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Sounding OFF: Exploring the Fate of Rolling Stone Magazine

What Does The Future Hold?

When it comes to the future of legendary music publication, Rolling Stone Magazine, there are many possible outcomes, which is the reason why I felt it necessary to break things down in this week’s column. There are a lot of moving pieces to this, so please try and bear with me.

For starters, no matter what the outcome is, the sale of Rolling Stone does necessarily mean the end of the rock magazine or its legacy. Wenner Media says it’s looking to explore strategic options for its majority interest in Rolling Stone to best position the brand for future growth. Basically, should the company decide to sell its share, it will be left in more than capable hands… but, preferably someone with plenty of money and a top-notch legal team.

Rolling Stone is a uniquely powerful brand with enormous opportunities to succeed in today’s environment,” said Gus Wenner, president and chief operating officer of Wenner Media in a press release on the sale. “We have made great strides transforming Rolling Stone into a multi-platform company, and we are thrilled to find the right home to build on our strong foundation and grow the business exponentially.”

According to the New York Times, Gus—whose father, Jann Wenner, first created the counter-cultural rock music publication from his San Francisco loft back in 1967—devised the sales plans after having to aggressively parse down company assets in response to financial pressures. Last year, the company reportedly sold 49 percent of its share of the magazine to a Singapore tech company, Bandlab Technologies, and recently sold two of its other magazines, Us Weekly and Men’s Journal.

“I love my job, I enjoy it, I’ve enjoyed it for a long time,” Jann Wenner, now 71, told the New York Times, adding that letting go was “just the smart thing to do.”

Wenner has refused countless offers over the years—which at one time had even fetched a $500 million price tag—holding onto his stake in the magazine that he created. I mean, talk about dedication.

Vanity Fair also reports that based on financial documents they obtained, revenue from the print magazine’s advertising is projected to be $10.9 million in 2020, down from the $28.6 million it made in 2015. Circulation revenue will also drop by nearly half, to only $6.3 million, during this period. According to the financial document, the story states that the sales pitch calls for cutting the editorial budget, from a high of $8.1 million in 2015 to $4.2 million in 2020, and a reduction in the number of printed issues, dropping production cost to $7.3 million in 2020 from the $18.1 million spent in 2015.

And according to Bloomberg Businessweek, a major reason behind the drop in ad revenue has to do with the company’s struggle to attract print advertisers, who have instead gone to spend ad dollars on the likes of competitors. “Long-term, I don’t want to be in the business of solely relying on ad revenue with the way things are so rapidly changing,” Gus told Bloomberg.

However, not all looks bleak… according to the documents detailed in Vanity Fair, while the company’s current video revenue is a mere $300,000, it is estimated to explode to a whopping $5.8 million (without including advertising revenue) by 2020.

Now, factor in how advertising has become more targeted and algorithmic, the fact that Rolling Stone is an internationally recognizable brand, and the fact that it is starting to see growth from more interactive services, and there could still be a very bright future for the magazine.

The biggest setback, however, has proven to be a costly one. About three years ago, the magazine published a false story alleging that members of the University of Virginia’s Phi Kappa Psi fraternity gang-raped a drugged up freshman student. The story was formally retracted and the reporter, Sabrina Rubin Erdely, was fired, but not without leaving a mark, which has resulted in a slew of defamation lawsuits that are costing millions.

And the fact that this case has propped again will inevitably mean the delay of any potential sale, as it has smeared the reputation of the revered counter-cultural journal. Last November, a federal court ruled that Erderly was liable for defamation with actual malice in a lawsuit by administrator Nicole Eramo, holding the 45-year-old journalist personally accountable for $2 million in damages.

Ironically, Erderly was also colleagues with another journalistic parasite and UPenn alum, Stephen Glass, and while the two were not classmates, she did feel the need to pen her 1,000-plus word diatribe on “the adorable little weenie” who turned out to be nothing but a “sociopathic creep” and a “con artist,” for completely fabricating stories while working with The New Republic.

Here’s where things get really interesting… While working for Rolling Stone, Erderly was in charge of a big investigative story on child abuse within the Roman Catholic Church in Philadelphia.

However, it was later uncovered by Ralph Cipriano with Newsweek, that she and other unsuspecting reporters did not do their due diligence when it came to researching the background of their unidentified subject, “Billy Doe,” who claimed he was raped as a 10-year-old altar boy, and again by his sixth-grade homeroom teacher. What she failed to mention was that “Billy Doe” had been arrested six times for theft and drugs—once for trafficking 56 bags of heroin. The story also explains that he had been in and out of 23 different drug rehabs and that every time he told his story the details kept changing.

Paul Farhi of The Washington Post also uncovered that the reporter had an undisclosed conflict of interest in the case, as her husband, Peter Erderly, was a criminal prosecutor for the Philadelphia District Attorney. According to a Rolling Stone spokesperson, his work did not pose a conflict because “he wasn’t part of the unit trying the men.”

Just like Stephen Glass did before her… Erderly practically smeared the good name and reputation of this outspoken countercultural bible—which in an age where we have a President who constantly spouts off about “fake news” while using “news stories” from Breitbart and The Blaze to support his arguments, should be flourishing with thought-provoking and earnest reporting that Rolling Stone is more than capable of providing.

It’s truly a travesty to see things go down like this… especially with the publication’s 50th birthday steadily approaching, on Nov. 9th. For a great many journalists, getting to grace the same pages as Academy Award-nominated screenwriter/director, Cameron Crowe, or outspokenly witty political columnist, Matt Taibbi, is one of the highest honors. 

There is so much history in that magazine. From the early pioneers of rock music criticism, like Ralph J. Gleason and Lester Bangs, to the creator of the “Gonzo” journalism movement, Hunter S. Thompson. You might not think it, but in the nearly half-a-century since it began, it has really had a profound impact on the way we digest the news and analyze new music today—whether it be online or in a magazine.

And sure, in the end it will still be the same music publication where Ben Fong-Torres once shared a heart-to-heart with the legendary Ray Charles; where Neil Strauss gave us a glimpse inside the final days of Nirvana frontman Kurt Cobain; where such legendary photographers as Baron Wolman and Annie Leibovitz would capture prolific photos of Janis Joplin, Phil Spector, John Lennon, Yoko Ono, Linda Ronstadt, Jimi Hendrix and countless others… but it will lack the authenticity of working with “the man” who started the magazine in the first place.

Jann Wenner has quite a history in the publishing biz, and while he probably could go into retirement knowing that he has had a mark on music history—having also co-founded the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Foundation in 1983—it’s not something anyone would want to see happen to the stallworthy magazine.

While much is still unknown on the outcome of these sales discussions, it is likely Rolling Stone will sell for a fraction of what its archival value is worth. Especially, considering that Time Inc. UK, publisher of Marie Claire and NME (New Music Express) has also just been put up for sale, according to The Guardian, and The Village Voice will no longer be available in print.

This may not have been the way we saw things going in the digital era, clinging on to the hopes of the revival of print journalism, but in the words of Jackson Browne… “all good things got to come to an end. The thrills have to fade before they come ‘round again. The bills will be paid, and the pleasure will mend. All good things got to come to an end.”

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