December 25, 2005
Will You Still Need Me, Will You Still Read Me?
By Timothy O’Brien, New York Times
When the thousandth issue of Rolling Stone magazine rolls off the presses in May, its cover will feature an elaborate three-dimensional homage to “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.” Drawing inspiration from the lineup of celebrities whose images graced that seminal Beatles recording, the magazine will tip its hat to the trove of musicians, entertainers and politicians who have inhabited its pages since its founding in 1967.
“It’s going to be a version of the past 40 years of people who have influenced us and are part of our Gestalt, our zeitgeist,” said the magazine’s founder, publisher and editor, Jann S. Wenner, his feet propped atop a table in his sleekly appointed corner office in Midtown Manhattan. “It’s Richard Pryor and Jimmy Carter and it’s Billy Joel and it’s Bono and the Beatles and the Stones and Ike and Tina Turner and Madonna and Prince. It’s the big family.”
Bouncy, verbose and boyishly handsome, Mr. Wenner is awash in milestones these days. Over the next year he will orchestrate the run-up to the magazine’s 40th anniversary celebration in 2007. The 25th anniversary of the murder of John Lennon, a Rolling Stone mainstay, passed earlier this month, and the gonzo maestro Hunter S. Thompson, one of the magazine’s most famous essayists, committed suicide in February. A week from now Kent Brownridge, the corporate yin to Mr. Wenner’s creative yang, will retire after more than two decades as general manager of Mr. Wenner’s publishing company, Wenner Media. And in about two weeks Mr. Wenner, an emblematic baby boomer and the only person ensconced in both the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and the American Society of Magazine Editors’ Hall of Fame, will turn - horror of horrors - 60.
“We have evolved and transitioned well with a lot of cultural changes,” Mr. Wenner said, “and that’s great because that is what we do. We do cover culture, and we are attuned to that so it keeps us young. It keeps us on the forward edge.”
But as the media and cultural landscape surrounding Mr. Wenner shifts yet again, his stewardship of his company will be squarely tested in coming months. For one thing, he will be taking on expanded editorial and management duties amid Mr. Brownridge’s sudden departure and a daunting operating environment for magazines generally. In Mr. Wenner’s well-thumbed and sometimes loopy playbook, however, management has had a highly elastic definition. Since starting Rolling Stone as an ambitious, roly-poly 21-year-old, he has kept his own erratic hours and recruited and disposed of legions of top-notch journalistic and business talent. He has also partied heartily, shifted creative gears on whims and survived - with brio, luck and great timing - in an industry littered with corporate casualties.
Mr. Wenner’s shop is built on the backs of three magazines, only two of which, Rolling Stone and the celebrity-gossip powerhouse US Weekly, have clear identities on the newsstand. The third, the outdoor-adventure title Men’s Journal, has struggled for years to find its voice. All of the magazines, whatever their merits, offer different strategic prospects. Rolling Stone, for instance - while remaining the heavyweight of music magazines, with circulation, influence, quality and profitability that towers over more newly minted competitors - has gathered some moss.
The first names that spring to Mr. Wenner’s lips as members of the magazine’s “big family” are largely those of singers familiar to a more wizened crop of fans, not more au courant musicians like Usher, 50 Cent, Green Day, Alicia Keys or the Black Eyed Peas. Readers younger than 40 are also apt to miss the significance of the coming “Sgt. Pepper’s” allusion; the album came out before most of them were born. Rolling Stone’s political and social coverage has been inconsistent in recent years and only occasionally evokes the heat that once made the magazine a centerpiece of the cultural dialogue for the under-30 set.
Within the Wenner Media firmament, Us Weekly- a darling among women decades younger than Mr. Wenner - is now more profitable than Rolling Stone, according to current and former Wenner employees. Us Weekly has also emerged as a more vibrant symbol than Rolling Stone of the company’s mass-market traction. Mr. Brownridge’s departure, which seems to have surprised almost everyone in the industry except Mr. Wenner and Mr. Brownridge himself, touched off a flurry of media speculation that Wenner Media might wind up on the auction block. A spokesman for Wenner Media, however, said the company was not for sale.
The print media industry as a whole, meanwhile, confronted with rising costs and the migration of readers and advertising dollars to the Internet, is enduring a seismic reorientation. And Wenner Media is not immune, despite annual revenue of $300 million to $400 million, according to Mr. Wenner, and profits that current and former company employees said would be in the $100 million range this year. “There aren’t too many privately owned companies left, and Wenner Media does have a very special place in the industry,” said Andrew J. Buchholtz, a managing director at Veronis Suhler Stevenson, a firm that invests in media properties. “But the industry has issues, and there are many risks associated with the magazine business these days.”
