If You Owe Journalists Money, Own Up And Pay Now

As I noted in my latest podcast episode marking 4/20/2020, there is a serious problem in today’s cannabis industry which doesn’t tend to make headlines: in short, cannabis writers keep getting ‘stiffed’ by well-known clients who publish their work.

In recent months and years, numerous cannabis media outlets have made a habit of not paying their writers, editors, and other journalists either in full or on time — often forcing writers to send repeated requests for payment, to borrow money rather than miss rent, or to finally give up on what they’re owed.

Dozens of cannabis journalists I’ve spoken to in the past year say they’ve frequently faced late or missing payments, unanswered emails, and all manner ‘getting the run-around’ from a growing list of cannabis publications or communications employers, from print outlets to online platforms. In the context of prior industry layoffs as well as COVID-19 realities, these complaints have only grown more common, and more dire.

The list of companies facing nonpayment allegations is still developing, but well-known outlets that were mentioned in multiple workers’ accounts so far include High Times, Leafly, and Civilized, all of which have had major leadership and/or ownership changes in recent months (disclosure: I published several freelance pieces with Leafly in the past two years).

To be perfectly clear, up front: not every cannabis publication has or likely has a payment problem (at least, not the kind that can’t be found in nearly any industry among many workers at any time). In fact, cannabis media workers identified numerous publications they feel have tried in earnest to pay employees and/or contractors in a competitive or at least timely manner, and that have been largely successful, as far as those workers were aware.

Media companies also aren’t known for having a lot of cash on hand, and writers, editors, photographers, illustrators, and many other contractors (even at the most well-known and typeface-y publications) are typically used to payment processes that may take weeks or months — and occasionally years, or just days — depending on the company, and/or its bank account. So cannabis media workers presumably have some amount of patience; after all, times are tough, and while everyone (and every company) makes mistakes, most people are usually willing to forgive them. But bad habits are harder to brush off, and unlikely forgotten, in any professional field.

The journalists I spoke to live in four countries (but hail from many more), and described being stiffed or memorably delayed in receiving payments, ranging from hundreds to thousands or even tens of thousands of dollars per outlet, by a growing list of newer-to-well-known cannabis publications or communications clients based in the US, Canada, and other countries.

Every journalist, writer, or other communications professional I spoke to had stories to tell (so to speak) on this problem in cannabis media specifically, whether about themselves, their colleagues, or both. Some said they were also aware that, at certain publications, payments would sometimes be issued on time (or close to it) to some writers but not others, for reasons that remained unclear. More than half said that some of the payment issues they encountered, often around communication, marked a new personal low in their professional experience.

Among those outlets that do have a recent or longer history of payment problems, workers said, some had initially established or maintained a good record but then hit hard times, financially, editorially, or otherwise. Some got acquired by more tech- or finance-focused operators, or went under, or are still publishing in one or more forms today.

Among those that reportedly persist in failing to pay writers what they’re owed in a regular, full, and/or honest fashion, some may have bitten off more than they can chew, but do actually give a darn about their mostly low-to-modestly paid workers (and will hopefully learn a good lesson). Others may just be ‘out of touch,’ perhaps with their particular field or this moment in society.

Still others could be stiffing individual and small vendors as part of a well-worn capital strategy, especially given the industry’s high turnover. In that vein, one writer described the cultural and structural changes they saw at some cannabis outlets seemed to be led by investor-types without any real, apparent interest in either cannabis or journalism, who instead view this field as “a widget” for financial moves.

And regardless of company size or intention, the result is the same: folks at the bottom aren’t getting paid, and a growing number are becoming ready, for the sake of personal as well as industry survival, to put their time-cards on the table.

“Every journalist or contractor that puts up with nonpayment or helps to obscure rates from their colleagues is participating in a flawed system that keeps writers and other creatives in a constant cycle of debt,” said freelancer cannabis writer Danielle Guercio in an email.

For the past several months, Guercio says, she’s been trying to collect payment from Civilized, a relatively new but well-regarded site in the past few years. Late last year, the company announced and enacted wide editorial staff layoffs ahead of its planned acquisition by New Frontier Data, which later fell through, apparently.

Guercio says she’s been trying since November to get paid for two $250 assignments (now with late fees, “symbolic of [her] credit card interest,” attached) using emails, social media messages and posts, a phone call, a complaint in her area with NYC’s Department of Labor, a formal letter, assistance from the freelance journalists union she joined, and attempts to “shame the president to his core,” as she put it.

“Still not a dime,” she wrote over the weekend. On the subject of her increasingly public payment requests and unwillingness to back down, Guercio said she’s “sick of feeling [she’s] unlucky or flawed for dealing with this repeatedly over the years [or] ugly for being frank about it.”

“In my seven-year writing career I have been stiffed in excess of $3500 to $7000 at a time from clients each year,” she went on.“It has to stop or the only people whose voices we hear will be the wealthy and privileged, which is already the dominant perspective in media … Ivory-tower journalists could care less as long as the $2/word [rate] keeps flowing their way.”

Guercio added, “This is why I’m not letting Civilized off the hook for $500 [for two stories], a shitty rate to begin with.”

Multiple cannabis media workers who’ve worked with historic industry leader High Times say that they both experienced and witnessed meaningful changes to pay rates, payment processes and reliability, and editorial guidance in recent years from owner by Hightimes Holding Corporation (which it’s fair to say, I think, has made more than its share of industry maneuvers, including incomplete ones, in the past few years).

Mexico-based cannabis journalist Caitlin Donahue said she chose to drop High Times as a freelance client after a year and a half (accounting for roughly 75% of her usual work, she said) after late or non-payment by the outlet became a grueling reality, in addition to something she’d received emailed warnings about from folks she’d never met.

In a phone interview, Donahue also said that, when it came time to try and get her last few thousands’ worth of invoices paid, one by one, the magazine’s bland deferrals or apologies (when they came) were what eventually wore her down — a description mirroring that of other freelancers describing this other cannabis publications.

In her case, High Times “didn’t give enough of a sh!#” even to make excuses for its actions, which caused to serious financial problems for her, Donahue said.

Former or current Leafly writers have also described a payment system where much-needed payments (issued under the company’s 60-day turnaround policy, up from 30 and 45 days) have sometimes been months late or just missing, and occasionally shown up right away.

As Green Market Report founder Debra Borchardt reported in March, “Leafly had been a part of the private equity Privateer Holdings portfolio, but then the company was spun out to be independent. Former Leafly founders Cy Scott, Brian Wansolich and Scott Vickers departed to launch another Seattle-area marijuana company, Headset … essentially the business that Leafly Insights looks to be emulating.”

Responding to news that Leafly had laid off more than a third of its staff, Borchardt also noted at the time, “The company raised $2.3 million in October even as it was announcing plans to scale back its growth [and] still lists several jobs available on [its] company’s website.”

During the week of 4/20/2020, this article will be updated based on workers’ reports and companies’ responses.

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