Rolling Stone’s Web Failure Wasn’t So Shabby, After All. But Now What?

Published on August 31, 2009
by Peter Kafka

lennonConventional wisdom of the day: Magazine mogul Jann Wenner, the man who made his mark with Rolling Stone in the ’60s and ’70s and then again with US Weekly this decade, has blown it on the Web. And now it’s too late for him to catch up.

And who knows? It may even be true. But here’s one bit of nuance to chew on: Magazine mogul Jann Wenner has made money–as in, a profit–on the Web for the last five years.

How so? By licensing to RealNetworks (RNWK) and letting that company bear almost all the costs of running the site. True, the site didn’t blow anyone away. But it has generated cash. I’m told the RealNetworks deal is worth “several” millions in profit per year.

That kind of performance wouldn’t be very meaningful for a title owned by a big public company like Time Warner’s (TWX) Time Inc., where it would be important to show Wall Street that you’ve harnessed the power of the Web and turned it into your own personal growth engine.

But for Wenner’s privately held company, which owns all of three titles, a few million bucks a year in profit is a few million bucks a year in profit. And that profit has come in handy the last couple of years, when the Internet growth engine has turned out to have problems of its own.

Let’s be clear: Wenner’s cautious, cash-flow-positive strategy has now left Rolling Stone far behind everyone else on the Web when it comes to market share. Which is why I’d suggest that his company not try to replicate its print strategy–which aims to straddle an uneasy line between modern pop culture (“The Hills”!) and golden oldies (“The Beatles”!)–and forgo the idea of becoming “The Rolling Stone of Web.”

Even if Wenner had tried this years ago, I don’t think it would have worked; the Web is too diffuse and pop culture tastes too fractured for any single site to gain the kind of traction that his magazine got during its heyday. And if any site does have that power, it’s Google’s (GOOG) YouTube, and no one’s going to displace that now.

My two cents: Turn into an amazing online archive that capitalizes on the magazine’s glory years, when it really was the hub for popular culture. The magazine should have a treasure trove of stuff at its fingertips–interviews, articles, photos,  etc.–but you’d be hard pressed to find any of it on the site now.

Take the interviews that Wenner himself conducted with John Lennon and other luminaries, for example: Great stuff. But if you’re looking for, say,  Wenner’s 1970 interview with Lennon, you can’t find them on his own site. You’ll have to look over on…YouTube.

It should be relatively easy, and inexpensive, to cull this stuff, make it searchable, figure out ways to recycle, repackage, and redistribute it, right? It won’t necessarily do blockbuster numbers, but it won’t cost much, either. Get lucky, and you could even turn a profit.

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