October 11, 2014
It’s rare in my day-to-day that I’m connected to a fellow journalist with the intention of interviewing them for a tech-related article. Usually I deal with CEOs, startup founders, and tech entrepreneurs. I soon realized that although Al Olson is a journalist, he has the fierce tenacity of an entrepreneur. Then it came out how much he’s helped the realm of online journalism and I was hooked – I had to know more.
A journalist with 40 years of experience, Olson has spent time in mainstream print and online media, most notably serving as senior editor of CNBC, NBC News, and TODAY before helping launch MSNBC.com in 1995. Oh and did I mention that he was part of the Pulitzer Prize winning team for the coverage of the Loma Prieta Earthquake in 1989?
Most recently however Olson left MSNBC and signed on as the Managing Editor at Marijuana.com. He’ll dedicate his time to solidifying the online platform as the go-to source for marijuana news and analysis.
Needless to say I had to sit down and find out what led a pioneer of internet journalism to make such a move.
Tech Cocktail: How did you end up at MSNBC back in ’95?
Olson: I was at the San Jose Mercury News, and I had been in a few positions like assistant sports editor, travel editor, and outdoor editor. In essence, my job was to ski and surf and rollerblade and hot air balloon.
Then I got a call from a recruiter at Microsoft asking if I wanted to start an online journalism site. If you remember back in 95 there wasn’t really internet journalism going on. We had an early online presence at the paper, but I jumped at the chance to leave print for digital journalism.
Everybody at the Mercury News thought I was crazy to leave a respectable paper and work at a software company. I find the parallels here with my decision to head to Marijuana.com very similar. I’m a risk taker, I understand it’s a risk, but the market is moving and the story is so compelling that others will follow.
Tech Cocktail: Why did you accept the new role with Marijuana.com?
Al Olson: As a journalist, I find the story about marijuana legalization to be fascinating – it’s the story of a lifetime. If you could go back in time and cover the end of alcohol prohibition, wouldn’t you? Any journalist with a modicum of intrigue and intelligence would definitely go back and do that and cover Al Capone. This is my opportunity to cover a cultural phenomenon.
I’ve been a journalist for as long as I’ve been a marijuana advocate – my first byline was at the age of 14, the same age I smoked my first joint. Since then, I’ve been frustrated with the uneven media coverage of the marijuana industry. I look at it the same way I did when I left my job at the San Jose Mercury News, which I loved, for the chance to be an online pioneer.
Tech Cocktail: What will be your strategy in your new Managing Editor role?
Olson: The more I look at it, the more I feel like it isn’t being covered well by mainstream media. It’s difficult because most people in this industry feel like mainstream media has demonized or stigmatized them.
What I’m trying to do is say, “Look, there are bad players in this industry like any other, but it’s an industry and it needs to be treated like one.” It’s a market though, and as a business journalist that’s what I cover. It could be a clean market, or a black market, but it needs to be covered.
I’m not a cheerleader for marijuana, I’m a journalist. Clearly we have a point of view at the site, and I’ll state it very clearly. We want to press the hard questions like how we regulate and tax marijuana, and then keep it out of the hands of children.
We’re a portal for people to have a meaningful conversation about it. I want this to be a high quality, national brand, one that stands for journalistic integrity, and one that’s fun and formative.
Tech Cocktail: You mentioned that the market is moving – how might that relate to the times we’re living in as it pertains to both marijuana and tech?
Olson: The innovation is amazing, and the amount of entrepreneurship is staggering. You talk to these entrepreneurs in the marijuana field and you’re talking with scientists, doctors, and lawyers.
I was in Denver last week and saw a killer new vaporizer and it was great. I also saw high tech grow rooms, CO2 extractors, and LED indoor lighting…you want to talk about tech in the marijuana field? It’s only going to be more integrated as we move closer to mainstream legalization.
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