Nobody mistakes Jann Wenner -- whose Wenner Media publishes Rolling Stone, Us Weekly and Men's Journal -- for a digital fanboy. He was lukewarm enough on the internet to let another company license and run RollingStone.com from 2003 through 2010. Last year he orchestrated a magazine industry ad campaign promoting the "power of print."
But his tentative take on even the iPad may dismay the big publishing powers, which hope tablets will deliver a better kind of digital platform for magazines, one that means significant business in a matter of years. He thinks it will be decades. "You're talking about a generation at least, maybe two generations, before the shift is decisive," he said.
In a conversation with Ad Age that ranged from media to politics to music, aboard his private jet en route to a Detroit Adcraft Club event, he identified "insanity" in magazines' rush to the iPad, explained why magazines are not going the way of the CD and broke down President Obama's decisions to release his birth certificate but withhold a post-mortem photo of Osama bin Laden. Here's the talk, lightly edited.
Advertising Age: You started Rolling Stone when you were 20. What would it be like to start an independent magazine today?
Jann Wenner: When I started we were able to get it off the ground for $7,500. But we were operating out of a rent-free loft over a printer in San Francisco. The six people working on it all worked free, were all volunteers. There was no overhead and we put it out on newsprint.
Today to start a magazine, I mean, if you do it in New York, it's millions and millions of dollars and it's not that easy to assemble that . You start off with market testing and all kinds of research and rounds of investors and prospectuses. We did none of that . It was just really enthusiasm and seat of the pants. There was no methodology to it. It would really be impossible to do that again today.
Ad Age : Independents who might have once started a magazine are tempted now to do a website instead. But big magazine publishers have found the web to be so difficult. You can build this audience but it's flighty, the ad rates compared to print are abysmal and the competition a click away is essentially infinite. What should print magazines be doing online?
Mr. Wenner: The most important thing a magazine can do online is maintain its brand and be very strong in terms of delivering on that brand. And then link it to the magazine in such a way -- or at least this is going to be our strategy -- link it to the magazine in such a way that it does things in the same field with the same brand and the same point of view, but not things you can do in print.
Now I think that you can build both successfully -- make the whole experience more exciting for your print reader and vice versa -- and then it's easier to sell to advertisers, I think, packages as well as the raw sheer buying that they do for tonnage.
But I think it's a mistake to think that you should put your magazine itself online. As you point out, there's not enough audience, the numbers are not there for ad sales, you're not going to get a lot of money on that .
The magazine business, or at least the leaders of the magazine business, have been struggling for a long time, they've invested millions upon millions of dollars because they've had their heads in the sand about this whole thing. And maybe they're figuring it out now. We never have gone that route. We've just been making money.
Ad Age : You are a big believer in print obviously and had a leading role in that ad campaign --
Mr. Wenner: That was my idea. A leading role? It was my campaign. My idea for it, my idea how it execute it, and I led it.
Ad Age : So what are print's chief assets today, more than 10 years after you made Us into a weekly only to see the web rise up and make everything hourly?
Mr. Wenner: The challenges are different to different kinds of magazines. News magazines, magazines that have high frequency and news, are going to be challenged, heavily challenged, not just by the internet but by the whole 24-hour news cycle which has just been getting enhanced. Cable has been really supercharged. So it really impacts magazines like Time and Newsweek and so forth as we can clearly see. And they're struggling to find what it is they can do in this age.
Magazines that depend on photography, and design, and long reads, and quality stuff, are going to do just fine despite the internet and cable news. Because in those areas there's a real advantage to getting a print product and having something you can hold and that of course is portable and has a luxurious feeling and is comfortable and immersive and you can spend time with it and it's organized for you.
In the age of the 24-hour news cycle and the availability of the internet you have to focus on those qualities in your magazine even more. Really you have to deliver quality more than ever. And unless you can deliver something that 's quality and really compelling there's just too many fucking media choices around now. Unless you're really good you're in trouble.
Ad Age : Rolling Stone showed it's possible to still make news in print with its coverage of the investment banks and Gen. Stanley McChrystal last summer.
Mr. Wenner: How about that ? Rolling Stone, a rock and roll magazine, is doing the best coverage of military affairs and financial affairs. Isn't that something?
Ad Age : Did you have any involvement in that McChrystal article? Were you surprised at the effect it had?
Mr. Wenner: I approved the assignment but I didn't make the assignment and I hadn't met the writer. It was handled by one of our top editors. I was briefed along the way as to what was developing here and I was told we had some very controversial stuff, and shown it, but like everybody else I failed to perceive just how controversial it was.
The remarks were a little bit controversial, what McChrystal had to say, but what it was that really brought him down was that the article showed that he was an inept commander for that particular job. The strategy wasn't working, his soldiers were all in revolt against him, he'd lost the confidence of his soldiers and he'd alienated all his allies. They had to fire him. This article plainly pointed it out and really gave Obama a chance to get someone more appropriate to run the war.