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Jann Wenner: Magazines' Rush to iPad Is 'Sheer Insanity and Insecurity and Fear'

Successful Migration to Tablet Editions Will Take 'Decades,' Rolling Stone Co-Founder Says

By Published on . 9

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."

Jann Wenner at the National Magazine Awards in May 2011
Jann Wenner at the National Magazine Awards in May 2011 Credit: Albert Chau/American Society of Magazine Editors

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.

Ad Age : Speaking of the president, whom you've interviewed for Rolling Stone, what do you see om his decision to release his long-form birth certificate but not a photo of Osama bin Laden's corpse?

Mr. Wenner: They were the right decisions. It was time to put the first one, the birth certificate, to rest. I think that he brought it just to the point that it destroyed all the crazy people and let them look silly. The rope got long enough and then he pulled it. And I agree with him on the picture of Osama bin Laden. What purpose does it serve? Everybody says well it serves the purpose of convincing people he's dead. It's not going to convince anybody who's not convinced.

Ad Age : What's your take on selling magazines on the iPad and other tablets?

Mr. Wenner: It's the same pretty much as I've said about the web. The tablet itself is a really fun device. Some people are going to enjoy it a lot and use it. Some people aren't. On this plane one person's traveling with a tablet, one's not. There's a certain trendiness to the thing. And it's a great thing. But is it a good magazine thing?

It's a good magazine reading device, absolutely. And where it becomes more convenient to read the magazine on that , that 's got the advantage. But that 's more convenient only if you're traveling, if you're away from home. Otherwise it's still easier to read the physical magazine, which is widely available on newsstands, at airports, and everywhere. You can still subscribe to get it and get it on time. You still get all the value of the magazine.

I don't think that gives you much advantage as a magazine reader to read it on the tablet -- in fact less so. It's a little more difficult.

From the publisher's point of view I would think they're crazy to encourage it. They're going to get less money for it from advertisers. Right now it costs a fortune to convert your magazine, to program it, to get all the things you have to do on there. And they're not selling. You know, 5,000 copies there, 3,000 copies here, it's not worth it. You haven't put a dent in your R&D costs.

So I think that they're prematurely rushing and showing little confidence and faith in what they've really got, their real asset, which is the magazine itself, which is still a great commodity. It's a small additive; it's not the new business.

Ad Age : Well, you think for now, or you think forever?

Mr. Wenner: Oh I think down the road. Who knows how far down the road -- years though and possibly decades.

Ad Age : Not months.

Mr. Wenner: Not months. Decades, probably. People's habits will shift, they'll make improvements in the delivery system, the screen will change, it will get lighter, whatever, and new people growing up will find that as a habit. But you're talking about a generation at least, maybe two generations, before the shift is decisive.

Look at the music industry as an example. I think it's split about 50-50 between CDs and digital delivery. There is a place where there are extraordinary advantages in the distribution delivery system. Otherwise the products are indistinguishable; there's no difference in the physical products as there is here.

And yet it's still a generational shift going on. And we're far away from that . We have a much different and more unique product than just the CD.

Ad Age : I was talking to the publisher of Popular Science, which has sold more than 16,000 iPad subscriptions, so he's happy. But that 's a small proportion for now of 1.2 million print subscriptions, and he also said if digital grew enough he was less likely to increase his overall circulation than to cut back the print component, because paper, postage and printing cost so much. Do you think you would embrace that strategy?

Mr. Wenner: No, I don't. First of all Popular Science is probably a magazine that 's more suitable for the iPad, because of the audience it represents, the more techie thing and all that . And as you point out if it's selling 16,000 on a million-plus rate base, it's like nothing.

And I just don't think the shift will happen that way. While paper, printing and all that are expensive, we still get a nice profit margin, far larger than anything I can contemplate that 's in the foreseeable future by using the iPad as a substitute. As long as people want the magazine product we'll deliver it. I think that 's going to be for a long time to come.

People cherish it. There's something to hold onto. It's everything that I said or we said in that ad campaign for magazines.

The strategy we're going to announce is that we're just going to give free access to the current issue on the web or the iPad, and our archives, to anyone who's already a subscriber. So if you're a paid subscriber to Rolling Stone you can get it on any platform you want.

Ad Age : Will there be a Rolling Stone edition for the iPad?

Mr. Wenner: You can get it through Zinio or through our website and our archives are available on the website. At some point I'm sure it will be on the iPad but I'm not in any rush to break what I consider fundamental principles of what the magazine industry has to have and make a deal with Apple that will mortgage me into the future on the basis of getting 2,000 copies sold a month.

I think that rush is so premature. I've sat down and talked with the assembled heads of the industry about the whole thing and everybody has misgivings but some are, you know, more insecure than others.

Ad Age : Have you talked to Apple about this?

Mr. Wenner: I have not had a direct conversation with Apple. Their story is simple. They want to go knock off the weakest of the big guys and then use that as a lever. They were having no success with Time Inc., because they weren't going to give, so they went to Hearst. And really Hearst has just given them a couple of titles.

Ad Age : It sounds like Hearst and Conde Nast are pretty fully signed up for the Apple terms if I understand correctly.

Mr. Wenner: It's hard to know between what they won't disclose and what they're afraid to disclose and what they're embarrassed to disclose. We'll see.

Ad Age : Music obviously went through a lot in terms of the transition to digital and there's this conventional narrative now about how they got screwed by Apple. What do you think Apple meant for the music business, and what are the lessons for magazines as they get involved in iTunes and Apple?

Mr. Wenner: The music business more screwed itself than Apple screwed it. The music business refused to embrace internet technology when it first was introduced just as they first tried to fight and stop CDs, just as they used to fight and try to stop home taping, all of which was known to spread it. So now you have an ironic situation where music is more ubiquitous than ever -- everybody in the world has access to everything -- my kids can listen to the Beatles because they don't have to pay $15 to buy an album, they can either get it free or buy a Beatles song for a buck if they want.

So it's the music business's fault more than anything else. And then their failure to develop what Apple did develop, which was a good convenient easy delivery system. They fell on their own sword, you know?

I think Apple's within its rights to do what they decided to do. They wanted to control pricing. The music business failed to do those things.

But the lesson for magazine publishing business is not to rush like the music business should have done, because it's a different product. Music is really easily reducible to digital. There's a different beat to it.

Be attuned. Get ready to make the moves. Be adept at moving quickly to the changes. But to rush to throw away your magazine business and move it on the iPad is just sheer insanity and insecurity and fear. And because it coincided with the ad recession, they conflated the two events until they themselves believed that magazines are dead. Part of what we did in this ad campaign was partially to address the magazine business itself, to say hey boys, girls, you've got great values, you should learn about them yourself -- as well as tell advertisers.

Because up until that point they'd been rushing out to sell the iPad, a nonexistent business, and saying we admit it, we're dead. So hopefully that is all turning around. People have dialed back considerably.

Follow Nat Ives on Twitter.

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