For his part, Mr. Brownridge, slumped behind his desk and pondering an interviewer’s questions with an exacting mirthlessness worthy of Emperor Palpatine, concurred. “We’re primarily a magazine publishing company, and magazine publishing as an industry is facing huge, serious challenges,” he said. “We’re all like little ships on the sea, and the sea is rough.”
Wenner Media remains, of course, Mr. Wenner’s baby. He is the company’s controlling shareholder, and his magazines’ financial fruits have taken him from blue jeans and San Francisco’s old warehouse district to bespoke suits, a private jet, luxurious homes and Manhattan power lunches. He has come to embody the elements and the contradictions of the old, 1980’s Rolling Stone marketing pitch that if the perception of the magazine and its readers were a roach clip, the reality was a money clip.
Comfortable with numbers though hardly a number-cruncher, Mr. Wenner plans to take on most of Mr. Brownridge’s financial chores while juggling the lead editing role at Men’s Journal after abruptly firing its editor in October. Unexpected comings and goings have been common at Wenner Media over the years, and many current and former employees, who requested anonymity because of concerns about retribution, complain about what they describe as his mercurial, Captain Queeg-like proclivities.
Mr. Wenner brooks none of this. He acknowledges that he may have been fickle in his younger years but says he no longer launches his missiles without warning. Furthermore, he said, he has stayed in business for 40 years because he respects and nurtures creative people.
“I don’t want to get into individual cases, but I would tell you that in terms of the handling and the management of talent, and appreciation of talent, I think I’m great at that,” he said. “I know how to handle it and do it correctly and how to stay out of the way of it and how to bring it along and not smother it and not compete with it.”
And the future, he says, is rosy. “They’ll be around forever, magazines, for a long time, for as long as there are trees, they’ll be around. Because they do different things than the Internet,” he said. “It’s all organized for you and well selected and it’s cheap still and it’s just an efficient way; carryable in your back pocket. It’s still a good technical product.”
It all began, in a famous boomer moment, with $7,500 in San Francisco. Mr. Wenner borrowed most of the money, about $43,000 in today’s dollars, from his future wife’s parents and other friends to get Rolling Stone rolling. Printed on pulp paper and infused with a missionary zeal about the musical and social promises of rock ‘n’ roll, Rolling Stone was both a reflection and an interpreter of its times. It featured Mr. Lennon on its first cover.
Mr. Wenner followed a circuitous path to San Francisco. Born in New York but raised in Marin County, Calif., he became a Ping-Pong ball in custody disputes when his parents divorced and shuttled him off to boarding school in Los Angeles. He later dropped out of the University of California at Berkeley to focus on Rolling Stone, and never looked back. In the years that followed, the magazine became a bastion of serious musical criticism, a voice of liberal angst and iconoclasm and a haven for writers enamored of long-form, exploratory journalism.
The author Tom Wolfe laid the groundwork for “The Right Stuff” in Rolling Stone and later serialized his first novel, “Bonfire of the Vanities,” in the magazine. “I was absolutely frozen with fright about getting it done and I decided to serialize it and the only editor crazy enough to do that was Jann,” Mr. Wolfe recalled. “I have a feeling that I never would have gotten that book done if it wasn’t for Rolling Stone.”
By the time Mr. Wolfe was writing for the magazine, Mr. Wenner had relocated Rolling Stone to Manhattan from San Francisco, substituted glossy paper for pulp and actively solicited cigarette, liquor and other blue-chip ads - all at the behest of Joe Armstrong, an early publisher who put in place much of the big-league business infrastructure that Mr. Brownridge subsequently exploited to ever greater financial effect.
Rolling Stone’s symbiotic - and Mr. Wenner’s occasionally overly cozy - relationship with the music industry also proved to be a magnet for record ads and a younger readership. The magazine benefited from the record industry’s explosive growth in the 1960’s and 70’s as it fed boomers’ musical appetites. Rolling Stone rode a second wave of financial bliss when the all-music channel MTV made its debut in the early 1980’s, further stoking the music market.
Laced through all of this was Rolling Stone’s investigative and political coverage, which put it on the map journalistically. Mr. Wenner continues to wear his political beliefs on his sleeve - and on his wall. Rolling Stone covers of Democratic presidential candidates ranging from George McGovern to John Kerry hang outside his office, a number of them dutifully signed by the candidates. Mr. Wenner has a longstanding fascination with celebrity and Hollywood, drops names like “Mick” and “Bruce” with disarming ease, and notes that he calls “Yoko” every year on the anniversary of Mr. Lennon’s death.
