Marijuana critics, and our brilliant plan to save the San Francisco 'Chronic'-le

The decline in newspaper advertising and an upswing in medical marijuana sales are happening simultaneously. And if viewed together, they present an illuminating opportunity for a few daily papers, should their publishers take advantage of the opportunity.

The two industries are moving in opposite directions. We all know what's happening to newspaper ad sales: The Audit Bureau of Circulations released precipitous circulation figures on Monday, with a shocking average decline of close to 11 percent over the past six months for daily papers. Weed's having better luck. The Justice Department announced last week that it will no longer prosecute medical marijuana users, and instead leave enforcement up to individual states (only 13 of which permit marijuana as legal pain relief).
Let's look at a market where these two trends collide: San Francisco. Circulation at the ailingSan Francisco Chronicle, at a limp 252,000 copies a day, slid a horrifying 25.8 percent between April 1 and Sept. 30 over that period a year earlier. Readership of The Chronicle, long the second biggest newspaper on the West Coast, after The Los Angeles Times (circulation down 11 percent), has been falling steadily for years. The paper reported in February that its owner, the Hearst Corp., was looking for a buyer; fears of layoffs, or a total shutdown of the paper, are still echoing around the Bay Area.

The Chronicle'sdeath spiral became more dizzying in 2006, when the publisher reacted to poor circulation numbers by decreasing its local coverage and instead publishing more wire stories. In hindsight, that strategy looks completely backward. The Chronicle needs to engage with its local readers to become relevant. And one way to do that is to cover marijuana.

Let's back up. Last month, Denver's respected, 32-year-old free weekly paper, Westword, made waves by posting a listing for a new position: marijuana critic. Westword's prospects are comparatively bright; its circulation of 84,000 is about a third of the Chronicle's and places it among the top 25 alt-weeklies in the U.S. The paper received more than a hundred applications for its marijuana critic position, and perhaps the public's renewed interest in Westword will even give its circulation a boost.

The job posting was serious in intention, but it was also something of a stunt. A prerequisite for a freelance reviewer for the "Mile Highs and Lows" column was a Colorado medical marijuana ID (or a condition that could lead the jobseeker to obtain one); the job description noted, "Keep in mind this isn't about assessing the quality of the medicine on site; it's about evaluating the quality of the establishment. After all, we can't have our reviewer be stoned all the time." What's more, "Compensation will be meager -- and no, we can't expense your purchases, although that would be pretty cool."

Perhaps I'd have taken Westword's aim of reviewing the service at Denver-area marijuana dispensaries more seriously had the paper refrained from publishing many responses (not all of them good). Everyone's favorite application had writing style that could generously be described as "beat" -- The Wall Street Journal called it "haiku-esque" -- and went like this: "marijuana. what it means to me has changed over the years. smoking scwagg when i was 14 just because it was 'cool.' finding kind bud when i was 17.... i received my license in march. since then i have been to 7 dispesaries. i have sampled over 100 strains, edibles, and hash and. i have had issues with each dispensary. mostly getting shut down. employees stealing. shitty weed.'

Even if the attitude surrounding the job posting was tongue-in-cheek, the idea for a weed critic is a good one, and it should be far more nuanced than merely evaluating counter service at a cannabis shop. A lot of Americans smoke marijuana, not just poets with bad spelling habits. Conservative estimates based on survey data put the U.S. marijuana market -- both medical and illegal -- at up to $50 billion, although some experts feel the industry may be worth as much as $200 billion. And the leaf has mainstreamed; among my peers of artsy stay-at-home moms, Wall Street investment bankers, writers, technology entrepreneurs, city employees, soldiers, chefs, minor rock stars, translators, and nannies, those who don't smoke weed are in the minority. One of my relatives last month told me a friend in his 30s -- a self-professed family man -- estimated his lifetime pot expenses above $50,000 (and counting).

The legalization movement seems to be gaining steam. Hedge-fund manager Andrew Lahde furthered its cause a year ago when, in shutting down his fund for having made too much money (!), he wrote that marijuana was illegal because "Corporate America, which owns Congress, would rather sell you Paxil, Zoloft, Xanax and other addictive drugs than allow you to grow a plant in your home without some of the profits going into their coffers." (Need a connection? There's an app for that.)

That brings us to the San Francisco Chronicle. California is an enormous market for medical marijuana. Across the Golden State, "pot docs" freely prescribe marijuana for the flimsiest excuses -- headaches, stomach aches, sleeplessness, general anxiety. Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has even said he has considered legalizing and taxing marijuana without restrictions.

So what should San Francisco's troubled paper do? The answer seems obvious: It's time for the Chronicle to become the Chronic-le. It's time to follow Westword's example -- and hire a pot critic.

Here we have, on one side, a storied newspaper losing both its advertisers and its relevance among local readers. (The New York Times is circling overhead, having just announced plans to launch a daily Bay Area edition with local news that the city's own metro daily no longer bothers with.) On the other side: a city full of pot enthusiasts (and tolerant non-enthusiasts who accept marijuana's social status), a populace comfortable with consuming products at cannabis dispensaries that have been grown and processed locally by marijuana artisans. A city where pot might soon be totally legal to all, with no strings or registration cards attached.

Instead of slashing its staff in half or shutting down, The Chronicle should embrace its readers' culture and interests. In a city whose citizens wax poetic about the amazing varieties of garlic, apples, heirloom tomatoes, surely there are talented writers who can steer newly enthusiastic newspaper readers to the righteous Blue Mystic and Purple Urkel, and away from the inferior Early Girl.

Hiring a marijuana critic might sound like a joke, but it could be the most brilliant joke the Chronicle's circulation department has seen in years.

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