Young Jann Wenner

“Ain’t it hard when you’ve discovered that. . .”

I’ve been getting solicitations from Rolling Stone to subscribe in a way that brings to mind donation appeals from the likes of the World Wildlife Fund and National Public Radio. The logos on the tote bags on offer aren’t the only things that are different. After all, the WWF and NPR are not in the business of making a profit (yes, they need money to exist, but there is another reason for their existence other than something measured in terms of EBIT).

Rolling Stone, however, is owned by Penske Media Corporation, which owns what can be thought of as a frightening number of properties including:

  • Variety
  • The Hollywood Reporter
  • Billboard
  • Rob Report
  • ARTnews
  • Artforum
  • Art in America (clearly they’re big on art)

And in the non-publication space:

  • American Music Awards
  • Dick Clark Productions
  • Golden Globe Awards
  • SxSW

There are more.

It is in the profit-making business. (Which could be redundant.)

The company unapologetically proclaims:

Our Mission:

To be the world’s premier publishing and media organization through delivering superior and innovative content, with a commitment to upholding journalistic excellence and driving today’s media evolution, all while offering the finest opportunities to the industry’s brightest talent.

As mission statements go, it pretty much checks the boxes.

The company is privately held, but this doesn’t mean that it isn’t interested in making money. It only means that it doesn’t have to worry about shareholders.

So clearly, if providing appealing subscription packages is going to get people to sign up, that’s all to the better because it then means that the sales team from PMC can go to various and sundry advertisers and point out the number of subscribers that Rolling Stone has and the number of views it obtains.

In 2017 PMC purchased 51% of Rolling Stone from Jann Wenner, co-founder of the publication that first appeared in November 1967 and chronicled rock the way nothing else did; Wenner had sold 49% to BandLab Technologies, a Singapore-based music platform; BandLab also sold to PMC in 2019.

The thing about Rolling Stone in its early days was something that was pretty much overlooked because otherwise it would have caused some cognitive dissonance:

Although it was “Sticking it to the Man,” its existence was predicated on support of the “Man.” Corporations owned the music labels, and were it not for the advertising revenues that were obtained from Capitol, Columbia, Atco, etc., Rolling Stone would have been little more than a San Francisco city paper distributed for free at record stores and music venues.

Somehow Rolling Stone, and consequently Jann Wenner, seemed somewhat heroic, publishing the materials that no one else did, or if they did (e.g., Creem), then in a more authoritative way (i.e., the writers at Rolling Stone seemed to know the musicians while the writers at the other outlets wrote about the musicians).

The whole setup was beneficial for Wenner and the musicians, as well as for the labels, because the readers would buy the vinyl written about. . .and advertised.

In last week’s New York Times there is an interview with Jann Wenner conducted by David Marchese*, predicated on the publication of The Masters, a book of interviews conducted by Wenner with Bono, Dylan, Garcia, Jagger, Lennon, Springsteen, and Townshend. That is what I mean about the Rolling Stone staff knowing the musicians.

Indeed, in the interview, Wenner describes his interviews with the musicians:

“They’re meant to be sympathetic, and they’re meant to elicit form the artist as deep as possible thinking that they’re willing to reveal. I think that the friendships were critical.”

He acknowledges that he got the interview with Jagger “because we were friends.” Garcia: “old buddies.” Springsteen? A friendship at the time of the discussion that was “very deep.”

But there is something that is rather disturbing about what Wenner did in relation to people he interviewed.

In the intro to the Bono interview in the book Wenner says that he allowed Bono to edit and review the transcript.

When Marchese asks what that is all about, Wenner says that it is what could be considered copy editing (grammar, for example).

Then there’s this:

“Maybe something was too intimate and he decides he doesn’t want to put it on the public record. I’m happy to do that with these subjects. As I said before, these are not meant to be confrontational interviews.”

In other words, Wenner was not behaving as a journalist, but a pal.

As Thomas Kent, a professor at Columbia who, among other things, teaches journalist ethics, wrote in a piece for the Poynter Institute, which is dedicated to advancing free and open journalism:

“We might decide to let a source change a word or two of a quote to make its meaning more precise (e.g., “jets” instead of “aircraft”). But collaborating with a source to change the whole message of a quote is rewriting history.”

“Rewriting history.”

Which brings us to this in the Marchese interview.

Wenner said of the famous 1970 post-Beatles interview that certainly elevated attention to Rolling Stone:

“I let John Lennon edit his interview.”

What might have been considered a historic document is actually some sort of fictionalized version of reality.

“I want them”—those he interviewed—“to have the opportunity to say precisely what they meant.”

A do over.

That’s not the way journalism works.

But then again, what Rolling Stone was once thought to be isn’t what it was.

Maybe Penske Media Corporation will uphold its mission and uphold “journalistic excellence.”


*This interview also resulted in Wenner being removed from the board of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Foundation, of which he was a founder, for his highly insenstive and flat-out outrageous statements about women and people of color. Perhaps he figured that he’d get to edit the copy.


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