From a loft in San Francisco in 1967, a 21-year-old named Jann S. Wenner started a magazine that would become the counterculture bible for baby boomers. Rolling Stone defined cool, cultivated literary icons and produced star-making covers that were such coveted real estate they inspired a song…. And soon, it will be sold.
But the headwinds buffeting the publishing industry, and some costly strategic missteps, have steadily taken a financial toll on Rolling Stone, and a botched story three years ago about an unproven gang rape at the University of Virginia badly bruised the magazine’s journalistic reputation.
And so, after a half-century reign that propelled him into the realm of the rock stars and celebrities who graced his covers, Mr. Wenner is putting his company’s controlling stake in Rolling Stone up for sale, relinquishing his hold on a publication he has led since its founding.
Mr. Wenner had long tried to remain an independent publisher in a business favoring size and breadth. But he acknowledged in an interview last week that the magazine he had nurtured would face a difficult, uncertain future on its own.
“I love my job, I enjoy it, I’ve enjoyed it for a long time,” said Mr. Wenner, 71. But letting go, he added, was “just the smart thing to do.”
Still, the potential sale of Rolling Stone — on the eve of its 50th anniversary, no less — underscores how inhospitable the media landscape has become as print advertising and circulation have dried up.
“There’s a level of ambition that we can’t achieve alone,” Gus Wenner said last week in an interview at the magazine’s headquarters in Midtown Manhattan. “So we are being proactive and want to get ahead of the curve.”
“Publishing is a completely different industry than what it was,” he added. “The trends go in one direction, and we are very aware of that.”
The Wenners’ decision is also another clear sign that the days of celebrity editors are coming to a close. Earlier this month, Graydon Carter, the editor of Vanity Fair and a socialite and star in his own right, announced he planned to leave the magazine after 25 years. Robbie Myers, the longtime editor of Elle, Nancy Gibbs of Time magazine and Cindi Leive of Glamour also said last week that they were stepping down.
Anthony DeCurtis, a veteran music critic and a longtime Rolling Stone contributing editor, said he never thought Jann Wenner would sell Rolling Stone.
“That sense of the magazine editor’s hands on the magazine — that’s what’s going to get lost here,” he said. “I don’t know who’s going to be able to step in and do that anymore.”
Wenner Media has hired bankers to explore its sale, but the process is just beginning. BandLab’s stake in the company could also complicate matters. Neither Jann nor Gus Wenner would name any potential buyers, but one possible suitor is American Media Inc., the magazine publisher led by David J. Pecker that has already taken Us Weekly and Men’s Journal off Wenner Media’s hands.
The Wenners said that they expected a range of opportunities, and Jann Wenner said he hoped to find a buyer that understood Rolling Stone’s mission and that had “lots of money.”