Friday, May 27, 2011

Why Rolling Stone is More Relevant Now Than Ever

"How does it feel/ How does it feel/ To be without a home/ Like a complete unknown/ Like a rolling stone?" Dylan

Why did this blogger use that quote in a post titled "Why Rolling Stone is more relevant than ever?" A little backstory: Over the years this blog has joked about the relevance of Rolling Stone in the digital age. Was there a place for it? Rolling Stone was once undeniably an indispensable read -- the cultural diary of the sexual revolution and the rise of rock and roll.

Then the magazine sort of lost its way. There really is no other way to put it. On May 3rd 1998 Rolling Stone, once at the edge of counterculture, was a corporate sponsor of "Family Day," the Giuliani administration's attempt to negate the Million Marijuana March --! -- in Washington Square Park. Imagine the counter cultural Rolling Stone picking mimes over kind bud. "In a striking symbol of changed times, a corporate sponsor of the family event was Rolling Stone magazine, which provided a stunt-bicycle demonstration," is how the New York Times described that sad state of affairs. The times they were a changing. In November 2003, this blogger actually wrote the post "When Did Rolling Stone Magazine Jump the Shark?"

The pendulum swings. Fast forward to now. Rolling Stone's story on "How Roger Ailes Built the Fox Fear Factory" is hott. Both Howard Stern and Rush Limbaugh have discussed it on air, exposing their combined audiences -- in the tens of millions -- to Rolling Stone. Stern spent about 10 minutes on Thursday's show discussing the article. From Marksfriggin:

"Howard said he was reading about Lady Gaga and Roger Ailes in Rolling Stone. He said that Roger Ailes is a brilliant manipulator. He said that guy has manipulated more elections and presidencies. He said that he has a dream to own his own network. Howard said he gives the FOX news people the things they should talk about and it's brilliant. He said he wants to meet that guy. He said Roger Ailes is the guy who started out in TV as a producer of the Mike Douglas show. Howard said he was there at Mike Douglas doing a safe and conservative show. He said when TV didn't work out he went to a political campaign.

"... Howard said the article was fascinating. He said Ailes is convinced Al Quaeda wants to kill him so he has a team of security that brings him to work and all of that. Howard said when he got a new office it overlooked the city and he put in bullet proof glass. He said he was picking it out like he was picking out lamp shades. He said the article is fabulous.

"(show producer Gary Dell' Abate) said he read the last issue of the magazine and it was great. He said he read every article in there. Howard said this issue is great too."
Which brings me to the second reason Rolling Stone is a smart and increasingly relevant read. Rolling Stone leveraged it's influence with Howard Stern -- it has a certain cache with people of his generation -- to get him to do the cover. This was no mean feat. Stern routinely turns down such things, magazine covers, late night tv appearances-- Stern even turned down last Conan Tonight Show on NBC even after Rosie O'Donnell offered to fly him there in a jet -- but he did their feature story in the March 16th issue. The result? "(Stern) said that they told him that his issue was their largest selling issue since Obama's issue." notes Marksfriggin. It doesn't hurt that Stern has a rabid fan base and he hyped the story for a week, even interviewing the writer of the piece -- the himself controversial Neil Strauss (brilliant pairing, BTW) -- on his radio show.

Rolling Stone's increasing relevance goes beyond getting radio titans like Stern and Limbaugh talking about it's feature stories. Rolling Stone has been very smart about supplying the conversations of the chattering classes in the summer. Last June they had the biggest magazine story going; RS picked up the story after GQ declined. The Rolling Stone site attracted 2.2 million unique visitors in the first two days of the story dropping. And by Jann Wenner's count, alone had 4.7 million uniques in June off of the early release of its lengthy profile with an average session time of six minutes

Let's face it: their "Runaway General" piece directly influenced the firing of General Stanley McChrystal and forced Obama to confront the problem of Democrat Presidents (particularly those who never served in combat) and the military brass. That is always a tense relationship -- all illustrated by the story, which was talked about all summer.

At emediavitals last September I wrote:
Rolling Stone has experienced something of a resurgence in the last year. One could even go back to the infamous Matt Taibbi vampire squid attack on Goldman Sachs, which captured the sick-of-the-financial-class zeitgeist last July. It goes back even further than that, though -- into the very DNA of Rolling Stone. "This piece about the general is right in character for Rolling Stone," Simon Dumenco the media writer for Advertising Age told the Los Angeles Times.
There is also the political element. The rabid online interest was fueled by the political atmospherics. From the time the story broke -- on a Monday night in late June -- until President Obama fired the General, the left and right of the blogosphere gnawed on the story.

And while, yes, Rolling Stone fumbled the handling of McChrystal piece in the beginning (aren't we all learning in this digital age), their brand has come out stronger. And yeah, it took a while for RS to get the vampire squid story online too -- but they get it now. Again, from my emediavitals piece, incidentally, on how to publish buzzy articles: "Since then, the magazine has taken its digital destiny in its hands, releasing provocative covers -- Lady Gaga, HBO's True Blood and this month AMC's Mad Men -- online. Incidentally, provocative photography  -- like provocative profiles -- is wholly organic to Rolling Stone."

Rolling Stone gets it. They didn't in 2003; they do now.

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