The world is warming up to recreational marijuana, and a southern New Brunswick startup is betting they're hungry for stories about it.
On Tuesday, Saint John's Revolution Strategy launched Civilized, an Internet publishing company targeting professionals who happen to enjoy marijuana. Founder and publisher Derek Riedle likens it to a high-end editorial destination for high-brow marijuana smokers, publishing stories and content not unlike cigar aficionado magazines, though with a broader lifestyle focus.
"It's not about slackers on the couch – it's for people who consume to relax, be creative or social with friends," he says. In most other cannabis-centric publications, "millions of people are underrepresented and misrepresented."
Civilized hopes to be more Harper's than High Times: To avoid being too niche, the website will offer a broad suite of content geared toward their target audience: professionals – executives, politicians, teachers – who live across North America and enjoy pot, but don't let it define their identity.
Four U.S. states now allow recreational pot smoking, and public opinion both there and in Canada – where decriminalization is a looming election issue – is in greater favour of cannabis than ever before. Investment dollars are following suit, flowing not just into marijuana itself, but also myriad spinoff products, ranging from grow-light systems to child-resistant packaging. Civilized is seizing the chance to latch onto this rapidly accelerating social change by pitching itself as a go-to information source.
"The cannabis industry is exploding," Mr. Riedle says. After realizing last winter how many influential professionals discuss (and consume) marijuana behind closed doors, he saw a huge opportunity in illuminating the conversation. He can't stress enough how quickly the idea accelerated: "It was like hitting the intersection with the lights turning green."
From a newsroom on Saint John's historic Prince William Street, Civilized plans to deliver "cannabis culture, elevated." Like Huffington Post and Buzzfeed, its early days will see some content curated from around the Web, but the team is already hard at work to deliver original content, including in-depth feature interviews with celebrity marijuana advocates.
Stories will be free to all and eventually ad-supported, though Mr. Riedle is open to change: "Once we're past launch, we will determine exactly how to monetize it." While advertising marijuana will be a grey area – even if it were decriminalized in Canada, it could very easily fall under regulations that restrict ads – he believes spinoff industries will clamour to advertise on the site.
Fourteen angel investors have backed Civilized in its first round of funding, including Francis McGuire, the retired chief executive of Moncton-based Major Drilling Group International Inc. He jumped at the chance to invest at the intersection of publishing and social change – something akin to Playboy's role in the sexual revolution, in terms of normalizing the previously obscene. "It took me 15 seconds to make the parallel to Hugh Hefner," he says.
"We'll just see how fast can they build their audience – if they have the right content to build their audiences," he continues. "That's the risk. But they're good at building content. They've done it before."
Mr. Riedle and his partner, Terri MacDonald Riedle, co-own Revolution Strategy, a creative and marketing firm that has served Atlantic Canadian companies since 2002. Last year they moved to Los Angeles, in part to help launch a reality television series, Real Houses Of..., which premiered earlier this month on the W Network. They regularly travel back and forth between there and Saint John, and plan to eventually expand Civilized's staff to California.
But the company's roots will be planted firmly in New Brunswick, where it houses a staff of 14 and growing. Its founding editor, Mark Leger, is a staple of Saint John journalism. He co-founded the city's once venerable, though now defunct, alt-weekly Here Magazine; since leaving it a decade ago, he's written extensively for print and radio.
The province is in something of a media chokehold, with all English daily and most weekly newspapers run by Brunswick News, which is owned by members of the wealthy industrialist Irving family. The company tends to buy up or choke out competition – in the case of Here Magazine, it did both – but Civilized's North American mandate is a chance for local journalists to play in a different league.
"It's a special opportunity for us in New Brunswick to look at building a media outlet that has a North American focus over a local one," Mr. Leger says. It's also a challenge, he admits, but one he's up to – particularly since this isn't his first time as an entrepreneur. "We're doing something groundbreaking."
The Civilized team plan to be flexible with their content, adjusting story themes and styles according to reader behaviour. This, Mr. Leger says, is something he didn't have much opportunity to do in his print-focused past, but will be crucial at Civilized. "In a small place, you gain an intuitive understanding of your readers. It's tricky the larger scale you get."
To get their stories buzzing and to monitor audience behaviour, the company turned to RebelMouse, a social-focused publishing platform that has helped brands such as animal-lover publication The Dodo and Time Inc.'s home-DIY site The Snug hit at least a million unique page views a month. It's run by former Huffington Post chief technical officer Paul Berry, who connected with the Riedle family through a friend and is keen enough on Civilized that he's joined their advisory board.
"When you look at how quickly you can start a brand and build a movement, it used to take decades," Mr. Berry says. "Huffington Post took five years. Civilized could change the world in a positive way in a very short period of time."