Wenner Media, Inc. History
New York, New York 10104
Telephone: (212) 484-1616
Fax: (212) 484-1713
Incorporated: 1967 as Straight Arrow Publishers, Inc.
Sales: $253.5 million (1998)
NAIC: 511120 Periodical Publishers
- Jann Wenner founds Straight Arrow Publishers, Inc. and starts Rolling Stone magazine.
- Straight Arrow Books division is formed to publish Lennon Remembers.
- Straight Arrow moves to New York City.
- Company purchases 25 percent of US magazine; Rolling Stone-inspired film Perfect is released.
- Remaining 75 percent of US is acquired.
- Men's Journal is founded.
- Family Life is introduced; company's name changes to Wenner Media, Inc.
- Wenner's personal life makes gossip columns; Family Life magazine is divested.
- Rolling Stone launches web site.
- Alliance with JAMTV to add features to web site is announced.
Wenner Media, Inc. is the owner of Rolling Stone, US, and Men's Journal magazines. The company was founded in 1967 as Straight Arrow Publishers, Inc. by Jann Wenner and a small group of investors. The San Francisco-based company's initial publication was Rolling Stone magazine, which became known as the voice of the late 1960s 'Woodstock' generation. Straight Arrow formed a book division in 1971 and purchased or founded a number of other magazines over the years, though these efforts have not been as successful as Rolling Stone. Since the company's move to New York City in 1977, Rolling Stone has become more glossy, more celebrity-driven, and more profitable, and has successfully focused its energies on wooing younger generations of readers. The company has also produced radio and television programs, in addition to its publishing activities.
Jann S. Wenner was born (as Jan) in 1946 in New York City. While he was still an infant, his family moved to the San Francisco Bay area, where his father started a baby food manufacturing company. Over the next few years, as Wenner Baby Formulas, Inc. grew into a profitable business, Wenner's parents divorced when he was in his early teens, and he spent most of his high school years at a boarding school near Los Angeles. He had begun writing articles for the school paper, and he continued to pursue this interest when he entered college at Berkeley in 1963. By the middle of his sophomore year he was writing a music column there under the pen name Mr. Jones, which was taken from a Bob Dylan song.
The San Francisco Bay area, home to many of the founders of the 1950s Beat movement, had spawned a new generation of young nonconformists by the mid-1960s, the hippies. At one of the first hippie dance concerts, in October 1965, Jann Wenner met San Francisco Chronicle music critic Ralph J. Gleason. The two became friends, and after Wenner had unsuccessfully tried to get a writing job outside of San Francisco, Gleason offered to recommend him for a position at the newly formed Sunday Ramparts magazine. When the spinoff of the left-leaning Ramparts folded after a few months, the ambitious 21-year-old decided to start his own magazine.
Borrowing $7,500 from a group of investors that consisted of family and friends (issuing one share of stock per dollar invested), Wenner founded Straight Arrow Publishers, Inc. to produce a new biweekly music magazine that would be called Rolling Stone. Gleason gave the magazine its name, which was taken from the title of a classic blues song (which had also inspired a group of British musicians, as well as Bob Dylan). The new publication relied heavily on volunteer labor, as well as donated furniture and rent-free office space in the loft above its printing company. A distinctive logo was designed by legendary psychedelic poster artist Rick Griffin.
The first issue of Rolling Stone rolled off the presses in October 1967, with Beatle John Lennon on the cover. Sales of the early issues were modest, and there was much competition for the attention of the masses of young people who had come to San Francisco during the 'Summer of Love' that year. Rolling Stone offered something different from other hippie publications, however, with reporting on music being its primary purpose. The writing was also more journalistic and the design cleaner, thanks to Wenner's sanctioned borrowing of the style and paste-up sheets of Sunday Ramparts. During its first year, the publication grew in professionalism and reputation. Wenner scored a major coup in October 1968 when he published photos of Beatle Lennon and his wife Yoko Ono in the nude (taken from the cover of their controversial Two Virgins record album), and sold out several printings of the issue. Rolling Stone was losing money, however, and more funding was needed to keep the magazine afloat.
