Wenner (Finally) Gets Serious About the Web

Hires Digital Chief; Covets Control of RollingStone.com

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NEW YORK (AdAge.com) -- Wenner Media, after years of outsourcing its web duties and working around the fact that someone else owned the URL UsWeekly.com, has hired its first ever chief digital officer.

Jann Wenner
Jann Wenner Credit: AP
Steve Schwartz will fill the new post; he had been general manager of the Reader's Digest website since January. He'll be overseeing the fast-growing UsMagazine.com as well as the site for Rolling Stone, which Wenner licensed out to another company years ago.

He won't assume this post until January, however, so we took the opportunity to hear company Chairman Jann Wenner discuss why he's getting serious about online, taking back RollingStone.com and his own favorite sites to visit.

MediaWorks: You've decided to hire Steven Schwartz to be Wenner Media's first chief digital officer. Why did you create this position now?

Jann Wenner: Good question. Well for a long time, RollingStone.com has been licensed to Real Networks. As the Real deal approaches expiration at the end of next year, we are revisiting how it runs, what the nature of that partnership will be, all that kind of stuff. But skipping that, we've got UsMagazine.com, we've got RollingStone.com; we just needed to bring them together and have a professional run them.

We've been just kind of experimenting along the way. This is a decision, finally, to really commit to it and to invest in it in a much greater way than we have previously, where either someone else was running RollingStone.com or we were learning how to do it on our own with Us [Weekly]. And now we feel we're at a point where we've figured out what we need to do, what we should be and how to manage it.

MediaWorks: So what do you need to do online?

Jann Wenner: Well, it's not that we figured it all out. But we got the basics figured out. There's always a process of exploring. We still need to figure it out and we need somebody to figure it out who works for us. But we've got enough figured out and have enough knowledge of it now to know that this is a business to be serious about.

It's not that we haven't been serious about it before, but I watched too many magazine companies jump into this, not know what they're doing or do the wrong thing, and lose millions if not hundreds of millions of dollars. Particularly those who replicate the magazine online and end up undercutting their own print product. So I've taken a tentative, more cautious approach to the whole thing. And now we are ready to put the pedal to the medal a little harder.

MediaWorks: What's an online reader worth to you compared with a print reader?

Jann Wenner: The print reader's worth a whole lot more.

MediaWorks: Is there a way to make the online reader worth more?

Jann Wenner: I don't know. I mean, it's not what I'm even trying to do. It's more to try to develop an online component that's attractive to current print readers, that complements what the current print reader is doing.

I'm not trying to supplant our current readership with an online version of the magazine, like The New York Times does. I'm trying to find things that we can do on the internet that the Rolling Stone reader would like to have, or know or participate in, that can't be done on the printed page. It's live delivery of music, it's delivery of video, it's delivery of a daily information news flow. It's a level of a kind of information whether it's archival or concert listings. But I'm not trying to supplant the reading photographic experience.

MediaWorks: Do you think that's what The New York Times is doing?

Jann Wenner: I find out my young editors here in their 30s and 40s, who are really smart, don't necessarily read the daily edition. They look at it online. And I've been getting in the habit of checking it out online each night.

MediaWorks: Is that good for The New York Times or hurting their print edition?

Jann Wenner: It's probably somewhat good but also somewhat hurting.

MediaWorks: Why not try to turn RollingStone.com into something that has a much larger reach online that reaches tons of people who don't touch the print edition?

Jann Wenner: Why undercut the print edition? You're just going to undercut the print edition. There's a finite audience for reading about music. And they like the print edition. They find it valuable and on and on and on.

MediaWorks: How much of Wenner Media's ad revenue comes from digital operations?

Jann Wenner: Honestly, I don't know.

MediaWorks: Do you think that online ad revenue could become a big part of Wenner Media?

Jann Wenner: It could become a meaningful part. It won't come close to the revenue right now from print unless something big changes.

The numbers of people who use Rolling Stone or UsMagazine.com online are in the millions. Will they get to the ten millions? Maybe. Will they get to the hundred millions where the real money is being made? Even people in the hundred millions aren't really making money. A lot of them are not.

So this is to be a complement to what we do. It's not going to supplant what we do. That's the way I view it.

I believe that magazines have a great future doing what magazines do well: good reading, well edited, great photographs, thoughtful, contemplative. Will news magazines survive in the current environment? They're going to have a struggle. Newspapers have a struggle. But there are certain things that magazines still do a lot better and people cherish them for it. They're intimate. There's an object value in the magazine. There's no object value in the newspaper.

The object value of the magazine again is how precious it is, how well-crafted it is, how much great photography is in there, how much great writing. If you stress all those things, and that's what we do, you have a good future.

MediaWorks: A lot of what you've just described applies much more to Rolling Stone and Men's Journal than Us Weekly, which is less contemplative and doesn't really have a huge feature well. The audience for celebrity gossip also seems pretty bottomless. Couldn't you make Us Weekly into a huge online business instead of just a wingman to the print edition?

Jann Wenner: Well, Us Weekly will probably be bigger than Rolling Stone in not too long because there's a much, more larger audience for it. Even though there's a larger audience and a more ravenous appetite for it, print survives very, very nicely. If you're addicted to that stuff you'll be watching E! TV, you're be getting it online and you'll be buying magazines, which are the weekly crystallization of the best of it. I mean Us is a photo magazine. There's something so rich about looking at that collected in print. Even though you might have seen them already on TV, on ["Entertainment Tonight"], or on the internet, there's something mystical about picking up the magazine each week and looking at those pictures in detail and studying them.

And all the stuff we develop for Us magazine, we don't put it up online automatically or right away.

MediaWorks: You've got to re-examine, you said, the deal outsourcing RollingStone.com to Real Networks?

Jann Wenner: We've got to re-examine. That relationship was set six years ago. We want to have more to do with ad sales. Right now they really run the ad sales part of it and the back office part of it. We really want to have a much more strong hand in our ad sales -- and manage them. It's becoming an increasingly large component of what we want to do in print sales. Everybody's looking for the online component. So we really have to marry those two things in terms of ad sales.

MediaWorks: Have you ever tried to buy UsWeekly.com?

Jann Wenner: We own it.

MediaWorks: [Asked while looking at UsWeekly.com on computer screen] It's got conservative headlines and has an ad served by Google promoting In Touch Weekly.

Jann Wenner: Oh really? I think we probably have and have not had a successful negotiation. So we are UsMagazine.com. You know, smart people will find it.

MediaWorks: What websites do you regularly visit?

Jann Wenner: I look at RollingStone.com actually to tell you the truth. That's my default site. I read The Times every night. I use Google, YouTube, you know, that kind of stuff.

MediaWorks: No favorite blogs or other sources of news?

Jann Wenner: You know what the problem is? Finding enough time to read and raise children is just like, whoof.

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