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Rolling Stone style of reporting

June 24, 2010|Geraldine Baum

NEW YORK — For more than four decades, Rolling Stone magazine has periodically rocked American culture and politics, and not just with its stories about music.

Today its business model has been upended by the Internet. But one of the mainstays of its journalism, the up-close and personal account perfected by following rock bands around the world, continues to make waves.

The article that led to the resignation of Army Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, the top commander of U.S. and allied forces in Afghanistan, is part of its tradition of launching journalists to hang out with their subjects for long periods, talking and traveling with them and gaining access few other journalists can obtain. In the case of the late iconoclastic writer Hunter S. Thompson, it occasionally meant sharing long evenings of drugs and drinks with them.

"This piece about the general is right in character for Rolling Stone," said Simon Dumenco, media writer for Advertising Age. "There have been pieces of that kind of intensity and all-access really pretty frequently."

Which makes it all the more mysterious that McChrystal chose to cozy up to a magazine that strove to maintain a countercultural DNA and hard-hitting reputation. Some suggest that it may be a reflection of his boomer status and respect for an old brand. Others remain baffled.

The magazine made a mark with Thompson's coverage of Richard Nixon, Timothy Crouse's reporting on reporters on the campaign trail as well as with political pieces by William Greider and Carl Bernstein.

It pioneered so-called literary nonfiction, including Tom Wolfe's accounts of the early space program that became "The Right Stuff." More recently it published Matt Taibbi's hard-hitting coverage of financial giant Goldman Sachs.

Over the years, the magazine staff has stuck to the mission of its founding editor, Jann Wenner: to penetrate American culture and politics.

"Jann's passion for politics goes way back," said Robert Wallace, a former managing editor. "Jann deserves the credit for staying the course. A lot of magazines have lost their core mission and beliefs. Jann knew what he wanted and still knows."

Wenner, now 64, founded the magazine in 1967 in ragtag offices in San Francisco. He was, by all accounts, the quintessential fan obsessed with the characters at the core of the music counterculture.

In the mid-1970s, Wenner moved the offices of Rolling Stone to Manhattan. The magazine gained readers, cash and power, and also began changing to follow its aging demographic, Dumenco said.

Wenner also owns Men's Journal and US Weekly. Though the McChrystal story reasserts Rolling Stone's role in high-impact journalism, it is unlikely to make it any easier for the magazine to make money online. In fact, the gist of the story had already leaked to other websites before Rolling Stone had posted it.

geraldine.baum@latimes.com

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