Seeking More Investors; Starting New Magazines
In the fall of 1968 Wenner located several new investors who quickly infused $40,000 into Straight Arrow. In early 1969, with additional funding from rocker Mick Jagger, the company began to publish British Rolling Stone, but sales did not meet expectations and it was soon folded. In May Wenner purchased an entertainment magazine, New York Scenes, for ten percent of Straight Arrow's stock. This was another misfire, and publication was suspended after a number of months in the red. In 1970, at the same time that the company was moving to new offices, still another new magazine, Earth Times, was started. The environmentalism-themed publication was also unsuccessful, and was abandoned after four issues.
Rolling Stone, however, was booming, and Wenner snagged another major John Lennon scoop by publishing his first interview on the Beatles' breakup, which offered caustic criticism of his former bandmates. The two-part interview sold through several printings and provided the impetus to launch Straight Arrow Books the following year, when the interview was published as Lennon Remembers (though against the musician's wishes). Despite this success, and the magazine's increasing acclaim, fiscal 1970 saw the company $250,000 in the red, and Wenner again sought outside financing. He found Max Palevsky, a wealthy ex-computer engineer, who put up $200,000 in a deal which would give him increasing quantities of stock each year the company continued to lose money.
Perhaps spurred on by this arrangement, Wenner tightened ship and Straight Arrow racked up its best year ever, earning a reported $400,000 in 1971. The early 1970s saw Rolling Stone turning out some of its finest issues to date, with cover photos by renowned rock photographer Annie Leibovitz and provocative articles by a new series of writers, including Joe Eszterhas, Ben Fong-Torres, Joe Klein, Howard Kohn, and 'Gonzo journalist' Hunter S. Thompson. Music pieces came from such noted contributors as Greil Marcus, Jon Landau, David Marsh, Langdon Winner, and Lester Bangs. Thompson's unconventional coverage of the 1972 McGovern presidential campaign was a media sensation and resulted in increased sales for each issue it was featured in. Rolling Stone also published a number of important investigative articles that explored such topics as the death of nuclear energy whistle-blower Karen Silkwood and the ordeal of kidnapped heiress Patty Hearst.
Jann Wenner, though recognized for his brilliance as an editor, was possessed of both a mercurial personality and, according to author Robert Draper, healthy appetites for cocaine and vodka, which sometimes made the lives of his employees difficult. More than a few writers and editors at Rolling Stone burned out over the years, or were fired by Wenner after they had clashed with him.
In 1974 Rolling Stone opened a Washington Bureau, for the purpose of increasing the magazine's political content, but the operation soon proved too expensive and was shut down. A planned offshoot magazine, Politics, never reached print. The magazine also shifted its format from the quarter-folded newsprint configuration it had started with to a flat-folded, center-stapled style with four-color covers. This new size enabled the addition of more pages, which gave more space for advertising, thus raising revenues. New staffers were hired to focus on increasing the magazine's advertising content, and ad sales grew by 50 percent in both 1974 and 1975.
1977: Move to New York
With the importance of San Francisco to rock music's cutting edge now mostly a fading memory, and with the entertainment world increasingly dominated by New York-based companies and performers, Wenner made the decision in 1977 to head East. Leaving behind a number of staffers (some of whom would work for the magazine's San Francisco bureau), and a headquarters that cost a mere $6,000 in annual rent, Wenner found a location on Madison Avenue that he fitted with a sleek new interior. The new offices cost a reported $330,000 a year.
Wenner decided to celebrate his company's first decade in business by putting together a television special. The end result was a disappointment, as many big stars dropped out of the cast and the slickness of the show seemed to run counter to the magazine's image. A series of Rolling Stone radio programs were also now being produced, and Wenner began to explore the possibility of getting involved in film production. A new publication, Outside, was launched, though it did not seem to catch on initially and was sold after a year. The adventure sports and mountaineering magazine, retooled by its new owners, later found its audience and became a major success. Rolling Stone Press was formed in 1978, as a new book publishing arm that superseded the dormant Straight Arrow Books.
