1st March 2024
Spotlight On | Liam O’Dowd, Editor of leafie

People want to disconnect. If you pick up a physical copy of a magazine, you’re setting yourself up for a more immersive, distractionless experience.

In our latest Spotlight On interview, Impress catches up with Liam O’Dowd, editor of member publication leafie.

Founded in 2019, leafie is an independent media platform focused on producing unbiased and trustworthy information on cannabis and psychedelics.

Liam talks us through his switch from the world of marketing to journalism, his views on drug portrayals in the British media and leafie’s bold decision to go into print.

Leafie launched five years ago in 2019. You have previously worked with CBD companies in your career as a marketer, but what was the catalyst behind the launch of a media organisation focused on cannabis and psychedelics?  

Essentially, leafie came out of a need for information. My dad was diagnosed with a medical condition, and CBD was something that he turned to based on some research I’d done. This was six or seven years ago, before CBD was a media darling, and getting covered by lifestyle magazines and the mainstream press.

It was still very much an industry in its early stages, and so the journey I had in terms of coming to recommend CBD to my dad was essentially trawling through medical journals, starting to understand a lot of complex terminology, and also a little bit of stuff that was on blogs by passionate cannabis enthusiasts.

People were passionate about it but maybe not necessarily taking into account the limitations, or the caveats that medical studies often come with. I’ve got a friend who’s a cannabis patient and knows a lot more about the plant than I did at the time. So I spoke to him about launching a CBD brand, and because of my marketing background, we were looking at a go-to-market strategy and realised that realistically, there was no central hub for trustworthy information.

“I feel like I’m in a band and I’m dropping my first album. But we’ve got some great contributors and a great team around us.”

So leafie started out of that. From my perspective, I’d done a bit of writing for fun. We looked at the market as it was and we realised that people needed information about CBD, and it wasn’t out there in a way that they could understand. We launched out of necessity. Our first year, we focused entirely on CBD because it was a real growth industry and there was a huge demand for information and then we kind of naturally progressed to cannabis.

Lockdown was the catalyst for that. We wrote an article about whether legalising cannabis and the revenues from that could plug the spending gap and, for want of a better word, it was a viral article. Lots of people were sharing it, lots of people were reading it. I think we were fortunate in that people were at home with nothing better to do! From there, we progressed on to writing more about cannabis and medical cannabis as well. With psychedelics, they followed the path of cannabis. So we toyed with the idea of launching a second title, that was psychedelics-focused, but it just made sense to bring it under the leafie banner. 

Independent media faces plenty of financial challenges and leafie prides itself on remaining free from the influences of lobbying groups and think tanks. How have you found finding income via advertisers and donors, particularly given your subject matter? 

Growth is hard for anyone in the media industry and the challenges that publishers have been faced with for a while now are well documented. We have an additional challenge in that some of the subjects we talk about are restricted on social media platforms.

Because of the nature of the algorithms, they don’t want to promote content that might be harmful. Even though we approach it from an educational standpoint, the algorithms can’t determine between us and some guy trying to sell something dodgy to someone that they shouldn’t. We can’t do any paid advertising on search, we can’t do any paid advertising on social.

But actually, that challenge in itself is an opportunity for us, because everyone in our industry has the same problem. If you’re a CBD brand, trying to advertise to customers, Facebook won’t take your ads, Meta won’t take your ads, so we’ve used that challenge to our advantage. We’ve built up an audience and a community through our own channels.

The independence thing is a big part of that. I will mention community a lot, and it’s something we’ve focused on over the last few years. We have built a community of readers and people who are passionate and believe in what we do. There are other media outlets that cover similar subjects to us. But they are usually part of a wider group of companies or owned by companies that are doing research or trying to influence the industry. Our independence is our strength in many ways because as I say, it’s built a community that trusts us, so we can then say to brands that need to reach that community ‘we can work with you’. 

You describe your style as a mix of educational and entertainment. What inspired you to take that approach and has it proved fruitful?  

That’s something that’s grown organically through the initial launch of being CBD-focused. Obviously, a lot of what we were doing then was educational. A lot of it’s influenced by content that we actually want to read as a team.

I spent years reading really informative magazines where there was entertainment, there was education, there was current affairs and fashion. I think any kind of title that wants to reach a broad audience has to cover things from a broad approach.

The education part is really key because we get a lot of great feedback on that from readers. People tell us that we’re a great resource that they share when they’re trying to convince people. But cannabis and psychedelics – they’re super deep subjects. They’ve got a cultural history which spans back decades to the 50s, 60s, 70s and the early discovery of psychedelic research.

