Rolling Stone co-founder Jann Wenner is putting the magazine up for sale, marking a new chapter for the cultural bible that for half a century has spotlighted musical artists from Jimi Hendrix to Kendrick Lamar and prose from writers like Hunter S. Thompson and Matt Taibbi.
Wenner Media, one of the last family-owned media companies, would become the latest publisher to shift away from print publications after years of losing advertising and readership to online alternatives. A sale would leave the company without a print publication for the first time since Wenner created Rolling Stone in San Francisco in 1967.
The buyer of Wenner Media’s 51 percent stake would most likely pay far less than the $500 million offer that Wenner has boasted about receiving years ago, before the print industry began its decline.
A new owner may bring in new management, which would mark another changing of the guard among celebrity editors. In recent weeks, Nancy Gibbs and Graydon Carter, top editors at Time magazine and Vanity Fair, announced they’re moving on.
Gus Wenner, the company’s digital chief, and his father, Jann, who started Rolling Stone when the Grateful Dead and Jefferson Airplane were performing at local clubs, told the New York Times they intend to stay at the magazine but that the decision would be up to the new owner.
When Wenner Media sold a 49 percent stake in Rolling Stone to Singapore-based BandLab Technologies in September 2016, it was the first time Jann Wenner had admitted an outside investor. The deal was an opportunity to take the brand into new and different markets, Gus Wenner said at the time.
The younger Wenner runs the day-to-day operations. While some former employees have said 27-year-old Gus lacks the experience to run a media company, others say his youth may help a magazine that has focused too much on aging rock stars when advertisers are seeking younger readers.
Rolling Stone is looking to invest more in video, including TV and film projects, Gus Wenner told Bloomberg earlier this year.
Wenner Media hired Methuselah Advisors to explore the sale of Rolling Stone, according to the company statement Sunday. The company didn’t say whether Wenner is in talks with any potential suitors. BandLab Technologies, a budding digital music company co-founded by Kuok Meng Ru, the scion of one of Asia’s richest families, declined to comment.
Earlier this year, Wenner Media sold Men’s Journal and Us Weekly to American Media Inc.. The sales helped Wenner pay off substantial debt after it sold half of Us Weekly to Walt Disney Co. in 2001 for about $40 million, then borrowed to buy back the stake in 2006 for $300 million.
Rolling Stone’s reputation was damaged when it was forced to retract a 2014 article about a gang rape at the University of Virginia after its reporting was discredited. Last year, Rolling Stone and reporter Sabrina Rubin Erdely lost a defamation case related to the article and were ordered to pay $1 million and $2 million, respectively. In June, Rolling Stone agreed to pay $1.65 million to settle a defamation lawsuit against the fraternity in the article.
Rolling Stone made its mark in the 1970s and 80s with cutting-edge music and political coverage. Gonzo journalist Thompson wrote for Wenner for decades, including publishing first in its pages “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas,” which later became a book and movie. And it published in-depth exposes, including the 11,000-word, 1974 story of how heiress Patty Hearst went from a kidnapping victim to radicalized guerrilla. A 2010 profile of General Stanley McChrystal by the magazine that included remarks critical of the Obama administration led to the general’s resignation.
Like other magazines, Rolling Stone has struggled with declining newsstand sales and an online advertising market dominated by Facebook and Google. Wenner Media has also struggled to attract advertisers that are spending more of their shrinking print budgets with magazine giants like Time Inc., Hearst Corp. and Conde Nast, where they can reach diverse audiences across many titles. Brands seeking young males — Rolling Stone’s core audience — are shifting spending to online outlets like ESPN.com or websites focused on video games.
In July, Time said it’s exploring a sale of Coastal Living, Sunset and Golf magazines to concentrate on larger titles in its turnaround strategy. The Village Voice, New York’s alternative weekly, last month shifted to an online-only operation.
Last year, Wenner Media launched Glixel, a website devoted to video games. And Rolling Stone recently made a year-long advertising deal with Levi Strauss & Co., the jeans company. Gus Wenner said he wants to strike deals with brands that go beyond advertising like making Rolling Stone’s archives available on the Google Play Newsstand.
The publication says it reaches over 60 million people a month, it said in a statement. In the past three years, it has grown its digital traffic by almost 50 percent and monthly video views by more than 700 percent.
— With assistance by Yoolim Lee