April 12, 2006
Questions for ... Jann S. Wenner
By Brian Steinberg, Wall Street Journal
Long considered a maverick in magazine-industry circles, Jann S. Wenner has a message for his peers who are trying to figure out how to link their paper-and-ink publications to digital media: Don’t forget the printed page.
Stunning images, carefully chosen words and slick paper have worked well for Mr. Wenner, 60 years old. In 1967, when he was just 20, he dropped out of the University of California, Berkeley, to start a rock-music biweekly known as Rolling Stone. After a few decades — and publishing authors such as Hunter S. Thompson and Tom Wolfe — the magazine has become one of the industry’s best known. His company, Wenner Media, also publishes Men’s Journal and Us, which is in the midst of a heated newsstand battle for lovers of celebrity gossip. One person familiar with the matter puts Wenner Media’s value at between $600 million and $900 million.
To be sure, Mr. Wenner hasn’t been ignoring the Web. His company expects to unveil a new site for Us in coming months. But he makes plain that the Internet alone won’t save the magazine business. Below, he talks about changes in the magazine industry, hints at succession issues at Wenner Media, and predicts a shake-up in the celebrity-magazine category.
THE WALL STREET JOURNAL:
Transforming magazines into digital properties seems to be all the rage, since advertisers are more interested in the niche audiences magazines deliver than the paper on which their articles are printed. In this vein, what’s worth more – the Rolling Stone brand that can be repurposed around different media formats or Rolling Stone magazine?
Well, they are both worth a lot.... I’ve always felt the trick is not to replicate the magazine on the Web, but to add to the magazine and do things on the Web site that the magazine itself can’t do. There is a lot of information – underlying stories, tour dates, more sets of record reviews. There are audio and visual components that we do that work on a Web site. The trick is to figure out what the Web does better, and let it do that, and then see what the role of the magazine is and what the magazine does better.
There is a lot that the magazine does better, particularly for certain kinds of advertisers who are interested in visual display. Cars are sold that way. Fashion is sold that way. Soft drinks are sold that way. Most of our key categories are sold with visual imagery. Those people who need to get a lot of data to a consumer – like warranty information, or where it makes sense to offer an opportunity to choose different colors and styles of a particular product – the Web does that great. We are kind of seeing a fad kind of reaction right now. It will all balance out, and those magazines that figure out how to make their Web product good and how to make it relate back to what’s on that magazine page will be very successful. It’s not that difficult a trick.... If you go back, you’ll remember the first attempts for magazine companies on the Web were simply to replicate the magazine on the Web. Millions of dollars were poured into that by certain publishing companies who made a clear mistake.
What do you think the Rolling Stone of 2020 will look like? How will readers use it?
Your guess is as good as mine. If you want to know what I think about 2010; 2010 is going to be about the same. A magazine is a great experience. It’s a convenient way to read things. It’s portable. It’s a price value for all the stuff you get in that as opposed to the cost of going on the Web.
Kent Brownridge long served Wenner Media as your right-hand man. Outsiders believe he’s the guy who put many of your visions into action and ran the company day to day. Now he is gone. Is Kent replaceable, and what will you do to bolster your executive ranks in his absence?
I have no current plans to replace him. I’ve been the CEO of the company for years and I do it pretty well, and have been doing it a long time, and I’m enjoying it.... No big abrupt changes are necessary. Change is a great opportunity to do a little housecleaning – move some things around, talk about changes that were overdue, put them into place.
You’ve managed to stay independent as other magazine publishers sought scale. But you aren’t the twentysomething wunderkind who founded Rolling Stone in the 1960s anymore. Is there an end game for Wenner Media? What will happen when you don’t want to run it any longer, and have you thought about succession issues? Would you want to sell the company or keep it on its own?
I am beginning to look at those issues. I’m not terribly concerned about it at the moment.... The long-term idea is how to ensure the survival of these magazines and the quality of these magazines once I decide I’m not going to run them day to day in the future. I think I’ve got another good five, 10 years of doing this. In that time, I’ll make those decisions, but I’m not making those decisions now.
You helped spark the current fury in the gossip-magazine category with your move to take Us weekly in 2000. But now there’s a glut of these sorts of titles, making for a pretty crowded newsstand. How can you hope to stand out when the racks are jammed with Star, In Touch, People, OK and a host of others? Do you anticipate any fallout?
Well, I think that there will be some shakeout in 2007. If they are not making money, some will disappear. I don’t think that people can sustain that many years of losses. A shake-up has to come and it will be healthy.... I think our differentiation is that there is this quality [to Us]. We really make every effort to make sure that it’s reliable and trustworthy. We don’t make stuff up. I mean, clearly, most of the others are making stuff up. They don’t seem to be hurting from it to a certain extent because people don’t trust them to begin with. That level of trustworthiness and integrity is important to long-term survival.
You have a reputation for being intently focused on neatness – so much so that your employees get memos on the subject. But creative people often thrive in chaos. Why are you so interested in the condition of a staffer’s desk?
Well, I’m a neat freak.... It seems to me that an orderly desk is reflective of an orderly and organized mind, you know? And there’s a level of immaturity to people who just can’t clean up after themselves. And I don’t think it has anything to do with creativity. We and I have done a great job managing creative people and getting the best out of creative people, so I don’t think that my obsession with neatness matters.