Rolling Stone magazine up for sale

NEW YORK • From a loft in San Francisco in 1967, a 21-year-old named Jann S. Wenner started a magazine that would become the counterculture publication for baby boomers. Rolling Stone defined cool, cultivated literary icons and produced star-making covers.

But the headwinds buffeting the publishing industry, and some costly strategic missteps, have steadily taken a financial toll on Rolling Stone. A botched story three years ago about an unproven gang rape at the University of Virginia also badly bruised the magazine's journalistic reputation.

And so, after a half-century reign that propelled him into the realm of the rock stars who graced his covers, Mr Wenner is putting his company's controlling stake in Rolling Stone up for sale.

He had long tried to remain an independent publisher. But he acknowledged in an interview last week that the magazine he had nurtured would face a difficult, uncertain future on its own.

"I love my job, I enjoy it, I've enjoyed it for a long time," said Mr Wenner, 71. But letting go, he added, was "just the smart thing to do".

The sale plans were devised by his 27-year-old son, Gus, who has aggressively pared down the assets of Rolling Stone's parent company, Wenner Media, in response to financial pressures. The Wenners recently sold the company's other two magazines, Us Weekly and Men's Journal. And last year, BandLab Technologies, a music technology company based in Singapore, invested US$40 million (S$53.7 million) to acquire a 49 per cent stake in the magazine.

Both father and son said they intended to stay on at Rolling Stone. But they said they also recognised that the decision could ultimately be up to the new owner.

Still, the potential sale of Rolling Stone - on the eve of its 50th anniversary, no less - underscores how inhospitable the media landscape has become as print advertising and circulation have dried up.

"There's a level of ambition that we can't achieve alone," Mr Gus Wenner, president and chief operating officer of Wenner Media, said last week in an interview at the magazine's headquarters in midtown Manhattan. "So we are being proactive and want to get ahead of the curve.

"Publishing is a completely different industry than what it was," he added. "The trends go in one direction and we are very aware of that."

Mr Jann Wenner said he hoped to find a buyer that understood Rolling Stone's mission and that had "lots of money".

"Rolling Stone has played such a role in the history of our times, socially, politically and culturally," he said. "We want to retain that position."

The magazine has helped guide, and define, a generation.

It filled its pages with pieces that ran in the thousands of words by standard-bearers of the counterculture, including Hunter S. Thompson - whose Fear And Loathing In Las Vegas was published in the magazine in two parts - and Tom Wolfe.

Its influence stretched into pop culture, entertainment and politics. A bastion of liberal ideology, the magazine became a required stop for Democratic presidential candidates - Mr Jann Wenner has personally interviewed several, including former presidents Bill Clinton and Barack Obama - and it has pulled no punches in its appraisal of Republicans. In 2006, Rolling Stone suggested Mr George W. Bush was the "worst president in history".

The magazine also published widely acclaimed political stories, including one in 2009 on Goldman Sachs by writer Matt Taibbi, who famously described the company as "a great vampire squid wrapped around the face of humanity".

But Rolling Stone suffered a devastating blow to its reputation when it retracted a debunked 2014 article about a gang rape at the University of Virginia. The article prompted three libel lawsuits, one of which culminated with a federal jury awarding the plaintiff US$3 million in damages.

The financial picture had also been bleak. In 2001, Mr Jann Wenner sold a 50 per cent stake in Us Weekly to Walt Disney Co for US$40 million, then borrowed US$300 million five years later to buy back the stake. The deal saddled the company with debt for more than a decade.

Mr Wenner - who invested US$7,500 of borrowed money to start Rolling Stone along with his mentor, Mr Ralph J. Gleason - once boasted that he had turned down a US$500-million offer for the magazine. Though he said he still cared deeply about Rolling Stone, he has placed its fate firmly in his son's hands and appears content to let someone else determine its path forward.

"I think it's time for young people to run it," he said.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 19, 2017, with the headline 'Rolling Stone magazine up for sale'. Print Edition | Subscribe