Home >industry >banking >Rolling Stone turns toward its future

Gus Wenner is 25, not much older than his father, Jann S. Wenner, was when he started Rolling Stone in 1967.

His office at the magazine’s headquarters in Manhattan, where he oversees the digital side of his father’s company, Wenner Media, is decorated with pieces of Rolling Stone’s illustrious history: a black-and-white picture of his mother and father, young and hopeful; a sketch by Ralph Steadman, whose distinctive illustrations accompanied the work of one of the magazine’s most famous writers, Hunter S. Thompson; a book about the late ‘60s in the Haight, the area of San Francisco that nurtured a counterculture so powerful that it became mainstream culture, often via the pages of Rolling Stone.

But the publishing world has undergone another revolution, this time technological. And the magazine finds itself at a precipitous moment. Jann Wenner, 69, who has overseen, to some extent, every issue since its founding, is gradually handing over the operation to his son. The longtime managing editor, Will Dana, was replaced this month in the aftermath of a devastating hit to Rolling Stone’s journalistic reputation: a flawed report on an alleged gang rape at the University of Virginia that was soon discredited.

Rolling Stone also faces the same dystopian landscape that many other magazines do, as newsstand sales and advertising revenue are eroded by the Web. But, say current and former staff members, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to safeguard their jobs, or to speak candidly about confidential matters, it has followed the path set out by its founder so ceaselessly that it has never adapted.

The elder Wenner, these people said, has declined to pursue lines of business, including festivals and conferences, that might have provided new revenue streams. He was skeptical about the Web as others were embracing it. And he has been reluctant to shift the magazine’s focus away from baby boomer rockers - U2, Bruce Springsteen, the Rolling Stones - some of whom he considers friends. (One of the best-selling recent covers featured the band Rush, which came to fame in the ‘70s and ‘80s.)

Jann Wenner said he had listened to the business suggestions but decided they were not the wisest path. He feels that others leapt for the Web too quickly, and that now was the correct time for an Internet push. And he said he disagreed with the notion that his thinking was dated. “Obviously the culture has evolved, but most of the same rules still apply," he said. “Is it news? Is it interesting to a lot of people or not?"

The solution, both Wenners said in interviews, is to stick with the magazine’s original values. “From Day 1 the mission was to cover rock and roll music and all the ideas and stories that rock and roll embraces," Gus Wenner said. “I don’t think it has changed in the last 50 years, and I don’t think that will ever change."

The plan in the magazine’s 1970s heyday, said Joe Armstrong, its publisher and president during that period, “was to build Time-Life, do what Henry Luce did, but for a younger generation." Rolling Stone was breaking new ground, and printing things others would not print, he said. “We were covering rock and roll music when your parents liked orchestra music," he said. “We were against the war in Vietnam, and everybody over 30 was for it. We were covering the drug culture. Nobody else was doing it."

Tom Wolfe published his novel “The Bonfire of the Vanities" in installments in the magazine. The photographer Annie Leibovitz became a star there. Richard Avedon traveled the country to shoot dozens of portraits of the people he felt ran America, a collection now with the Metropolitan Museum of Art. And Thompson made his own style of gonzo journalism

Rolling Stone has gone through tumultuous periods before, said Robert Draper, author of “Rolling Stone Magazine: The Uncensored History" and a contributing writer for The New York Times Magazine. It has survived internal strife, often surrounding the mercurial Jann Wenner, questions about its finances and the threat of MTV, which many thought would end it.

But the fallout from the Virginia rape story - the magazine faces several lawsuits, and was excoriated for basic journalistic lapses in a report commissioned from the Columbia School of Journalism - poses a deeper problem, Draper said. “There was never the basic issue of trust in the brand, and so I think that the UVA story has clearly dealt the magazine a great deal of damage," he said.

Its circulation has held steady at an average of about 1.4 million for the six months that ended in December, the most recent figures available from the Alliance for Audited Media. But like most other magazines, Rolling Stone’s newsstand sales have diminished significantly, to about 58,000 print copies from 134,000 in 2004. Its Web traffic is about 13 million unique visitors per month, according to ComScore. Men’s Journal has 1.8 million by the same measure, and Us Weekly has nearly 30 million. Both are Wenner Media publications.

Jann Wenner would say only that his company’s revenue is more than $150 million annually, a figure that has been reported for some new media companies. He declined to specify a profit margin, or provide more details.

The company, which says it has a total staff of about 350, has just gone through another round of job cuts, though both father and son point out that it is also hiring people for Web and video positions. Rolling Stone’s magazine staff has been cut to about 25, which Jann Wenner said was a reflection of the fact that it used to produce up to 90 pages of editorial per issue, but now puts out about 50, because of a reduction in advertising.

The current and former staff members suggested that the cuts may have indirectly contributed to a lack of oversight for the University of Virginia story. Jann Wenner disagreed. “I don’t think that the decision to publish a story based on one unconfirmed source comes from overwork, or stress."

“It was just," he added, using an expletive, “bad judgment."

A new top editor, Jason Fine, who had been running Men’s Journal, took over for Dana this month, part of what Jann Wenner portrayed as a “shake up" and an effort to move on. Rolling Stone declined to make Fine available for interview.

Current and former colleagues said Gus Wenner is preternaturally self-assured, something one former employee suggested is a Wenner family trait. He is well-liked, and those who have worked with him say he does not fit the stereotype of a privileged scion being handed the family business. But one likened his current challenge to playing football without pads.

“I think first of all that making mistakes is key to doing anything right," Gus Wenner said in response. Bringing on great people, he said, is paramount. “Given my youth or inexperience, that is probably more important than it would be otherwise."

Those he seeks advice from, he said, include Tom Freston, the former chief executive of Viacom who many credit with helping make Vice into a rising media powerhouse. Gus Wenner has been hiring coders and designers, working on Wenner’s digital infrastructure, seeking out partnerships, and pushing more deeply into video. (One of the videos on the site features Wenner, in 2013, playing guitar and singing in a band he formed with Scout Willis, a daughter of the actor Bruce Willis.)

He feels his father’s focus is easily adaptable to a more current vision. “Our mission is to tell great stories, and the lens of what we do just becomes much broader," he said.

He later sent an email, to clarify. “You asked when we first met how my dad and I were different," he wrote. “His great skill is as an editor, and he used that skill to capture the hearts and minds of a generation. I wish I had the gift he has in that regard, but I don’t. Few people do. My focus is far more on what we can do as a business."

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