Mr. Wenner’s starry-eyed infatuation with entertainers led him to buy a stake in Us Weekly in 1985, before acquiring it outright four years later. He persuaded the Walt Disney Company to buy 50 percent of Us Weekly from him for $35 million in 2001, when the magazine was bleeding cash after converting from a monthly to a weekly - a risky, expensive move that nearly crippled Wenner Media. Today, Disney maintains the stake in Us Weekly.
But Mr. Wenner and Mr. Brownridge stuck by Us Weekly, and they now have a winner on their hands. A Wenner Media employee said that Us Weekly was on track to earn about $55 million this year, and its circulation has boomed over the last few years. That performance, however, may be tough to continue amid a glut of gossip magazines and an uncertain ad market.
Though it was Mr. Wenner who took a gamble on Us Weekly, people inside and outside Wenner Media said that the magazine’s real turnaround began in 2002, when Bonnie Fuller, then the new editor, brought a saucy, chirpy zing to its coverage. Recruited by Mr. Brownridge, she was often at odds with Mr. Wenner and soon became worried about her future at the company, according to several people familiar with her thinking.
Just nine months into her tenure at Us Weekly, Advertising Age chose Ms. Fuller as its “editor of the year” because of the turnaround she engineered. Two people seated at her table at the awards ceremony said that when she learned she had won, she put her face in her hands and muttered, “This is going to be the end of me” - a reference to resentment she anticipated from Mr. Wenner. Less than a year later, she left Wenner Media.
Mr. Wenner said Ms. Fuller had departed for a higher-paying job and had not been forced out of his company.
“I’ve never heard the charge that I don’t know how to handle talent or I’m too jealous of Bonnie Fuller to let her stay around because she won an award,” Mr. Wenner said. “That’s a new one on me.”
Mr. Wenner says that Ms. Fuller’s successor, Janice Min, has given Us Weekly even greater buzz than Ms. Fuller. He also says he gets along swimmingly with Ms. Min, noting that she won her own editor-of-the-year award - and that it hasn’t threatened their relationship.
“The magazine has been more successful than I ever imagined,” said Ms. Min, when asked about her relationship with Mr. Wenner. “That has been incredibly gratifying.”
Even so, Ms. Min is said by several people familiar with her thinking to bridle privately at what she sees as Mr. Wenner’s meddling and bullying. They say, for example, that he forced her against her wishes to run a recent cover featuring the actress Julia Roberts and that the issue sold poorly. Mr. Wenner said he never forced Ms. Min to run the Roberts cover.
Men’s Journal’s former editor, Michael Caruso, joined the magazine in 2003 with a strong reputation earned as a top editor at a series of other magazines. But several people close to him say that, like other former editors, he also had a stormy tenure that ended with Mr. Wenner asking him to leave. Besides having editorial differences with Mr. Wenner, Mr. Caruso grew uncomfortable with what current and former Wenner Media employees describe as Mr. Wenner’s pressure on the staff of Men’s Journal to secure expensive outdoor gear for him free from companies with products the magazine reviewed.
Mark Neschis, a company spokesman, said that Mr. Wenner never pressured anyone at Men’s Journal for freebies. Mr. Wenner is an avid skier and outdoorsman, and Mr. Neschis said that Mr. Wenner simply participates occasionally in the reviewing process - a practice, he said, that “is quite common in the magazine business.”
Mr. Wenner described claims that he pressured staff members for free goods as “bogus,” adding: “Did I get free goods? Absolutely. I don’t deny even asking for free skis, but I never once improperly influenced anybody at the magazine in terms of reviews.”
Some current and former Wenner Media employees say that price of entry to a company owned by a hands-on founder with his own celebrity status and an undeniable eye for talent is unpredictability. The trade-off, they say, is worth it.
“I don’t think anyone would say it’s an easy place to work, but there is talent there that Jann has been able to nurture over a long period of time,” said Robert F. Gregory, a former Wenner Media executive who now works for Dennis Publishing Inc., which publishes Maxim. “What’s often overlooked are his persistence and his relentlessness when his instincts tell him something is right.”
Indeed, while Mr. Wenner has had fallings-out with many of gifted Rolling Stone staff members and, according to insiders, has treated others - such as the long-serving former editors Bob Wallace, Bob Love and Terry McDonnell - with a certain cold-bloodedness when he thought that they no longer served his purposes, some at that magazine say that things there are relatively stable compared to other Wenner Media fiefs. Will Dana, Rolling Stone’s managing editor, describes Mr. Wenner’s relationship with the magazine as “intense,” and sees it as a positive influence. Mr. Dana noted that his core Rolling Stone team had been in place for several years.
