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What Rolling Stone Hopes to Gather Next

Media* The magazine, long known for its ambitious articles, hires an editor with an eye on younger readers.

June 17, 2002|GERALDINE BAUM | TIMES STAFF WRITER

NEW YORK — Shove over, you middle-aged boys, with your Bics burning at Bruce Springsteen concerts, your thinning hair, your love of 6,000-word dispatches from Tom Wolfe and other gonzo authors.

It's not about you anymore, and hasn't been for some time.

Last week your literary icon, Rolling Stone magazine, was handed off by its celebrated founder, Jann Wenner, to a new generation that prefers word bites to complete works, that surfs with browsers and manipulates zappers the way you obsessed over Mick and Keith, Jimi and Janis through a dopey haze.

Wenner named a new editor, Ed Needham, an Englishman who two years ago came to New York to start a U.S. version of FHM (For Him Magazine), now the nation's fastest-growing magazine with a circulation of more than 1 million. Needham replaces Robert Love, who had been with the publication for 20 years.

Magazines like FHM, Blender and Maxim have been elbowing Rolling Stone at newsstands, hijacking its readers and advertisers. These "laddie" magazines were invented by the British for young male readers the way Rolling Stone was invented for a generation coming of age 35 years ago.

The newer magazines specialize in raunchy, funny, short articles as well as hodgepodge graphics and scantily clad women. They run dozens of CD reviews per issue and feature endless tidbits about bands and the lifestyles of boys who want to be men.

While Needham has no intention, he says, of turning his back on Rolling Stone's longtime readers, he does hope to better captivate 15- to 29-year-olds by "employing a little more magazine craft, making it easier to get into a story."

Needham, 37 and a graduate of Sussex University, says he is the perfect example of a reader who doesn't have time for the ambitious articles that made Rolling Stone unique.

"I say 'I'll get back to it' but I never do because there just aren't big enough holes in my day for readin' long stuff," he said during a phone interview Friday. "I don't know what it was like in the '50s, but clearly there weren't so many things demanding attention from people."

Wenner started Rolling Stone, in fact, in 1967 out of a grungy office in San Francisco's meatpacking district. A 21-year-old Berkeley dropout, he had a $3,000 loan from the family of his then-girlfriend (now his ex-wife) and a belief that music was as powerful a force in the culture as politics--and needed its own legitimate form of journalism.

Over the years, he published seminal pieces by Wolfe, Hunter Thompson and William Greider, illustrating them with photographs by Annie Leibovitz and Richard Avedon. Kurt Loder and Greil Marcus weighed in on music in a magazine that took an encyclopedic approach to covering it.

America's boomers--all 77 million of them--seem to be reverential about their heyday and artists continue to pay homage to the era and the magazine. The 2000 movie "Almost Famous," for example, is based on director Cameron Crowe's years trying to become a critic, at age 15, for Rolling Stone and the influence a young journalist has on his generation.

But the magazine is now like a guy who knew he was cool in the '60s, rebelled in the '70s, got rich in the '80s, stagnated in the '90s, and finally has decided: It's time for a tuck.

In recent years, the ravenous marketing machine that gave birth to Rolling Stone began demanding something new. After dramatic growth that capped its circulation at 1.25 million, the magazine began sorting through its own mid-life crisis.

The revered cover of the magazine, once reserved for the poets laureate of rock--the likes of Bob Dylan and Neil Young--now routinely features such frothy pop stars as Britney Spears, teen movie actors and models who probably think the Summer of Love was an old soap opera. But still revenues and circulation fell flat or declined, as competition multiplied.

At the same time, the music industry was continuing to explode so much so that individual genres like country western or hip-hop were producing more revenue than the entire industry did during the 1970s. So publications popped up to cover each of them.

"It's become harder and harder, impossible in fact, to hold the center of an industry and listenership that is so massive and so fragmented," said Alan Light, who worked at Rolling Stone in the early 1990s before launching Vibe in 1994 and then moving on to run Spin in 1999.

Light is now trying to raise money to start his own music-oriented magazine geared to the 30-plus age group.

He was skeptical that simply by putting a younger, hipper editor at the helm Wenner could reinvent his creation, which needs to generate enough money to sustain its dependent multimillion-dollar empire, Wenner Media Inc., which also publishes Men's Journal and Us Weekly.

"The success of a magazine like Maxim is not just about graphics, but that they found a distinctive voice," Light said. "It's a club you want to be part of.... I worry about all these men's and music magazines blurring into eight titles doing exactly the same thing."

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