It must pain Jann Wenner to see his other properties start succeeding where flagship Rolling Stone squandered possibilities and descended into irrelevancy: online. Now that US Weekly's site has heat, Wenner's finally starting to line up RS's strategy of "whatever."
The problems facing Rolling Stone's online presence is that, well, they haven't had one. Since the late 90s, they've spread coverage of celebrities, politics, and music too thin. A destination full of Matt Taibbis, David Frickes, or celebrity gossips is one thing. Trying to do them all in the same publication is another, and it resulted in the literal and figurative sizing down of the publication.
Wenner needed to do something, so he fired an editor and brought in Steve Schwartz from Reader's Digest—yes, that Reader's Digest—as his, uh, let's see here...Chief Digital Officer. Great, well then. When Schwartz isn't commandeering the bridge of the Enterprise, he's gonna be piloting a different kind of ship. The kind that sinks before it can even set sail. Ahoy!
"I think there was the concept of, let's partner with a company that had experience in this space early on," said Schwartz, who plans to relaunch the site in January with new community and customization features. "A lot of companies spent a lot of money in trial and error mode." That said, he conceded, "It hasn't evolved nearly as much as we'd like it to."
Since Schwartz's hiring and their Unemployment for Christmas layoffs, they've made great strides, kinda capitalizing on Matt Taibbi's audience, and...that's it.
Eight months later, their Twitter's mostly an RSS feed of articles, interspersed with the occasional pieces of news. Even JetBlue's got a better Twitter. They don't have a Tumblr, their Facebook presence is mediocre, and their big high tech strategy involves one of the most reviled dinosaurs of the internet. What rhymes with BUFFERING?
Rollingstone.com will have a chance to update its music-listening technology; Wenner is determining if it will continue its partnership with Web music player Rhapsody, a joint venture with RealNetworks, after its relationship with RealNetworks ends.
Hm. Considering I can listen to whatever I want on Spotify or Pandora, amongst others, I would say that giving users the chance to interact with a widely available music player they hate isn't the most salient strategy. But this is what Wenner's spending his time "determining."
Forget the fact that Rolling Stone's losing breaking news traffic now (thanks, Brooklyn Vegan). Or that their Five Stars mean nothing anymore (thanks, Pitchfork). Or that their music analysis is being overrun (MBV), their political rockstar's still blogging for a political site that has their own writers working their own ad sales, and their movie critic is still Peter "Quotemaster" Travers.
Remember: Wenner has sites with pretty solid traffic(US Weekly), and as Maura Johnston noted, it still one of the biggest music destinations out there on brand recognition alone. But nobody cares about music enough to generate the kind of traffic the best music sites out there need to be competitive. That's not to say they couldn't become competitive, but it'd require the kind of intense online and editorial shakeup of direction and purpose they've never been able to make. And then flash back to Schwartz, who clearly doesn't understand Wenner's reluctance:
Schwartz admitted that Rollingstone.com is light on user engagement, which will be a big priority of the site relaunch. "The site that's out there right now-that whole notion of getting our audience involved in a dialogue is lost," he said.
It's pretty evident: Wenner's golden goose of ideals and ideology and influence on pop culture has to dignify—and even worse, compete with—the kinds of ragtag operations Rolling Stone once was back when Wenner first started it. Wenner's main man Hunter S. Thompson once wrote that "when the going gets weird, the weird turn pro." Looks like Rolling Stone was too mainstream and stodgy to get going, and for the most part, still are. As Huey Lewis once sang: it's hip to be square.