience as an editor, things are often censored because of advertisers, swarms of PR people, and the many relationships built along the way. It’s not easy to disregard a 10-year relationship with say, a major brand or celebrity, because well, you’re required to get the page views. That is the job.
Here, there are no relationships to appease, and I’m sure they’ll pop up, but for now, we’re on our own.
We launched in late November without a ton of funding or marketing. Steadily, while our editorial staff cranks out what we think to be important and wide-ranging material, we’re gaining a readership.
Like any startup, that doesn’t guarantee much, except that whatever happens, we are challenging stoner judgers everywhere. Maybe we are onto something.
I have worked a lot of editor jobs, and I’ve worked with a lot of writers over the past ten years. Some jobs have taken me to the most corporate of environments. Others fell somewhere in the middle.
There’s always been a sense of censorship. In my editing, I would often be required to edit out observations, opinions, and facts that didn’t align with the brand. Sure, that’s fine. It’s a job, and I was being paid to curate someone else’s vision—or rather, safest way to make money.
The other day I spoke with a writer who wanted to pitch me for the weed website. He begged me to tell him what I was looking for, to spoon feed him story ideas and headlines that would be a good fit, something I’d done repeatedly at any other job.
I told him to write whatever makes him mad or happy. I told him to write about something that bothers him. I told him to write whatever he wants.
Our office is small, and we’ve since left Downtown LA to share a cheaper, lower level, office space in Hollywood. Seven of us show up each day. Our age demographic ranges from just out of college to close to retirement.
Sometimes the office smells like weed and sometimes it smells like vegan takeout. Each day, we decide as editors, what our writers are willing to talk about, and we encourage as many first-person stories as we can get because usually they’re the most interesting and representative of wide ranging experiences.
We decided that we wouldn’t worry about what advertisers think of us or our stories, and we won’t write to any demographic, especially stoners, because there isn’t a set demographic criteria for who we’re targeting. That’s part of the fun.
Of course the Wild West of weed content online is not limited just to us. There are a few big players that attract and continue to define perceptions of cannabis users. These include: Weed Maps, Leafly, Stoner’s Cookbook, High Times, Merry Jane, The Cannabist, Civilized, and Dope Magazine. Other publications, like Vice, for example, are generous with their weed coverage.
But much of that content is a shot in the dark without too many considerations about the complex demographic make up of weed consumers. That’s where we come in as the greater aggregator of data. We’ve got editors, including myself, with a deep rolodex of seasoned reporters who not so shockingly love weed too, and as we grow, so does our roster of capable and interesting contributors.
When we first sat down as a small team, we discussed what we thought our base demographic make up might be, the most obvious for all Internet sites that think men will click: 18-34 males. We expected, like every other place I’ve worked, that this popular demographic that sells the ads and pays the bills, would stick.
But so far, we’ve found that almost equally, men and women are reading, which isn’t a typical Internet audience breakdown by any means.
I conduct a weekly interview with women in a column we have called Women’s Lib. It’s been a big driver of traffic and, more importantly, a sign of what’s to come in weed-content media: Less writing to people and more writing for them.
Not only does this matter for a weed-content site but it may illuminate growing trends at large. The metrics, specifically generated to present to advertisers and number crunchers, are changing, and should be reflected in what we are publishing. In many ways, weed content is proving to be the great ambassador of otherwise seemingly disparate groups. We are striving to create content that appeals to age groups, class demographics, and other identity markers that don’t necessarily aggregate in the same online spaces enough.
Perhaps if we continue to disregard stereotypes and assume in my opinion quite accurately, that cannabis is loosely a part of nearly every demographic across America in some way, then we can create something that matters. Maybe that’s the way publishing should work altogether: we publish things simply because we, as editors and curators with some knowledge and fairness, believe its worthy content. The guiding dictum we’ve taken, one that’s not foreign to content makers everywhere, has been, If you build it, they will come.
It’s a daunting task, to assume that I’m qualified to choose voices to represent an almost entirely new space. So far, the stories that wind up in my inbox are more than exciting to me.
When it comes to conversations about weed, we can write about whatever we want. We don’t even have to talk about weed, but it matters that the content somehow removes the stigma and pushes the boundaries on what we expect of weed consumers – be they the writers or the readers. But we need the content to be urgent. We have to say what we want, and establish that saying what we want is the way it’s going to be, before the space is just another part of the giant, corporate, editorial machine of talking-head content.
For now, it’s new, and it feels kind of sacred.
Crissy Van Meter is the managing editor for thekindland.com. Her writing has appeared in VICE, The Hairpin, VIDA, and ESPN. She’s the founder of Five Quarterly, a literary project out of Brooklyn.