Margaret Sullivan: “More Immediate, More Visceral” —A Plan for Reviving Rolling Stone

From a Washington Post media column by Margaret Sullivan headlined “‘More immediate, more visceral’ and a lot tougher on Eric Clapton: A plan for reviving Rolling Stone”:

Last Monday in Manhattan, outside the Fifth Avenue offices of Rolling Stone, dozens of young fans of the South Korean boy band P1Harmony swarmed the building, hoping to catch a glimpse of their idols.

The band was upstairs doing a three-song set in the magazine’s Twitch studio, while about 100,000 people watched them via the live-streaming platform.

Less than 24 hours earlier, Rolling Stone had unleashed a built-to-go-viral story, with an energetic push on social media and a headline of “Eric Clapton Isn’t Just Spouting Vaccine Nonsense — He’s Bankrolling It.” The story revealed that the British superstar guitarist once dubbed “God” is not only a leading vaccine skeptic himself but a financial benefactor of an upstart anti-vaccine band. The piece also toured Clapton’s history of “full-tilt” racist rants.

Rolling Stone, that bible of baby boom rock, is attempting to reinvent itself. Financially troubled for years, and plagued by a major journalism scandal after its flawed University of Virginia rape-case reporting a few years ago, it’s been crawling out of that hole for a while.

The print magazine now publishes monthly instead of every other week but is profitable by itself, with a circulation of about 500,000; Rolling Stone as a whole — now owned by Penske Media, which also owns Variety, Billboard and the Hollywood Reporter — started turning a profit in 2019. It reaches about 60 million people a month on various digital platforms, the company says.

The next challenge, said president and CEO Gus Wenner…is “journalism with teeth”and “a real place in the zeitgeist.”

“Our North Star is reestablishing Rolling Stone as the Bible for young people,” he said. “That’s not true now, but we’re on the road.”

A milestone came this summer when Wenner, the 30-year-old son of magazine co-founder Jann Wenner, hired a new editor, Noah Shachtman, who had previously been the top editor at the Daily Beast.

Shachtman has a plan.

“We are 100 percent going to shine a light on bad actors,” he told me, as we walked through Rolling Stone’s Midtown headquarters, where a dazzling video wall rotates through a history of magazine covers: Mick Jagger, Madonna, Bruno Mars, Beyoncé and of course, Clapton. In doing so, he wants Rolling Stone to stand apart from much of entertainment journalism, which “tends to be either fawning and borderline embarrassing, or pure gossip.”

Though its political coverage has historically been hard-hitting, Rolling Stone was once among the music press that treated the industry’s biggest stars with a certain amount of reverence.

But it’s not just tougher stories that Shachtman wants. It’s a “more immediate, more visceral” presentation, the kind of approach that the Internet demands.

At the Daily Beast, Shachtman drove digital traffic, often by finding the sexiest element of a story and going hard with it — in headlines, in the lead paragraph, and certainly on social media — and by aggressively breaking news, such as revealing that Mary Trump was the source of her uncle’s tax returns going public or how sex offender Jeffrey Epstein was running a dicey secret charity.

When Lindsey Buckingham was out promoting his new memoir, Rolling Stone’s interview was more provocative than most — and Shachtman’s team sold it hard on Twitter: “Lindsey Buckingham compares Stevie Nicks to Trump and his former Fleetwood Mac bandmates to timid Republicans.” Success: Matt Drudge picked it up on his heavily trafficked website, and the piece found hundreds of thousands of readers.

Magazines haven’t always been so forthright in flagging the best parts of a story; typically, Shachtman said, “that news would have been left to readers to unearth by themselves.” But that approach is a relic of print; for online readers, if the good stuff isn’t in a headline and part of an intense social media push, they might never see it….

The magazine also has been working hard to appeal to a younger audience while retaining its loyal readers. It’s rolling out four related cover stories in which new artists are paired with more established ones, such as Olivia Rodrigo with Alanis Morissette, and Kehlani with Alicia Keys. Shachtman wants to expand the boundaries beyond traditional rock and pop; he’d love to be covering the best rap artists from Africa, for example. As a longtime reggae bassist, whose bands played the legendary, now-defunct CBGB in New York and the 9:30 Club in Washington, Shachtman has a serendipitous feeling about this new gig combining music and journalism.

“When you get a chance to make retroactive sense of your life, you take it,” he said.

Later, as images as disparate as O.J. Simpson, Bob Dylan and Adele scrolled by on the video wall, Shachtman paused to call his challenge “kind of heavy.” When I asked what he meant, he described the magazine’s history as “a lot to live up to.”

After all, the magazine was host to decades of memorable journalism — Hunter S. Thompson’s gonzo adventures, Michael Hastings’s revelations of top U.S. military commanders in Afghanistan mocking government officials back in Washington, and Matt Taibbi’s takedowns of the banking industry.

In “Sticky Fingers,” his biography of Jann Wenner, Joe Hagan described the feeling of picking up a copy of Rolling Stone in the old days — “like holding a piece of hot shrapnel from the cultural explosion of the 1960s while it still glowed with feeling and meaning.”

But, well, it’s been a while. So now comes another shot at relevance.

If reinventing an iconic magazine means taking aim at music’s sacred cows and finding ways to shout from the rooftops, both Noah Shachtman and Gus Wenner seem ready to do just that.

Margaret Sullivan is The Washington Post’s media columnist. Previously, she was the New York Times public editor, and the chief editor of the Buffalo News, her hometown paper.

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