Rolling Stone stalled after first issue

Experts say China's door "not shut" to foreign publishers

By Published on .

BEIJING--Rolling Stone has run right into the most difficult aspect of doing business in China, the government, and its woes are a powerful reminder for any marketer or publisher trying to establish a presence there just how important it is to be sure authorities have blessed your venture.

Although the debut Chinese edition was a hit with readers, selling out just days after it appeared on local newsstands earlier this month, press and publishing authorities are looking into whether proper protocol was followed in establishing the title.

Local press reports suggesting the monthly has been banned are "completely untrue," according to an executive at One Media Group, the Hong Kong-based publisher producing Rolling Stone in cooperation with Wenner Media in the U.S. "The government hasn't officially told us anything yet, but we are very confident that a second issue will be published soon."

However, the government's press and publishing authority in Shanghai, where the license under which Rolling Stone is published is located, has raised red flags about the legality of the license that will have to be ironed out before future issues can appear.

Like all foreign titles, the Chinese edition is published through a license belonging to a local magazine, in this case a magazine that is no longer published called Audio Visual World.

A Wenner executive in the U.S. answered inquiries by referring to a statement from One Media Group, which said it remains the exclusive content licensee of Rolling Stone, "The Group will continue to work with its partners in mainland China to ensure adherence to compliance measures within China while maintaining its dedication to all interested parties," it said.

The authorities are investigating ways One Media and its local partner may not have complied fully with China's their regulations. In particular, according to publishers of other foreign titles in China, the English name of the magazine is far larger than the Chinese name, a no-no in a Communist country still coming to terms with the influence of foreigners in its domestic affairs.

?Rolling Stone should have purchased this local title to be repackaged for a Chinese Rolling Stone," said an executive at MindShare in Beijing. "The whole procedure didn't get [full] agreement from the government [and it] didn't allow them to use Rolling Stone [in English] as the magazine's name. That issue is very sensitive."

All foreign titles except those covering science and technology operate in a "gray area? in China, said Jeremy Goldkorn, co-director of Standards Group, an independent ad agency in Beijing and a veteran of China's publishing industry.

"It's technically illegal for them to be published here at all. They go through a local company and use their license, which usually has some degree of involvement in the content. In this case, [the local license holder] has almost no involvement."

Vogue, for example, publishes a local edition in China through the same mechanism, but without raising the eyebrows of publishing officials. The questions rippling through China's media industry are why was Rolling Stone singled out and what do its current problems mean for the rest of the industry.

It's partly a content issue. Fashion titles cover less sensitive topics than a rebellious magazine like Rolling Stone, whose first issue touched on some taboo topics like a female Chinese blogger with a vivid sex life.

"There was nothing in there you couldn't publish in China in another context, but packaging it all together under a Rolling Stone logo that was too large annoyed the press and publication authority in Shanghai," which, ironically, is more sensitive than its counterpart office in Chinas capital. "If the magazine were based in Beijing, Rolling Stone's launch may not have caused such a problem," Mr. Goldkorn added.

Vogue executives in China also 'spent more time nailing down contracts so when it came out, all the [political] issues were ironed out. Rolling Stone didn't do that, partly because the editor was only hired two months ago."

In addition to aggravating local press officials by moving too quickly and not kowtowing to their authority, Rolling Stone's debut has frightened existing lifestyle and music titles in China. Industry insiders say the rivals "ganged up? and informed the authorities about One Media's alleged legal infractions, and found a sympathetic ear.

It is likely Rolling Stone will survive the ordeal. "They"ll just have to do a lot of groveling, and once the authorities start looking at them, they"ll maintain a close watch. Rolling Stone will lose a lot of ground now as it's starting out, so this market will be tough for them," said Mr. Goldkorn.

But another veteran of China's magazine industry admitted this is a "very conservative time. In the past, foreign titles have been tolerated, if not wholly legal, but the Communist party is nervous about losing their control over media. A lot has happened in the past 18 months with local titles getting closed down for being too critical of the government and that nervousness is spilling over to some foreign titles like Rolling Stone, which has become a lightning rod.

"That doesn't mean there's now a closed door policy for foreign titles, but the door was never that widely open. I think Rolling Stone probably can recover, if they play their cards right."

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