They say a rolling stone gathers no moss. It plows its way through dirty terrain, deep waters and dusty fields, always coming out clean – and eager to continue tumbling. This way it has no responsibilities, no baggage and no worries.
Inspired by the 1950 Muddy Waters song, Rolling Stone magazine sought to bring an energetic, no bullshit philosophy to covering music, politics and culture. As co-founder and publisher Jann Wenner wrote in the 1967 debut issue, “bullshit is like gathering moss.”
Lately, though, Rolling Stone has gathered an abundance of moss.
Not only have print publications become less popular in the age of digital media – single issue magazine sales in the U.S. dropped 25 per cent between 2011 and 2015 – but stories such as A Rape on Campus and El Chapo Speaks have hit the pop-culture magazine where it hurts: its reputation. The stumbles Rolling Stone has experienced – has produced for itself – have many people wondering: can the iconic publication stay relevant? If so, how?
When Rolling Stone appeared in the hippie summer of love, it projected an attitude from musicians and artists. Jim Roberts, the founding editor of Bass Player magazine, read Rolling Stone faithfully in the ’60s and ’70s during college. “It made connections for people,” he says. “Whether you were just a fan who was looking for what was the most interesting up-and-coming band, or you’re a musician learning about other musicians.”
Its pages were bursting with stories about music, politics and art, and its cover displayed images of rock icons. The music inspired the magazine, Roberts says, and the magazine inspired music. He remembers Dr. Hook & the Medicine Show’s 1972 song Cover of the Rolling Stone, which landed them a cover of their own. Other rock music magazines debuted in the late ’60s, like Creem and Crawdaddy, but neither saw success like Rolling Stone.
Andrew Seaman, the (U.S.) Society of Professional Journalists’ Ethics Committee Chair, had one clear thought after reading the 2014 Rolling Stone feature A Rape on Campus. “It’s an amazing story.” Sabrina Erdely’s article tells the story of Jackie, a University of Virginia student who was gang raped at a fraternity party.
Other readers were similarly impressed. Within hours the story was being discussed nationally. The Morning Show, Washington Post and New York Times regurgitated its powerful message: sexual assault on campus exists. Protests sprang up on campuses in solidarity for Jackie. Flocks of students bombarded the University of Virginia steps waving signs including “Men of honor do not rape”, “I live in a rape culture” and “UVA stop hiding rape.”
The story, Seaman says, was “Everywhere. It was everywhere.”
In less than a month, though, the conversation shifted. The Washington Post found holes in Jackie’s story, and began reporting on Erdely’s journalistic methods. This led to a harsh revelation about the article – it may not be true.
Just as suddenly as it was praised for telling a traumatic, real life story of rape on a college campus, the article was condemned. Media began pumping out article after article detailing concerns with the story. Erdely was too trusting of Jackie; additional sources were not contacted to verify allegations; fact-checking was sloppily conducted by editors. This story was no longer about Jackie – it was about Rolling Stone‘s failure.
“Good journalism tells the story,” Seaman says. “Bad journalism becomes the story.”
Fast forward one year. There’s a new royal baby, a new Star Wars film in theatres, and Sean Penn is writing for Rolling Stone. But he isn’t writing about music or the arts: his subject is Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán, the infamous Mexican drug lord who had escaped prison and was in hiding.
“These are the kinds of circumstances that prompt reflection,” Randy Boswell, a Carleton journalism professor, says about the article and its author. Penn’s 10,000-word ramble was mocked by many news organizations. The New York Times, Washington Post and writers at the Poynter Institute all wrote about El Chapo Speaks.
They questioned Penn’s decision to include overly personal details – such as holding his penis while thinking about being mutilated – and suggested journalistic ethics had been disregarded during its production. Of special concern was Penn allowing Guzmán to read and alter the story if he wished, and Rolling Stone‘s editors agreeing to this. Although Guzmán chose to not make changes, Boswell remembers the criticism. He says the opportunity to interview Guzmán was “mishandled.”
“What kinds of deals were made with the individual?,” Boswell says. “Is (the story) a version of truth that is highly shaped by the source?,”.
For the second time in barely a year, Rolling Stone began to smell of what Jann Wenner was trying to avoid.
In July 2015, eight months after A Rape on Campus was plastered on every media stand, Rolling Stone managing editor Will Dana quit unexpectedly. He was replaced by Jason Fine, former editor of Wenner Media’s Men’s Journal. Fine would go on to help edit El Chapo Speaks.
Rolling Stone, now with a floundering reputation, decided to shake things up. Jann Wenner’s son, Gus (head of digital operations for Wenner Media, and co-creator of Wenner’s gaming site Glixel), made a bold business move in September 2016. He sold 49 per cent of Rolling Stone to the Singaporean-based music app BandLab. The deal will not affect other publications owned by Wenner Media.
Roberts, the founding editor of Bass Player magazine, isn’t surprised. “You can’t just keep doing what you’re doing if you’re in the business they’re in,” he says. “The world changes … you have to change.”
The app allows musicians to share music and collaborate. BandLab was created by 28-year-old Kuok Meng Ru, son of the third-richest man in Asia. BandLab says it will have no editorial affect on the magazine, but will help expand the Rolling Stone brand through merchandising, live events and hospitality. Oh, and $15 million U.S.
Once A Rape on Campus was discredited in 2015, Nicole Eramo, the former dean at the University of Virginia, filed a lawsuit against the magazine for its defamatory remarks towards her and the school. In November 2016, she won. The jury awarded her $3 million U.S. Rolling Stone may yet appeal the verdict.
But this isn’t the end of Rolling Stone‘s legal complications. Phi Kappa Psi, the fraternity framed in the article, is suing the magazine for $25 million U.S.. Although Rolling Stone attempted to have the lawsuit dismissed, it is set for trial in 2017.
What might help the magazine’s recovery?
Dr. Jack Hamilton, an assistant professor at the University of Virginia and pop critic for Slate magazine, says Rolling Stone should consider distancing itself from its “middle-aged white men” approach to music. He remembers when hip-hop exploded and the cultural impact it made in the U.S., but says Rolling Stone “missed the boat on it.
“When they should have been taking notice,” Hamilton says, “they were still locked into covering Springsteen.”
Steve Waksman, a professor of music and American studies at Smith College in Massachusetts, feels similarly. Because the magazine usually caters to an older rock ‘n’ roll audience, he says, when pop-stars like Britney Spears appear on the cover “it sometimes feels like they’re straining for relevance.”. At the same time, Waksman credits the magazine for covering pop-culture rather than music exclusively, and says this has helped the publication survive. Focusing on politics and the culture at large, he says, is what distinguished it in the first place.
Although Roberts hasn’t subscribed to Rolling Stone for many years, he still occasionally flips through its pages at newsstands — especially if the cover features the Rolling Stones, one of his favourite bands in high school. He says he’s more likely to read a Rolling Stone article online than purchase his own copy. “I think rock is less of a social and cultural force than it was,” he says. “It diminishes the coverage to an extent, too.”
For now, Bruno Mars graces the cover. He is dressed in pink and gold paisley patterns, and is holding a cigarette and posing by the pool. The headline reads: How Bruno Mars Found His Deeper Groove. The article inside shares Mars’ insecurities, struggles and doubts while writing his first album in four years: 24K Magic. Released on Nov. 18, the album has reached number one on the Billboard Top R&B/Hip-Hop Albums Chart.
If Mars can find his groove again, maybe Rolling Stone can find it, too.