Rolling Stone plans to introduce a new website called Rolling Stone Country in the second quarter of 2014.
The new standalone site's aim is to cover the country music scene in the same way Rolling Stone does rock and pop music, according to Gus Wenner, director of Rolling Stone.com. To that end, the magazine is opening an office in Nashville with 10 to 15 editorial staffers, said Mr. Wenner, whose father Jann is the co-founder of Rolling Stone and parent company Wenner Media. To coincide with the site's introduction, the magazine is planning a country-themed print issue, a first for Rolling Stone.
The initiative is among the younger Wenner's first major moves since he was named to run RollingStone.com in May. "There's a really big void in the digital coverage of country music as far as giving it the serious attention it deserves," he said, comparing the genre's popularity to that of Nascar. "I saw some similarities and thought it could be an opportunity for Rolling Stone."
There are already some established magazines and websites covering the space, of course, including Country Weekly magazine and AOL's The Boot. At Yahoo Music, Dodge Ram sponsors a section dedicated to country music.
But Rolling Stone Country comes as country music continues to boom as a business, with more than a quarter of U.S. adults now calling themselves country fans, according to Scarborough. Last year, the industry hauled in $1 billion, fueled by a 4.2% increase in album sales, according to Nielsen SoundScan. At the same time, alternative and R&B album sales have declined. Sales of rock albums, the only other category to see an increase last year, inched up just 2%.
"There's a huge opportunity for us to expand the Rolling Stone consumer base by extending into country music," said Chris McLoughlin, Rolling Stone's publisher, who said the brand will spend more than $1 million on the new site in 2014.
As country music has soared, Rolling Stone's print edition has struggled on some fronts. Single-copy sales declined sharply through the first half of 2013, according to the Alliance for Audited Media, falling 28% compared with the period a year prior. Industry wide newsstand sales dropped 10% during that time. The magazine's total paid and verified circulation increased slightly, however, to nearly 1.5 million.
Print ad pages at the biweekly magazine this year are relatively even, slipping 1.9% through the Nov. 21 issue, according to Media Industry Newsletter. Last year as a whole, ad pages fell 9.5%.
The new site is aiming to hit one million monthly unique visitors within its first 12 months, Mr. Wenner said, with about 8 to 12 items published daily on the site. Monthly unique visitors to the main RollingStone.com totaled nearly 4.3 million in October, up 34% from October 2012, according to ComScore.
Madison Avenue has already followed music fans to Nashville. Country performers such as Lady Antebellum and Jason Aldean have starred in TV spots for Lipton Tea and Coors Light, respectively. Singer Blake Shelton, who is also a co-host of the popular NBC show "The Voice," has appeared in Walmart ads.
"Certain categories of advertisers love country music because it's a very sponsor-friendly genre," Mr. McLoughlin said. "The performers are all super likable, they tend to be good people who value their fans and treat their fans well."
The magazine is "firming up commitments" from advertisers for the site, Mr. McLoughlin said, declining to identify them by name.
There are no plans for a regular print version of Rolling Stone Country. A special interest publication with a price tag around $12 or $13 is planned for newsstands in the second half of 2014.
Mr. Wenner, who is in a two-person band with Scout Willis (daughter of Bruce), called himself a fan of classic country music performers such as Merle Haggard and Johnny Cash.
"I went through a lot of the iterations and proposals and modeling for Rolling Stone Country, but the most important thing was a trip I took down to Nashville," he said. "That is a culture that appreciates music."
"We're really doubling down on country: in the office, the people, the logo and the art that's going into the new site," he added. "You're going to realize that this thing is for real. This isn't something we envision putting up and pulling down if ad dollars dry up."