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Rosebud Turns Over a New Leaf

James Daly, editor of the magazine Rosebud, in his home in Alameda on Tuesday, June 15, 2010
James Daly, editor of the magazine Rosebud, in his home in Alameda on Tuesday, June 15, 2010
'Hydroponics lifestyle' magazine features pot culture, without the pot

What's black and white and green all over — but also sort of not green at the same time, because it's, like, complicated?

Behold Rosebud, the world's first hydroponics lifestyle magazine. If "hydroponics lifestyle" strikes you as a novel pairing (what, "Irrigation & Leisure" was taken?), it's surely no less likely than a publication about marijuana that never mentions marijuana. Now on its seventh issue, this thick, glossy and expensively produced monthly has come to occupy a funny cultural space: splurging on high production values while so many other periodicals perish, and oddly Victorian at a time when marijuana has never been closer to mainstream acceptance.

Rosebud's gamble: that in the increasingly barren fields of magazine publishing, one overlooked and idiosyncratic corner still has the potential for dynamic growth. Just don't say "pot."

"It's implicit rather than explicit," publisher Mike Straumietis says of the marijuana connection.

Indeed, rather than fat bud close-ups, the Bay Area-based magazine offers travel features, extreme sports, actor profiles, buxom ladies and other airport newsstand staples, as well as a few technical articles on seed selection and better yields. As Rosebud sees it, marijuana growers and users may be central to their readership, but their non-pot interests jibe perfectly with a lifestyle magazine. Indeed, Straumietis says the magazine is just the first arm of a growing media division that will soon include a mobile channel, a partnership with GoTV and possibly even a TV series.

At one level, the publication could be viewed as an elaborate advertising vehicle for Advanced Nutrients, the $52 million Canadian hydroponics-product manufacturer behind it. The company's ads are indeed sprinkled throughout the pages, but so are those from Cadillac, Yamaha and other major brands — proof, the staff say, that their strategy is sound. Circulation is 100,000, Straumietis says, a number achieved through sales at hydroponics shops and through copies given away with Advanced Nutrients orders.

To be clear, Rosebud isn't just one big euphemism. Growing plants in water rather than soil does not necessarily make you a pot farmer. Plenty of hydroponic crops come into the world without the slightest association with marijuana, and hydro historians claim their beloved technique dates back to the Hanging Gardens of Babylon.

But Straumietis plainly admits that the center of the multimillion-dollar hydroponics industry is cannabis.

As the co-founder and CEO of Advanced Nutrients, he doesn’t mention this casually: Straumietis has been outspoken on the subject for years. His candor about the hydroponics-and-marijuana relationship has made him a black sheep of the industry, according to Canadian journalist and "Bud Inc." author Ian Mulgrew.

In fact, Straumietis says, he was outright blackballed — something that helped lead to the birth of the magazine. The colorful entrepreneur, who once threw a "kick him in the nuts" contest for anyone who could prove they had superior nutrients, claims that industry trade publications routinely refused to acknowledge the company's existence. It occurred to Straumietis that having his own magazine would mean never going unmentioned again.

Plans for Rosebud got underway last year, and Advanced Nutrients tapped Bay Area journalist James Daly, founder of the late Business 2.0 and a former Wired editor, to be editor-in-chief; Daly handles editorial operations from his home office in Alameda. (Disclosure: He and I worked together briefly at Edutopia magazine in 2006.) And while the new gig lets him assign the kinds of travel, adventure and culture pieces that many other publications can no longer afford, Daly acknowledges he gets a certain knowing look from people when he says his new subject matter is hydroponics. Indeed, having weed on the ballot and throughout popular culture has not eradicated mainstream concerns, he says.

"A number of celebrities turned us down for interviews because of it," Daly says. "Sarah Silverman of all people turned us down!"

Given Advanced Nutrients’ historic embrace of all things pot, the decision not to speak the drug's name in Rosebud might seem odd, skittish celebrities notwithstanding. Partly, this is marketing strategy. By making the magazine "more Main Street-friendly" — making the centerfold a good old-fashioned semi-naked lady, rather than a glistening green nugget — Straumietis hopes to grow the hydroponics community beyond its traditional base. As that community expands, Straumietis believes its views will, too. He hopes that ultimately a vast, pot-friendly population of hydroponics enthusiasts will help usher the world out of its current don't ask, don't tell paradigm.

But strategy wasn't the only rationale for the magazine’s desire to expand beyond the High Times model. Medical marijuana might have been the unspoken center of the hydroponics industry over the years, the idea went, but as that industry grew, a genuine culture grew up around it. Take away the pot and that culture's still there, Straumietis argues — along with all the ancillary interests, tastes and fondnesses for shiny gadgets that beckon lifestyle magazines into existence. In other words, Rosebud marks the debut of the post-pot pot publication.

So what, exactly, is that hydroponics lifestyle?

"They're interested in do-it-yourself things, liberating things, freedom," Alex Leon, Rosebud's associate publisher, says of the demographic. "They want to be challenged, to not be governed by too many boundaries. They might live off the grid, be into the outdoors, have some disposable income."

The company is gambling that they also like to read — at least high-gloss, Maxim-ish literature. ("Charlize Theron is a great anomaly. She’s tall (5’9”), blonde, smart, and a real knockout," the June cover interview begins.) In a throwback to the heyday of plush magazines like Look, several pages of each issue are devoted simply to lovely art photos, a fact that nobody ought to tell Gourmet, Portfolio, Domino, Vibe and the hundreds of other titles that have run dry in the last two years.

"We're reaching new readers, and they're happy not to be stereotyped as stoners," Daly says. "We're not putting Cheech and Chong on the cover."

This isn’t the first time that a pot magazine has tried to get beyond the kind-bud pinup. In 2003, High Times tried to reinvent itself as a publication “about freedom,” and hired Norman Mailer’s then-25-year-old son, playwright John Buffalo Mailer, to helm the effort. It didn't take, and Mailer left within a year. When it re-focused on its core readers, High Times rebounded, celebrating its 35th anniversary this past fall.

By keeping its own cannabis connection fuzzy, Rosebud may be promoting an airbrushed version of reality behind the airbrushed cover models — Jeff Bridges, Brad Pitt, Charlize Theron — but it might well have the last word all the same.

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