But these subjects, they’re right at the forefront of research. Psychedelics are being touted as a potential mental health revolution. So, you’ve got history, you’ve got the future and you’ve got everything in between. We have always tried to reach a broader audience. Within cannabis, and the medical side of psychedelics, there are websites that are super focused on these core communities, and we’ve always tried to be a bit broader because lots of people are interested in say, cannabis or psychedelics, but they’re not necessarily embedded in the culture.

We launched out of necessity. Our first year, we focused entirely on CBD because it was a real growth industry and there was a huge demand for information and then we kind of naturally progressed to cannabis.”

There are people who are interested in whether a 10 milligram THC gummy might help them sleep better than drinking a bottle of wine when they’re stressed or people who want to microdose but they can’t think of anything worse than experiencing a fivegram mushroom trip. These people, they’re not going to go to websites that are very much aimed at the kind of hardcore psychedelic enthusiast.

So, by having this broader approach to content and mixing those styles, we found that we’ve carved out a little bit of a niche of our own of people who are really interested in the subjects themselves, but maybe don’t identify with the cultures that sometimes are strapped onto them. 

Part of leafie’s creation stemmed from the media’s ‘uncomfortable relationship’ with drugs. Why do you think it has that uncomfortable relationship? 

I think especially the British media has almost a Jekyll and Hyde relationship with drugs. You see these real conflicting approaches from big media titles. One day, you will see a sensational story that’s based on an outdated misconception, stuff that’s been proven to be inaccurate. Then the next day, the same title will have a story about how the cannabis industry is growing, or how psychedelics are going to revolutionise X, Y, and Z.

I do think it’s a unique model, maybe not uniquely British, but there is a very uniquely British issue within that. I think a lot of it is because a lot of the legacy media and big publications are very conservative with a small c and, for the most part, are a bit more right-leaning. But also, I think a lot of it is clickbait and engagement-based.

I think the general public have lost a lot of faith in journalism. And I thought that Impress were doing more to try and restore that faith than the alternatives.”

They’ll have a boilerplate template article that goes around social media all the time and it’s published like a local news article of ‘what to do if you smell cannabis from your neighbour’. It usually goes on about how you can ring the police how you can find their landlord and all these kinds of things. They never mention that your neighbour’s house might smell of cannabis because they’re one of 35,000 people who were legally prescribed medical cannabis in the UK, a number that grows on a yearly basis.

There’s a weird thing with the media. I wish editors were a bit more brave with the content they were publishing. 

As well as producing journalism on the world of cannabis and psychedelics, leafie also sells a range of products on its website. How has it been balancing the pursuit of ethical, original journalism with this sales arm?  

It’s only something we’ve recently added but, as I’ve mentioned, we’ve got a strong community and people who trust us for advice, and some of that is recommendations.

The process when someone’s prescribed medical cannabis is that you’re not allowed to smoke it because of the health risks, so it needs to be consumed with a dry herb vaporizer, and for the majority of people that’s a whole new kind of consumption method.

We were finding that we were getting asked a lot of times for recommendations for products. We considered how we could do this, and we thought putting some products that we’ve tested, and that we trust ourselves, on the website made sense. We just decided that being upfront and going, ‘Look, we’ve tried these products, we’ve tested them, we recommend them’ was probably just as ethical, if not more so, than concealing links that would make us a commission from a website like Amazon or eBay.

Another part of the sales side of it is merch, building into the community and championing us. People often ask us how they can support us and because we are independent people do recognise that it’s hard. 

We have no ambitions to be e-commerce first. It was just a case of people asking us for recommendations and how they could support us. We always want to be a magazine and a publication that just happens to sell a few bits as well. 

You have been members of Impress since 2020. What inspired you to seek independent regulation?

We wanted trust. We want trust with our readers. We wanted to be able to say we are accountable if we make a mistake. A lot of the time we’re providing information that has the potential to have a significant impact on someone’s life. Some of the people who read our content that is focused on medical conditions, they’re essentially vulnerable. They need to be able to be sure that they are reading a source they can trust.

It was a real early priority for us to do that. Once we realised the gravity of the content we were producing, we felt that we had a responsibility to be trustworthy. Another benefit of it, for me, at least is, to the broader general public, we’re signalling that we’re not just a pro-cannabis blog or a pro-psychedelics blog. We are a magazine that is providing information, we check our sources, we try and only reference medical journals or other trustworthy services. It’s a case of trying to show that we’re not a biased publication with an agenda.

