The End of ‘Rolling Stone’ As We Know It

33-year-old editor and publisher Jann Wenner at the 1979 relaunch of 'Look' magazine, which would last only a year. (AP Photo/Suzanne Vlamis)

In the end, Jann Wenner was always going to sell Rolling Stone. The current timing is certainly unprompted and a bit of a surprise — Wenner, along with his son Gus, the president and chief operating officer of Wenner Media, announced this week the magazine is now open for bids — but there had been indications in recent years that the once groundbreaking magazine would soon be top edited by someone other than Wenner.

Wenner has passed on opportunities to sell Rolling Stone in the past, including an offer of $500 million that he turned down two decades ago. But in 2017, the timing was too good to pass up. This year is the 50th anniversary of Rolling Stone‘s founding, and not only is the occasion being marked with an HBO documentary co-directed by Alex Gibney, Knopf is publishing the first major Wenner biography this fall, written by Joe Hagan. (Full disclosure: I fact-checked the book.)

There will be countless obituaries in the coming months deconstructing Rolling Stone‘s demise. The magazine was too important to journalism to pass quietly out of the hands of Jann Wenner — an editor who audaciously thought he could make a profitable magazine devoted to rock and roll and pop culture. Amanda Petrusich at the New Yorker explains the genius of Wenner’s assumption.

Unlike other disciplines, we do not have centuries of recorded history to parse for insight; pop-music criticism, as I understand it, began with Crawdaddy (which started on the campus of Swarthmore College, in 1966) and Rolling Stone. Most of my students were born into a world in which nearly every major publication allots at least some space for pop-music reviews, and their social-media feeds are teeming with constant, exuberant proclamations regarding the relative merit of hot new releases. That pop music dominates the cultural conversation is evident and presumed. Yet, in the nineteen-sixties, rock records didn’t command column inches in serious publications. Back then, Wenner’s insistence on the music’s significance and import—its relevance to the Zeitgeist, its abundance—was a lunatic gesture.

Wenner launched Rolling Stone on the back of the 1967 Monterrey Pop Festival, a time when rock and roll exploded into the mainstream, and bands from San Francisco to Detroit were generating then-unheard of record contracts. Wenner’s premise was an unheard of conceit — a magazine devoted to music that could deliver the true story of a band or a song or an album, and not a puff piece that could just as easily have appeared in Seventeen or Tiger Beat.

One could make a case that Wenner was the most important publisher of the late 20th century. He certainly understood what it was like to be a fan. His favorite musicians — Bob Dylan, Mick Jagger, and John Lennon — are still on the cover wall rotation. To create a magazine that would last for fifty years required a certain editorial genius; Wenner understood that nostalgia sells.

While Rolling Stone published some of the most substantial journalistic works—from Tom Wolfe and Hunter S. Thompson, to Michael Hastings and Matt Taibbi in recent years— the magazine’s true gift was reporting on and endlessly repackaging nostalgia. Even it’s first journalistic score — an interview with John Lennon in 1970, months after the Beatles publicly announced its break-up — was repurposed into Lennon Remembers just a year later, which continued to sell over the decades. Music has a teleportation-like quality, and Wenner harnessed that from the moment the first issue hit newsstands in November 1967.

Whatever company buys Rolling Stone — the New York Times theorizes AMI, which has already purchased Men’s Journal and Us Weekly earlier this year — it is likely going to pivot the brand towards whatever’s trending. (This is something Gus Wenner had tried to accomplish via video and Glixel, a site devoted to video games). The magazine’s nostalgic focus will undoubtedly change, but Wenner deserves credit for  championing a genre of music that was seen unviable commercially, while also setting the tone for pop culture coverage of the last half-century.

As Petrusich explains:

One afternoon, the interns were marched into an auditorium and introduced to the writer Tom Wolfe, who was wearing an eggshell-colored three-piece suit, a homburg hat, and striped socks. He may have been swinging a cane. I couldn’t believe it. I had read “The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test” as an undergraduate, and spent most of our meeting wiping my damp palms on my skirt, trying to muster enough temerity to venture a question. Who knows what I actually asked—I only remember that he was merciful, gallant, kind. He told us how Wenner had reached out to him, in 1969, to see if he might be interested in contributing to the magazine. His first assignment, a four-part series on the Apollo 17 launch, called “Post-Orbital Remorse,” later became his book “The Right Stuff,” still a defining text of so-called New Journalism. “At a time when everyone was saying you had to compete with television and write short, Jann just let it run if it was good,” he explained in an interview with David Browne this past June.