pursuits

High Times Seeks Revival in Crowded Landscape for Pot Publishers

  • Magazine’s new owner tries to diversify amid financial woes
  • Growing number of outlets want to escape ‘stoner’ stereotype
Editorial staff at the office of High Times Magazine in Los Angeles. Photographer: Richard Vogel/AP Photo

High Times, the cannabis-themed magazine founded more than four decades ago, once had the stoner audience largely to itself.

Then came the legalization of marijuana in states across the U.S., which brought a surge of marijuana news providers -- along with a push by mainstream media sources to beef up their coverage. One outlet, Merry Jane, was co-founded by an unlikely media mogul: the rapper Snoop Dogg.

Now, High Times is looking to reclaim its territory. Under new owners, the magazine aims to fend off the competition and establish itself as a voice in a more sophisticated era for pot. The publication still sees itself as the biggest media brand for an industry that could generate $75 billion in cannabis sales by 2030.

“We’re the 800-pound gorilla,” Adam Levin, chief executive officer of High Times Holding Corp., said in an interview.

A growing number of marijuana news outlets have emerged in the past few years, raising millions of dollars and attracting executives and investors who once led media titles like Huffington Post and Vanity Fair.

They’re trying to shed cannabis’s “stoner” image and offer more high-brow coverage. Think: fewer pot-brownie recipes and more guides to pairing wine with cannabis. They also believe there’s demand for more reporting on a fast-growing industry being reshaped by policy changes.

Facebook Ban

While major advertisers often shun them, pot publications claim a unique advantage over traditional news outlets. Cannabis companies are barred from marketing on Facebook and Google, whose advertising dominance is weakening traditional newsrooms. That has pushed pot companies to spend more ad dollars with marijuana websites. With consumption now legal in 29 states, there are more marijuana businesses looking for places to advertise.

But High Times is trying to overcome significant financial challenges. From 2014 to 2016, it swung from a $3.4 million profit to a $2.9 million loss as advertising and circulation declined, according to a regulatory filing in January. In the first nine months of last year, it reported an operating loss of $1.2 million, the company said.

“They still have a big following, but the company is struggling,” said Debra Borchardt, editor-in-chief of Green Market Report, a financial news site covering the cannabis industry.

Bob Marley

Founded in 1974 as a monthly print magazine, High Times was bought last year for about $70 million by an investor group that included the son of reggae star Bob Marley and Levin, the former CEO of social-networking site Bebo.

High Times has $11.5 million due in August 2019, and the company has the option to extend the deadline for another 12 months. It filed for an initial public offering in January to pay off debt, but its shares haven’t traded yet. Levin hopes to have its stock listed on the Nasdaq this year.

Levin expects High Times to return to profitability in 2018 by finding new lines of business. In April, the company bought the cannabis-news site Green Rush Daily to increase its online audience. It also has licensed its name to everything from water pipes to rolling papers. The High Times brand is even getting slapped on a syrup that helps pot smokers pass drug tests.

It’s considering launching an e-commerce store, 420.com, that sells clothing and marijuana accessories. And it plans to expand the Cannabis Cup, a marijuana trade show which accounts for about three-fourths of its sales.

Canadian Market

High Times’ monthly print magazine has 250,000 readers. About three-quarters of its online audience are men between 18 and 34. Roughly 20 percent live in Canada, which is legalizing the drug at the national level.

“Cannabis consumers are changing, and they’re looking for cannabis to influence other parts of their life and not just in their home,” Levin said. “It’s not taboo in the same way.”

High Times has about 40 employees in New York and Los Angeles. Its advertisers include Advanced Nutrients, a fertilizer company; Kush Bottles, which sells marijuana packaging; and Pop Chips, which might appeal to marijuana users for obvious reasons.

Its competition now includes outlets like Herb, which has vowed to fight the “stoner caricature sketched by politicians with a hidden agenda and a lack of imagination.” On a recent morning, its website featured a story on how to combine cannabis and exercise. One of Herb’s investors is Lerer Hippeau, whose managing partner, Ken Lerer, is chairman of BuzzFeed Inc. and the co-founder of the Huffington Post.

Civilized’s Inroads

Another new pot-focused outlet is Civilized, whose leadership includes Cory Jones, a former executive at Playboy Enterprises. Mitchell Fox, the ex-publisher of Vanity Fair, and Michael Cohl, the former chairman of concert promoter Live Nation, sit on the board.

On a recent afternoon, Civilized featured a profile of a man who has been in prison for 24 years for distributing marijuana and a story about an infant who found relief from a rare skin disorder using a cannabis-infused balm.

In an interview, Civilized founder Derek Riedle said his website is trying to reach a more knowledgeable cannabis customer.

“Our readers are not 22-year-olds playing X-Box and sitting on the couch,” Riedle said. “They’re politicians, business leaders, educators. We’re really trying to reflect a side of the culture that people don’t talk about.”

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