This all comes back down to being independent. I’ve had a previous interaction with IPSO where I raised a complaint about something, and I found that I had no faith in the process or the outcome. So I looked at the options, and it just made sense [to join Impress]. We’re a smaller publication and Impress champions the kinds of journalism we believe in. I grew up with newspapers and reading magazines that you put faith in, and I think the general public have lost a lot of faith in journalism. And Impress are doing more to try and restore that faith than the alternatives. 

Having been active for five years now, what would you say are the key lessons learned over that time? 

It’s been a very steep learning curve. I don’t have a media background. I often refer to myself as an accidental editor, because it wasn’t something that I set out to do, it was just a natural evolution.

But I think in many ways, that’s probably beneficial. I haven’t fallen into any of the traps or patterns that perhaps people who’ve worked their way through the industry might have done. Sometimes, being almost naive in a way gives you a fresh perspective and a fresh way of doing things.

For leafie, specifically, the biggest lesson that we’ve learned is to be more aware of the broader environment that we’re in. A few years ago, there were some big changes in CBD regulation, which we knew were coming up, but we underestimated the impact they would have on us as a business, and they nearly finished us. Even though we weren’t regulated, because we weren’t selling CBD products, obviously, a lot of our brand partnerships came through CBD brands. As soon as a great deal of regulation comes in, it then costs for CBD brands, and when any business faces a huge increase in cost, the first thing to go is marketing. That was a really tough lesson.

But I think probably the most important lesson I’ve learned that could be applied to anyone in media, is focus on your community. Our readers have played a huge part in our growth because we do rely on them to share and raise awareness of what we’re doing and tell their friends and bring more people in. We can’t do the usual ways you would grow a brand online, so we’ve always listened to them and we’ve always shown our appreciation for them whenever they interact with us, and take on board what people say.

But then also we have balanced that with our own vision. If you’d have said to someone in the cannabis industry, we’re going to write a magazine that’s focused on people who are interested in cannabis and psychedelics, but aren’t necessarily massive cannabis and psychedelic consumers, people would have said that doesn’t make sense.

So we’ve listened to some of the feedback, but we’ve also been focused on our vision, and it’s proven to be a sensible decision in the long run. 

And what are you looking forward to at leafie in the coming years? Any exciting plans in the pipeline? 

We’re starting to broaden our content a little bit more, and this is all about widening our audience. For me, there’s a really obvious crossover of people who maybe do more yoga or meditation and mindfulness; they’re super interested in what we’re publishing, and we probably are more aligned with them as publishers.

But also trying to build a wider audience and a more mainstream audience and spread awareness of how the balance is shifting on cannabis and psychedelics. They’re not really dirty subjects that can’t be talked about anymore. We’re trying to broaden and say, ‘Look, this could be of interest, microdosing might help your focus at work or your mental health, or medical cannabis might help your lifelong medical condition that you’ve had.’

“I think especially the British media has almost a Jekyll and Hyde relationship with drugs.”

One way we’re doing that is we’re going into print. We’ve been planning and producing our first edition. We’ll be doing two a year. We’ve had really mixed reactions where we have floated it. Some people are like, ‘well, no one’s buying magazines anymore’, and some people are really excited to see it.

But there’s a lot of talk about magazines having a vinyl moment. Vinyl almost dropped off the face of the Earth and now people are buying it in droves. I think it’s generally more that there’s a trend for people wanting more tangible experiences full-stop. We’ve got generations of kids that have grown into adults, and they’ve spent their entire lives online. They probably had a phone in their hands or an iPad when they were four or five. Now they’re adults with jobs and lives, and I think there’s a shift away from consuming everything online now.

People want to disconnect. If you pick up a physical copy of a magazine, you make a brew, you go and sit outside, you leave your phone inside, and you’re setting yourself up for a more immersive, distractionless experience. And I think print sells that kind of experience.

So if we can get this magazine into shops, and the front cover looks appealing so that people pick it up and start to read the content, that’s probably going to be an audience of people who haven’t found us online for whatever reason.

So it’s a bold decision, I think, to go almost backwards for what a lot of people in the media industry might see. But for us, it’s a really exciting one, I think it achieves a lot of our goals in trying to bring an element of legitimacy, raise awareness, and increase our audience. It’s very exciting and very scary. I feel like I’m in a band and I’m dropping my first album! But we’ve got some great contributors and a great team around us so hopefully it should do well. 

Liam is the editor of leafie, a pioneering media platform dedicated to exploring drugs and the cultural events that unite us. Founded in 2019, leafie has been at the forefront of providing unbiased and trustworthy information on substances like cannabis and psychedelics, fostering open dialogues and reshaping perceptions.