Changing, but Still Rolling

Rolling Stone magazine continues to wear its politics on its sleeve… and on its covers.

 In the line of the magazine’s tradition of covers of Democratic presidential candidates (ranging from George McGovern, Rolling Stone Magazine Vol. 110, June 8, 1972, to John Kerry Rolling Stone Magazine Vol. 961, November 11, 2004), the lastest issue of Rolling Stones (October 30, 2008) features Barack Obama on its cover for the third time in seven months (“a record equaled only by John Lennon,” says Jann Wenner, the magazine’s founder, publisher, and editor).  

But more than anything, by endorsing Obama, the publication endorsed the idea of change.

In fact, with this issue, Rolling Stone changed to a new format, reducing its trademark large size to the dimensions of the standard magazine.

The move, Wenner hints in the Editor’s Notes, was necessary: while the large format of the magazine has stood out on magazine racks for more than three decades now, its single-copy sales have fallen from 189,000 in 1999, to 132,000 last year.

The expectation here is that the new rack-friendly format will help raise newsstand sales.

Vanity Fair, for example has a standard magazine format and a lower overall circulation than Rolling Stone, but boasts nearly three times the single-copy sales.

RS also improved its paper quality, substituting pulp paper for glossy.

There is much to be gained from the changes in terms of advertising, sales, and aesthetics.

But before even opening the magazine I couldn’t help feeling a bit nostalgic and apprehensive. By abandoning its significantly taller and larger format (10 by 11 3/4 inches), Rolling Stone had certainly lost something, something that made it recognizable and distinctive.

Will it still read the same? Will it still feel the same?

A symbolic baby boomer and the only person inducted in both the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and the American Society of Magazine Editors’ Hall of Fame, Wenner explains that the DNA remains intact.

As the media and cultural landscape is enduring seismic shifts, the nation’s biggest music magazine seems to have evolved and transitioned along, and it remains both a reflection and an interpreter of its time.

Also, the move from saddle stitched to perfect binding adds a more grown-up look to a publication that went from celebrity and pop culture reporting in the 1990s to winning awards for articles on topics from Iraq to presidential politics (“Man Who Sold The War,” by James Bamford in 2006, and “The Killer Elite,” by Evan Wright in 2004, both National Magazine Awards, the Oscars of the magazine business).

In this issue, “The Schooling of Nick Jonas,” by Jenny Eliscu, p. 82, adheres to the magazine’s longstanding reputation as a bastion of serious musical criticism; “Can the Republicans Steal the Election?” by Robert F. Kennedy Jr. and Greg Palast, p. 65, is emblematic of RS’ seminal voice of angst and iconoclasm and investigative and political coverage; “The Last Days of David Wallace,” by David Lipsky, p.100, is one of the longest and most moving piece RS has published this year, and a reminder that the publication is a haven for long-form, exploratory journalism.

Overall bouncy, verbose, and hard-hitting the new format, like the man it features on its cover, will appeal to a vast demographic, while preserving the core elements of the magazine.

Adeniyi Amadou


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