In 1979 Jann Wenner was hired by French publisher David Filipacchi to edit the floundering Look magazine. Wenner, whose hands-on involvement at Rolling Stone had waxed and waned over the years while a succession of editors handled the day-to-day details of publishing, plunged into the new assignment with gusto. Within two issues he had turned the unprofitable magazine around and put it into the black. Despite this success, Filipacchi suddenly shut down the publication and rejected Wenner's purchase offer.
The beginning of the 1980s saw Rolling Stone's advertising revenues declining. As the conservative Reagan era took hold, the magazine that for many defined the 1960s counterculture was forced to change with the times. Rolling Stone's focus began to shift toward movie and television celebrities, with music and political reporting sometimes taking a back seat. In 1981 the magazine converted to an all-slick-paper format, dropping the newsprint which it had used since 1967. Further moves to court advertisers were made, including the use of frequent supplement sections. Straight Arrow Publishers also started a sister magazine, Record, which focused solely on music. It lasted until 1985. Another spinoff, Rolling Stone College Papers, was a financial debacle for the company and was quickly abandoned.
Milestones in the 1980s
The year 1985 saw the realization of one of Wenner's dreams when he participated in the making of a Hollywood motion picture about a Rolling Stone type magazine. Cast as an editor to John Travolta's reporter, he received favorable notices for his first acting role. The movie itself, Perfect, was less well-received and was a major box office bomb, despite getting a big push from Rolling Stone.
The company recorded several other high points in 1985, including Rolling Stone topping one million in circulation, an important milestone in the magazine business. Wenner and his wife, Jane, also purchased back most of the outstanding shares of Straight Arrow Publishers, and the company sponsored an advertising campaign called 'Perception/Reality' which successfully persuaded advertisers to view the magazine's readers as clean-cut yuppies rather than aging hippies. Ad revenues grew over the next several years as a result, with major companies that had never before advertised in the publication signing on with Rolling Stone.
The company also purchased 25 percent ownership of US magazine, a money-losing celebrity magazine that had been founded by the New York Times Co. in 1977. The fortunes of US did not turn around as quickly as was anticipated, and Wenner later admitted its situation had been worse than he knew when he invested in it. In 1989 the company purchased the remaining 75 percent of US, and in 1991 it was converted from a biweekly into a monthly, with editorial content now reflecting Wenner's desire to make it 'the next Vanity Fair.'
In 1986 Straight Arrow started Marketing Through Music, a newsletter which was intended to help advertisers get their messages to music fans by such means as the sponsorship of concert tours. It lasted for three years. Rolling Stone itself was getting more and more cozy with advertisers, publishing frequent theme issues that attracted ads from companies whose wares related to the central concept.
New Magazines for the 1990s
In 1991 yet another new magazine was rolled out, this one modeled on Outside, the one that got away. Men's Journal started out as a semiannual, then went bimonthly, then monthly in its second year. In 1993 the company also founded Family Life. This newest effort was intended to appeal to baby boomers who were raising families. Late in 1993 Straight Arrow Publishers changed its name to Wenner Media, Inc. The company's headquarters had moved by this time to New York's Rockefeller Center.
The year 1994 saw US reportedly nearing its first money-making year ever, while Rolling Stone circulation hit 1.2 million. Men's Journal and Family Life were less successful, but the company continued to show faith in their eventual profitability. In the summer Wenner Media announced deals with other companies to use the Rolling Stone and Family Life names to sell recordings and to produce a television program for a home shopping channel.
In early 1995 Wenner's personal life hit the news when his romantic relationship with a Calvin Klein staffer, 20 years his junior, was revealed. Jann and Jane Wenner remained married, however, and continued to jointly control Wenner Media. Shortly after the story hit the press, the company sold Family Life to Hachette Filipacchi, though the deal had been in the works for some time.
