Over the weekendThe New York Times reported that the controlling stake in Rolling Stone was up for sale.
Jann Wenner and his son Gus (president and chief operating officer of Wenner Media) sat down with The New York Times‘ Sydney Ember to discuss the sale. They also discussed who they would want to sell to. First they said they would both like to stay on under new ownership. Second they want to find a buyer who understands Rolling Stone’s mission. “Rolling Stone has played such a role in the history of our times, socially and politically and culture,” said Jann Wenner. He went on to say, “we want to retain that position.”
So who should buy Rolling Stone?
First to answer that question we must ask what is Rolling Stone?
A 21-year old Jann Wenner started Rolling Stone from a San Francisco loft in 1967. Separating itself from the radical political underground press of it’s time, Rolling Stone focused and embraced traditional journalistic standards. In its first issue on November 9, 1967, Wenner wrote, “[Rolling Stone] is not just about the music, but about the things and attitude that music embraces.”
Since then Rolling Stone has been described as the ‘counterculture bible’ of the baby boomer generation. It has provided some of the most iconic images of music and pop culture ever since. Prominent authors like Hunter S.Thompson, Cameron Crowe, Joe Klein, Patti Smith, Lester Bangs and P.J. O’Rourke filled the magazine’s pages with what has become iconic American literature.
At the turn of Century as it tried to re-engage with baby boomers and attract a younger, millennial audience the magazine saw a resurgence thanks to two young and ambitious political reporters: the late Michael Hastings and Matt Taibbi. Hasting’s reporting in 2010 led to the ouster of General Stanley A. McChrystal the then commander of the International Security Assistance Foce and U.S. Forces-Afghanistan. Taibbi’s reporting on Wall Street starting during the financial crash in many ways laid the groundwork for the Occupy Wall Street movement and Bernie Sanders’ presidential run.
Like many publications, Rolling Stone started to face declining readership and revenue. At times it has seemed that Rolling Stone and other publications rushed stories and/or over sensationalized some.. Two instances over the past five years stick out. First was their decision to put Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev on their August 2013 cover. The Tsarnaev cover was described as “glamorizing terrorism” and it led to boycotts of the publication.
The second and perhaps the biggest financial blow to Wenner was the false UVA gang rape story in November 2014. Wenner commissioned an outside investigation of the story who found institutional problems with reporting at the publication. Nearly 50 years later, Wenner, who created Rolling Stone to focus and embrace traditional journalistic standards faced a credibility issue.
To top it off, Rolling Stone has been branded a liberal publication by the right wing — and to be fair rightfully so. Rolling Stone has praised and featured Presidents Bill Clinton and Barack Obama and did not hold back its distain for George W. Bush or the current President, Donald Trump. Rolling Stoneendorsed Hillary Clinton early in the Democratic Primary which not only angered Conservatives but also many progressives.
// SO WHO SHOULD BUY ROLLING STONE?
The buyer needs to have a lot of money. The buyer needs to understand journalism and care about journalism over selling advertisements. In other words the buyer needs to not care about making money but might use Rolling Stone for its influence. The buyer also needs to be a progressive, just not a total Bernie Sanders progressive. The buyer needs to be a pragmatic progressive. Someone who is willing to talk about real issues and provide attainable solutions (or at least support those who can). That is if they want to keep Wenner’s mission.
There is a lot of talk about publishing companies like American Media Inc., who Wenner Media previous publications to. However Rolling Stone is a bit more sentimental than the others. American Media Inc. is run by David Pecker. Pecker is an ardent Trump ally who many see as printing allegedly misleading tabloid stories to help Trump get elected. The Wenners may be weary about selling to Pecker. They are die-hard liberal and want to maintain Rolling Stone‘s liberal bent.
I’ve also read people suggest Univision (Haim Saban) or Vice Media (Shane Smith) as possibilities. Though both of these companies might see the potential loss to their bottom line before even considering.
Another name being talked about is the other Rolling Stone owner. BandLab, a Singapore based cloud platform who purchased 49% of Rolling Stone in 2016. It would make sense for them to try and buy the remaining 51%. Or at least make it more difficult for someone else to buy it.
Other speculation I am seeing online is a private equity firm that can bring together a consortium of like-minded buyers. Overa Capital purchased High Times magazine for $70 million. However, this means they are looking to make more money. Journalism probably would not be the focus point for the new Rolling Stone. However, I would support a bunch of musicians coming together to save the publication that made them.
So, who should buy Rolling Stone?
A very wealthy person who sees this as a pet project. As an opportunity to gain influence or to provide added value to their customers (a la Mike Bloomberg and Businessweek). Someone who is okay with losing money. Someone who will keep the Wenners on for a bit to help with the transition. And then Jann Wenner praises the person they bring on who can push the envelope. Here are some:
Jeff Bezos – Bezos has already bought the Washington Post. He’s also worth $83.6 Billion. Why not add a music, culture publication? There are a lot of things you can sell in the pages that are already available on Amazon. I for one would love to read Washington Post journalism in Rolling Sone?
Mark Zuckerberg – With a total net worth of $72.2 Billion why the hell not? He can actually become a real media publisher instead of stealing content. He can also try and redeem himself after allowing Russian bots to penetrate Facebook with fake news.
Laurene Powell Jobs – No person changed the music industry as quickly as her husband Steve Jobs did. Additionally Powell Jobs philanthropic endeavors would look great in the pages of Rolling Stone.
Sergey Brin and/or Larry Page – They have a combined net worth of over $90 Billion. Just google it!
David Geffen, Jeffrey Katzenberg and Steven Spielberg – These three came together to create DreamWords SKG. They can come together, save Rolling Stone and return it to it’s former glory. I suspect they all geeked out on Rolling Stone during the 70s and 80s.
Richard Branson – Sure you might need to call it Virgin Rolling Stone but it could work?