What to make of the career of Jann Wenner, who is selling the magazine he founded, Rolling Stone, capping a remarkable career in publishing?
In the Age of Trump, we are instructed to admire successful businessmen, those who have, as the president likes to put it, “built a great company.” Wenner is nothing if not that. In 1967, he borrowed $7,500 from his family, including his future in-laws, about $50,000 in contemporary terms. Wenner is a child of privilege (he was a few years behind Maureen Reagan at the Chadwick School) and that loan was nothing to sniff at, but with that relatively small endowment he built a magazine that became a household name — a magazine that still keeps the attention of 1.5 million readers even in these declining days of print. Originally a newspaper, Rolling Stone has gone through many iterations, most famously as a large-format glossy in the 1980s — everything was glossy and large-format in the Reagan years. If you would like to hear a great deal about how very difficult it is to sustain a high-quality magazine full of controversial content, come to a National Review event and buttonhole our publisher. Wenner did not merely endure, but made a great fortune out of it.
He did it the old-fashioned way: by publishing a lot of meretricious junk. Wenner sometimes aped the style and the feel of the radical-underground press of the 1960s and 1970s, but he always has been a capitalist of the old school. His politics may be impeccably progressive, but, as Robert Conquest observed, everyone is a conservative when it comes to his own business. Jann Wenner offered up his champagne radicalism with many, many spoonsful of sugar. Rolling Stone has for decades published some of the most risible, self-important, sanctimonious music journalism the world has ever seen, covering the career of Britney Spears as though she were Napoleon and Ringo Starr as though he were Cincinnatus. Bringing a pretentious pseudointellectual style to the Top 40 was a stroke of genius, really. Everybody has an opinion about what kind of music he likes, and Rolling Stone’s great commercial stratagem was convincing a generation of upwardly mobile young white college students that those opinions are important.
If that were all he had done, Wenner might be dismissed as just another in a long line of carnival barkers, pornographers, and game-show hosts who made a splendid pile of money by flattering the middle class’s prejudices and serving their lowest appetites. About 90 percent of what’s in Rolling Stone would be at home in US Weekly, if it were a little more plain. But, oh, that other 10 percent: Wenner sent Hunter S. Thompson tear-assing around the world to invent a new kind of journalism and published important pieces of more traditional investigative journalism. He also helped to launch the careers of two of the most important conservative voices of their generation: P. J. O’Rourke and Tom Wolfe, whose fiction masterpiece, Bonfire of the Vanities, might very well have never come to completion without Wenner’s encouragement and his agreement to serialize it. More recently, Matt Taibbi gave the magazine a real claim to continued relevance with his reporting on the financial crisis and various shenanigans associated with it. Between the whatever-happened-to-Hanson features, Rolling Stone has published some astonishingly good writing about important things.
There were of course catastrophic misjudgments, too: Rolling Stone infamously put one of the terrorists behind the Boston Marathon bombings on the cover in a glamour-boy pose to advertise a not-especially-insightful piece of prose. It also published a laughably, shockingly shoddy piece of journalism alleging to detail the case of a rape at the University of Virginia, a piece of non-journalism that turned out to be something much closer to pure fiction, one for which the magazine has already lost one defamation suit and has been obliged to settle with another party for more than $1 million. The damage to Rolling Stone’s bottom line could have been worse; the damage to its reputation could hardly have.
The high-minded magazine also once fired a guy for writing a negative review of a Hootie and the Blowfish record.
Rank those transgressions as you will.
Through Rolling Stone, Wenner has been an instrument of both the coarsening of the culture and its elevation, a purveyor of the trivial and the substantial both. The triumphs of Madonna drew as much attention and ink as the travails of Richard Nixon. But, then, that has always been a big part of the mix that makes — alas, perhaps, made — print journalism work. There are a great many Very Serious Newspapers that publish horoscopes. (One in four Americans believes in astrology.) Even Mother Jones tries to be a little funny from time to time, though it is increasingly difficult to tell exactly when.
Through Rolling Stone, Jann Wenner has been an instrument of both the coarsening of the culture and its elevation.
Just before the sale of Rolling Stone was announced, Graydon Carter, the longtime celebrity editor of Vanity Fair, announced his retirement. Tina Brown has receded from the public consciousness, though Anna Wintour remains a kind of star — cold and remote. Magazines, like newspapers, are not what they used to be. This is a golden age for media consumers, who have more choices at their fingertips than could have been imagined only a few years ago. But those choices come in bits rather than on paper, which loses something of the serendipity of the newsstand. Earlier in the year, I was in Malibu to write about California’s strangely puritanical politics, and stopped at the famous newsstand whose continued existence is made possible by a very understanding landlord who likes having a newsstand around. Rolling Stone, a score of Hollywood industry publications, celebrity magazines, the major newspapers . . . “We carry National Review,” the proprietor said. “But I don’t think we have it right now. We don’t get a lot of copies.”
It is unlikely that any ambitious young person today will ever do what Jann Wenner did, or what Hugh Hefner or William F. Buckley Jr. did, or would even be much inclined to. At least not in the same way. (Then again, it doesn’t take $50,000 to launch an online publication.) But one half suspects that, a generation from now, those print-magazine editors and publishers and entrepreneurs will be thought of as having had more in common than ever would have occurred to them, in much the same way that the mostly forgotten men in white tie and tails we see in old-time pictures eventually all seem to belong together — in the past. The melancholy, long, withdrawing roar of print is hard to hear over the beeping and chirping of our little pocket gadgets. Jann Wenner, receiving the first issue of Rolling Stone from the printers with his business partner — a jazz critic! — must have thought himself to be on the cutting edge. Which he was, for a minute. But the edge moves on. It always does.