'Rolling Stone' reinvents itself

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In another lifetime, B.J. Rubin is Rolling Stone's bread-and-butter reader. Just not this one.

"I don't read Rolling Stone," said Mr. Rubin, 24-what the magazine says is the median reader's age-and an avid music fan. "Everything they've covered as hip and new I've known about for a year."

And so, in a bid to woo back the Mr. Rubins of the world, Rolling Stone late this week rolls out its high-profile remodeling, courtesy of new Managing Editor Ed Needham and Art Director Andy Cowles, beefing up music coverage, sharpening the design, and de-emphasizing lengthy features.

That latter point provoked a heated reaction in the media world. When asked about the changes, Jann Wenner, Rolling Stone's 56-year-old founder and still its editor in chief, fidgets at a conference table in his mogul-sized office and gazes up the Avenue of the Americas at a swatch of Central Park.

"Maybe there is a generational change. Maybe there is a larger significance," he concedes. "But Rolling Stone has got to be as relevant today as it was 25 or 30 years ago. And the fact that pop culture is different and more commercial, that there's more media today . . . it's not my [expletive] fault!"

He's right. Rolling Stone, which turns 35 in November, once owned a young men/pop cultural space now encroached on by everyone from ESPN The Magazine to MTV to Dennis Publishing's Blender and lad books. Circulation's soft-newsstand sales fell 15.6% in the first half of the year-and ad pages, while flat through July, suffered sizable declines in 2000 and 2001. Even its fans admit it's at a major crossroads.

"In some ways Rolling Stone has the same challenge Levi's had," said David Verklin, CEO at Aegis Group's Carat North America, who remains effusive over the title. "They are both iconic brands in their own sectors, but the biggest challenge is to make sure folks don't perceive Levi's as my father's jeans and Rolling Stone as my father's magazine."


The soft-spoken Mr. Needham seems to agree.

Rolling Stone has "always been a very thoughtful, considered, quite deep and ponderous" title, said Mr. Needham, who comes from Emap's FHM. "All of which are strengths." But "those kinds of strengths can, I think, be considered by the reader as being rather scholarly and professorial and serious."

He talks about translating the energy and emotional connection fans feel for music to the printed page: "Hopefully, the magazine will feel it's going at a faster pace."

The redesigned Stone leans much heavier on sidebars and navigational aids, like toolbars emblazoning department titles across the pages it runs. A new "Backstage" sub-feature on Aug. 15's Strokes/White Stripes Radio City Music Hall show in the upcoming issue, which hits newsstands Aug. 29, is two pages of chatty quick captions accompanying multiple candid shots of the decidedly photogenic musicians.

The reviews section, broadened to regularly feature books, DVDs and computer and music gadgets, will run over 100 CD reviews in this week's issue, a substantial multiple of what previously ran in a typical issue-and a riposte to Blender's exhaustive reviews section.

Mr. Needham dismisses talk he's out to laddie-ize Rolling Stone, and it's hard to imagine Mr. Wenner would let him go that far. But a lurid feature teased in the table of contents with the headline "The Kase of the Kinky Kidnapping" likely marks the first time the phrase "big black dildo" has appeared on that page twice, on a page where earnest editorials sometimes appeared, no less.

Despite the hue and cry from traditionalists that the new Rolling Stone will short-shrift long features, those familiar with Mr. Wenner's long-held ambitions for cultural impact and capital-S significance doubt they'll disappear.

"Jann won't be able to help himself from doing long in-depth things-that's who he is," chuckled John Walsh, executive editor at ESPN and an editor at Rolling Stone in the `70s.

For his part, Mr. Wenner touted an upcoming serialization of a new novel from Tom Wolfe, set on a modern-day college campus, although he joked "I wish I knew" when it would be ready to run. But at the same time, the new Rolling Stone significantly reduces the role of one recent high-profile hire, Matt Bai, who came over from Newsweek earlier this year to pick up the political beat, which is now getting less emphasis.

The Levi's analogy Mr. Verklin described is echoed by another media buyer, who bought Rolling Stone not for the kids but for their dads.

Mike McHale, senior principal group media director at Optimedia, ran ads for BMW North America's online film series in Rolling Stone aimed at hip thirtysomethings. He said he pictured the title's readership as even "fortysomething," and was unswayed by its claims to a younger readership: "The covers lead you to think that, but I don't think the edit leads me to the same place."

A `big tent'

Publisher Rob Gregory said that the magazine's large readership is a "big tent" including baby boomers who retain a music obsession into middle age.

Which touches on Rolling Stone's unique quandary-stuck somewhere between its history and its present, between the rockers identified with Mr. Wenner, who keeps a picture of John Lennon alongside those of his children and ex-wife in his office, and the new contenders the B.J. Rubins favor.

"It's the critical inflection point for any magazine," said Jim Harris, CEO of Chicago-based marketing strategist ThoughtStep. "You're going to go young, or grow old gracefully. Rolling Stone has decided it's not going to grow old gracefully. The question is how the plastic surgery is going to turn out."

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