In the summer of 1995 Wenner announced that Rolling Stone would be expanding its coverage of new artists. Though the magazine had periodically made this effort over the years, it still seemed to favor baby boomer heroes over new performers. Now the surging growth of monthly competitor Spin was cutting into the Rolling Stone readership and ad sales, and Wenner fought back by hiring the editor of the music magazine Request to make improvements in this area. Rolling Stone also went online during the year, with a version of the magazine accessible on Compuserve. A year later the magazine put up its own web site, which joined forces in 1998 with JAMTV (subsequently known as Tunes.com) to offer music and video downloads and other specialized features.
As the 1990s drew to a close, Wenner Media's publications seemed to be cross-pollinating. Rolling Stone and US both began to increasingly emphasize stories on fashion and hot young celebrities, typically accompanied by lavish photo shoots. Men's Journal was also sporting greater coverage of fashion and was running more stories on personal health and celebrity profiles as well.
In 1999 the company announced plans to shift the US publication schedule from monthly to weekly. The move was a response to several market forces, including the success of Time, Inc.'s Entertainment Weekly and People magazines. Wenner expressed his intention to keep US 'celebrity-friendly' in contrast with the more gossipy character of its competitors. He explained to the New York Times: 'We will be nice to celebrities. A lot of my friends are in the entertainment business.'
The privately owned Wenner Media, with a third of a century in the publishing industry, had come a long way from its origins in 'Summer of Love' San Francisco. Since the company had moved to New York City, flagship publication Rolling Stone had become more focused and slicker, losing much of its original identity but growing more consistent and profitable in the process. Wenner was committed to making US and Men's Journal equally successful and had the organization and vision to pull it off, if it could be accomplished in the ultra-competitive marketplace of the late 1990s.
Principal Divisions: Men's Journal; Rolling Stone; US.
Principal Competitors: Advance Publications, Inc.; Dennis Publishing; Hachette Filipacchi Magazines, Inc.; The Hearst Corporation; Miller Publishing Group; Rodale, Inc.; Stern Publishing; Time Warner, Inc.; VNU N.V.
- Adams, Mark, ''Stone Changes Its Tune,' Mediaweek, July 17, 1995, p. 4.
- Bounds, Wendy, 'Wenner Media Inc. Hires Outsider Berg for Rolling Stone, Other Magazines,' The Wall Street Journal, April 9, 1999, p. B6.
- Case, Tony, 'When Does Gossip Become News?,' Editor & Publisher, March 18, 1995, p. 9.
- Draper, Robert, Rolling Stone Magazine: The Uncensored History, New York: Doubleday, 1990.
- Granatstein, Lisa, 'RS Rolls out Fresher Look,' Mediaweek, August 10, 1998, p. 6.
- Huhn, Mary, 'The Arrow Never Rests,' Mediaweek, July 19, 1993, p. 10.
- Kerwin, Ann Marie, 'Understanding US,' Inside Media, May 29, 1996, p. 44.
- Kuczynski, Alex, 'Striking Back at the Empire,' New York Times, September 27, 1999, p. 1.
- Negus, Beth, 'Wenner's Circulation Trifecta,' Direct, October 1, 1995, p. 64.
- Reece, Doug, 'Rolling Stone, JAMTV Join Web Forces; Collaboration Revamps Magazine's Internet Site,' Billboard, March 7, 1998, p. 48.
- Reilly, Patrick M., 'A Rolling Stone: Jann Wenner's Rift with Wife Shakes up His Publishing Empire,' Wall Street Journal, March 3, 1995, p. A1.
- Silber, Tony, 'Straight Arrow Takes a Flier on US,' Folio, August 1, 1991, p. 43.
- Veronsky, Frank, 'Casting New Stones: Not Content to Own His Piece of the Rock Market, Jann Wenner Ambitiously Expands His Media Horizons,' Adweek, February 28, 1994, p. 10.
- Warner, Melanie, 'A Younger, Hipper US,' Inside Media, May 11, 1994, p. 62.
- 'Wenner's Manly Move: Straight Arrow to Defy Recession with New Magazine,' Advertising Age, November 25, 1991.
Source: International Directory of Company Histories, Vol. 32. St. James Press, 2000.