It was announced yesterday that Rolling Stone grand poobah, Jann S. Wenner and son Gus were putting their flagship magazine brand up for sale, bringing about the end of an era.
Since the 60’s, Rolling Stone has been the irrefutable counter culture Holy Book, the Journal of Our Youth, from the baby-boomers through the last clingers on from the X Generation. So what the fuck happened?
Founded in in San Francisco in 1967 by Jann Wenner, the publication was first known for its musical coverage under music critic Ralph J. Gleason and for political reporting by writers Hunter S. Thompson and Tom Wolfe, and of course- its legendary cover photos that gave fame to photographers like Annie Leibovitz, who went on to become legends in their own rights.
And that is, perhaps more than anything else, the Legacy of Rolling Stone. It always had its finger on the Pulse of a nation, and it was always a step ahead of the curve of popular culture. It embodied the “youth-up” approach, where you keep your eye on the future of politics by staying engaged with its young future architects.
“Who lives through the ’60s, ’70s, ’80s and ’90s and cannot be somehow wistful at this moment?”
That’s because it touched all of us. It may be the single common thread uniting the generations of the 60’s, 70’s, 80’s, 90’s and pure millennials together under one banner. It somehow transcended generations, never becoming “uncool” or dated. It used a simple, tired old format, but kept it populated with the latest and greatest, oftentimes telling culture what it would appreciate well before it actually appreciated it.
During the 1990s, the magazine shifted focus to a younger readership interested in youth-oriented television shows, film actors, and popular music, which did not bear well for the publication and it later switched back to it’s more original eclectic formula.
“Back in the day, in ’91 or so, I tried to interview Fugazi for Rolling Stone, which the band felt stood for everything they detested about corporate infiltration of music. They said, ‘We’ll do the interview if you give us a million dollars of cash in a suitcase.’ Which was their way of saying no.”
In the 1970s, Rolling Stone began to make it’s mark with its political coverage, with the likes of gonzo journalist Hunter S. Thompson writing for the magazine’s political section.
Thompson first published his most famous work Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas within the pages of Rolling Stone, where he remained a contributing editor until his death in 2005. In the 1970s, the magazine also helped launch the careers of many prominent authors, including Cameron Crowe, Lester Bangs, Joe Klein, Joe Eszterhas, Patti Smith and P. J. O’Rourke.
“When I started working for Rolling Stone, I became very interested in journalism and thought maybe that’s what I was doing, but it wasn’t.”
It was at this point that the magazine ran some of its most famous stories, including that of the Patty Hearst abduction odyssey.
On April 19, 2010, the website was updated drastically and now features the complete archives of Rolling Stone. The archive was first launched under a for-pay model, but has since transitioned to a free-with-print-subscription model. In the spring of 2012, Rolling Stone launched a federated search feature which searches both the website and the archive.
“Joe Klein is the flower of American political journalism, a sharp raconteur who shows traces of the gonzo style that was in vogue when he was honing his craft at Rolling Stone back in the day.”
The website has become an interactive source of biographical information on music artists in addition to historical rankings from the magazine. Users can cross-reference lists and they are also provided with historical insights. For example, one group that is listed on both Rolling Stone’s 500 Greatest Albums of All Time and Rolling Stone’s 500 Greatest Songs of All Time is Toots and the Maytals, with biographical details from Rolling Stone that explain how Toots and the Maytals are responsible for coining the term “reggae” in their song “Do the Reggay”.
So with so much seemingly going right, what went wrong?
Well, perhaps it has less to do with the brand itself and more to do with a changing social framework. Headlines lately have been talking a lot about the decline of celebrity editors, the rise of alternative media forms, and a general shift away from highly centralized, exclusionary information centers.
“I hate ‘Rolling Stone’ – because I loved it so much. I had the ‘Cheap Tricks’ cover and the Clash cover on my wall for years, and I just hate what happened to it. It just became the smarmy grad student that sits next to you on the bus.”
In a day in age where everyone with a dream of writing, filmmaking or becoming a musician no longer depend on a major publisher, production studio or record label to make their voices heard, those institutions have taken on the image of archaic traditional establishments, more focused on excluding people from the narrative, than including them.
We live in the Wiki-Culture now. History is written by the many, not the few, and edited by scores of competing editorial interests, and no longer a centralized publishing authority as in the ages of Henry Luce and Rudolph Hearst- and now even Jann Wenner has become a dinosaur, whose own empire marked the end of his predecessors in popular culture.
Where once it was an honor and a privilege to become a celebrity editor, it has now become a form of fascism and privilege in the eyes of the new generation. And it is true, that with many celebrity editors of today it is hard to imagine why they were famous to begin with, but then for the fickle wind of fame itself.
Jann Wenner had a good run. A great run for that matter. He is arguably one of the most influential men of not just our generation, but of an entire era of American History. The end has been coming for some time, despite good efforts to delay the inevitable. Wenner sold off Men’s Journal and US Weekly several years ago.
Wenner says he wants to find a buyer that understands Rolling Stone and has “lots of money”.
“Rolling Stone has played such a role in the history of our times, socially and politically and culturally. We want to retain that position.”
So what comes next for Rolling Stone? Well, it’s hard to say, no buyer has been announced yet, though Wenner says he has several interested potential parties. Both Jann and his son Gus have both signaled that they would like to stay on with the magazine in senior positions, but point out that that would be at the discretion of the new management.