Jann Wenner and his son Gus, who currently runs Wenner media, announced Sunday they would be selling of Rolling Stone magazine. The NY Times story on the sale opened like this:
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.
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.
About 20 paragraphs later you get this summary of the Rape on Campus disaster:
Rolling Stone suffered a devastating blow to its reputation when it retracted a debunked 2014 article about a gang rape at the University of Virginia. A damning report on the story by the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism cited fundamental journalistic failures. The article prompted three libel lawsuits against Rolling Stone, one of which led to a highly publicized trial last year that culminated with a federal jury awarding the plaintiff $3 million in damages.
The story goes on to say that there were plenty of other financial problems at the company. Wenner borrowed $300 million in 2006 to buy back Us Weekly, just five years after he sold it to Disney for $40 million. That meant the company was saddled with debt before A Rape on Campus put the magazine in a bad legal position.
Obviously, it wasn’t just the “blow to its reputation” that hurt Rolling Stone. The company lost a lawsuit brought by Dean Nicole Eramo last December. That cost them a $3 million judgment and in June of this year, Rolling Stone settled with a fraternity mentioned in the story for an additional $1.6 million. That’s a lot of cash to come up with on short notice. The NY Times doesn’t say it was the straw that broke the camel’s back but the timing, three months after the most recent judgment, certainly suggests it may have been. If so, you have to appreciate the irony of a frat house, of all things, dealing the final blow to the hippy publisher’s empire.
Presumably, whoever buys the magazine will continue to publish it so it won’t disappear the way Gawker did after the Hulk Hogan lawsuit. Some version of Rolling Stone will survive.