“Jann might change his mind three times, but it’s easier than having an owner you’re never certain about,” Mr. Dana said. “It’s rarely about anything but the work. It’s not personal.”
But Mr. Wenner’s influence over Rolling Stone, however inspired during its salad days, has also been limiting. He passed up the opportunity to be an early investor in MTV because, he says, he felt that the channel was too commercial. He has also been overly tentative about expanding onto the Internet, where musical downloads, streaming video and blogs have come into their own. The Rolling Stone brand, still potent but lacking the oomph of old, was never extended into radio or cable television, and the magazine, which maintains a masthead that has historically been largely white, has been slow to cover musical genres like hip-hop.
“I still think Rolling Stone is the most important music magazine there is,” said Touré, an African-American contributor to the magazine who recently wrote one of its infrequent hip-hop cover articles. “At the same time, it is not as influential as it was in the 80’s, and it’s sort of dwarfed by what it was then.”
Mr. Wenner says he has not ignored non-rock genres like hip-hop, even though his core readership doesn’t have a significant interest in them.
“There’s not a group, a musical style, a cultural moment that’s come along that we have missed - and that includes hip-hop, which we were on very early,” he said “We have given hip-hop an extraordinarily large amount of space.”
He acknowledged that his editorial pool at Rolling Stone was primarily white, but he added that it was hard to recruit a more diverse staff.
“The competition for good editors and writers who are black is so intense. I mean, everybody wants them,” he said. “It’s not conscious, and it’s odd because we as a magazine have probably covered black culture with more depth, more frequency, more volume than any other magazine in this country in the last 40 years other than ones that are strictly black publications.”
Mr. Wenner says he now sees the Internet as a “powerful threat” to print media and television. Over the next year, he says, he will devote ample resources and time to ramping up all three of his publications’ presence in cyberspace. As he does so, he will be doing it without Mr. Brownridge, who has been with the company since 1974, serving as general manager - and Mr. Wenner’s de facto No. 2 - since 1982.
While many current and former Wenner Media employees use the words “ruthless” and “tightwad” to describe Mr. Brownridge, just as many others say he brought an invaluable business acumen and competitiveness to the company that kept the editorial and publishing trains, as well as Mr. Wenner himself, running on time. They voice concern that Mr. Wenner may have difficulty juggling Wenner Media’s properties without his deputy.
Mr. Wenner notes that Mr. Brownridge is 65, that both men agreed that the time had come for him to retire, and that he will stay on as a consultant to the company. Mr. Brownridge himself hesitates a moment when asked if he is ready to step down as general manager. “In some ways,” he said. “In other ways I feel that it will be a personal adjustment and a professional adjustment that will take time getting used to.”
Asked whether he felt a sense of loss regarding Mr. Brownridge’s exit, Mr. Wenner is unusually succinct. “I’ll miss Kent, but a loss like I’m mourning something or a death or something, no, not at all,” he said. “There’s no executive shake-up going on, no savior is coming in from the outside, every position here is solid, his duties can be easily redistributed.”
Mr. Wenner also says his hand remains firmly on the corporate tiller. The news media have described his wife as owning 51 percent of Wenner Media, but Mr. Wenner said that he, in fact, has always been the controlling shareholder. He declined to detail the ownership structure, but another company executive said that Mr. Wenner owned about 60 percent of the shares and that Ms. Wenner owned about 40 percent. The executive said that the couple’s three sons also had a shadow stake in the company, held in a trust established for estate-planning purposes.
When Mr. Wenner disclosed several years ago that he was gay and was involved with another man, there was media speculation that a rift with his wife would throw Wenner Media into turmoil. But the Wenners remain married and are raising their sons jointly. Ms. Wenner often socializes with Mr. Wenner and his partner, and Mr. Wenner said his relationship with his partner had never had an impact on the company’s ownership.
Although four decades have passed since Mr. Wenner introduced a magazine that was the publishing equivalent of finding gold in his backyard, he said his enthusiasms remained rooted in the political and social values of the 1960’s and were undiminished by the passage of time or his accumulation of a tidy fortune. “I’m a strong believer in all of that, but that doesn’t mean I’m taking a vow of poverty or that I’m going to blow up animal testing centers or anything like that,” he said. “It’s like, wow, this has been an amazing magazine success story.”
And he is looking forward to Rolling Stone’s 40th birthday party in 2007.
“I think you’d have to do that, because by the 45th I’ll be in my wheelchair, so let’s go get it now,” he said. “That’s why they did the 40th anniversary celebration of World War II, because there was going to be nobody left for the 50th.”