Rolling Stone founder puts magazine up for sale with hopes of revival
From a loft in San Francisco in 1967, a 21-year-old named Jann S. Wenner started a magazine that would become the counterculture bible for baby boomers. Rolling Stone defined cool, cultivated literary icons and produced star-making covers that were such coveted real estate they inspired a song.
But the headwinds buffeting the publishing industry, and some costly strategic missteps, have steadily taken a financial toll on Rolling Stone, and a botched story three years ago about an unproven gang rape at the University of Virginia badly bruised the magazine’s journalistic reputation.
And so, after a half-century reign that propelled him into the realm of the rock stars and celebrities who graced his covers, Wenner is putting his company’s controlling stake in Rolling Stone up for sale, relinquishing his hold on a publication he has led since its founding.
Wenner had long tried to remain an independent publisher in a business favouring size and breadth. But he acknowledged in an interview last week that the magazine he had nurtured would face a difficult, uncertain future on its own.
“I love my job, I enjoy it, I’ve enjoyed it for a long time,” said Wenner, 71. But letting go, he added, was “just the smart thing to do.”
The sale plans were devised by Wenner’s 27-year-old son, Gus, who has aggressively pared down the assets of Rolling Stone’s parent company, Wenner Media, in response to financial pressures. The Wenners recently sold the company’s other two magazines, Us Weekly and Men’s Journal. And last year, they sold a 49-per-cent stake in Rolling Stone to BandLab Technologies, a music technology company based in Singapore.
Both Jann and Gus Wenner, the president and chief operating officer of Wenner Media, said they intended to stay on at Rolling Stone. But they said they also recognized that the decision could ultimately be up to the new owner.
Still, the potential sale of Rolling Stone — on the eve of its 50th anniversary, no less — underscores how inhospitable the media landscape has become as print advertising and circulation have dried up.
“There’s a level of ambition that we can’t achieve alone,” Gus Wenner said last week in an interview at the magazine’s Manhattan headquarters. “So we are being proactive and want to get ahead of the curve.”
“Publishing is a completely different industry than what it was,” he added. “The trends go in one direction, and we are very aware of that.”
The Wenners’ decision is also another clear sign that the days of celebrity editors are coming to a close. This month, Graydon Carter, the editor of Vanity Fair and a socialite and star in his own right, announced that he planned to leave the magazine after 25 years. Robbie Myers, the longtime editor of Elle, Nancy Gibbs of Time magazine and Cindi Leive of Glamour also said last week that they were stepping down.
Anthony DeCurtis, a veteran music critic and a longtime Rolling Stone contributing editor, said he never thought Jann Wenner would sell Rolling Stone.
“That sense of the magazine editor’s hands on the magazine — that’s what’s going to get lost here,” he said. “I don’t know who’s going to be able to step in and do that anymore.”
The Wenners said that they expected a range of opportunities, and Jann Wenner said he hoped to find a buyer that understood Rolling Stone’s mission and that had “lots of money.”
“Rolling Stone has played such a role in the history of our times, socially and politically and culturally,” he said. “We want to retain that position.”
Jann Wenner tried his hand at other magazines over the decades, including the outdoor lifestyle magazine Outside and Family Life. But it was Rolling Stone that helped guide, and define, a generation.
Music coverage in all of its forms was the core of Rolling Stone, but its influence also stretched into pop culture, entertainment and politics. A bastion of liberal ideology, the magazine became a required stop for Democratic presidential candidates. More recently, the magazine featured Prime Minister Justin Trudeau on its cover with the headline, “Why Can’t He Be Our President?”
Rolling Stone suffered a devastating blow to its reputation when it retracted a debunked 2014 article about a gang rape at the University of Virginia. A damning report on the story by the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism cited fundamental journalistic failures. The article prompted three libel lawsuits against Rolling Stone, one of which led to a highly publicized trial last year that culminated with a federal jury awarding the plaintiff $3 million in damages.
The financial picture had also been bleak. In 2001, Jann Wenner sold a 50-per-cent stake in Us Weekly to the Walt Disney Co. for $40 million, then borrowed $300 million five years later to buy back the stake. The deal saddled the company with debt for more than a decade.
At the same time, Rolling Stone’s print advertising revenue and newsstand sales fell. And as readers increasingly embraced the web for their news and entertainment, Wenner remained skeptical, with a stubbornness that hamstrung his company.
Though he said he still cared deeply about Rolling Stone, Wenner has placed the magazine’s fate firmly in his son’s hands, and he appears content to let someone else determine its path forward.
“I think it’s time for young people to run it,” he said.