In its early days in the 1960s and ’70s, Rolling Stone was a chronicle of the counterculture where a generation of young people came to find political coverage that spoke to their disaffection.
Then those baby boomers grew up, and Rolling Stone’s voice seemed to fall flat.
But no more. Those same subversive tendencies that led Jann Wenner to co-found the magazine in 1967 were reawakened under the presidency of George W. Bush. And now, rather unexpectedly, Wenner’s magazine is hitting its journalistic stride — aggressively tackling the American government on financial regulation, the environment and the war in Afghanistan — with a Democrat in the White House, one that Wenner supported.
Wenner said Rolling Stone’s more antagonistic tack is, in a sense, a way of shaking off the cultural complacency many liberals felt in the 1990s.
"Everything was kind of hunky-dory under Clinton," Wenner said in a telephone interview last week. "With Bush, between 9/11 and his response to it, he put the country in pretty serious danger. And that kind of got our juices going again."
Rolling Stone’s explosive piece, "The Runaway General," which last week brought a disgraceful end to Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal’s career, was just the latest in a string of articles resonating in the nation’s corridors of power.
Its excoriating takedown of Goldman Sachs last summer was one of the most provocative and widely debated pieces of journalism to come out of the financial crisis. In the article, the writer Matt Taibbi described the investment bank as "a great vampire squid wrapped around the face of humanity, relentlessly jamming its blood funnel into anything that smells like money."
And earlier this month, the magazine published a critical take on the Obama administration’s regulation of the oil industry, which started a firestorm on cable news and in the blogosphere. (The current issue contains a follow-up on BP’s plans to drill in the Arctic.)
Wenner said he has been further emboldened by what he described as a sense of disappointment over President Barack Obama’s first 18 months in office. "I’m for Obama, but I think he needs to make some course corrections," Wenner said. The unforgiving and hard-nosed publisher then mustered about as much sympathy as he could and added, "I realize he’s got a tough job."
As many of his peers in the magazine world have gathered moss, Wenner has pushed Rolling Stone back uphill. While its single copy sales for the first three months of 2010 were down slightly from 2009, it has attracted enormous attention for its political coverage and consistently draws a young readership, with an average age of 30. (Overall, the biweekly magazine’s circulation has grown to about 1.5 million copies an issue, up from about 1.4 million in 2008.) .
More unusually, the masthead of the magazine, which has been known to churn through editors under Wenner, has also been remarkably stable for the past several years. Will Dana, the magazine’s managing editor, has held that position since 2005. Dana’s predecessor, Ed Needham, quit after being on the job three years.
Under Dana, the magazine has put more of its resources into reporting longer profiles and investigative pieces.
"This is what we do," Dana said. "We let our reporters run."
Rolling Stone’s success also could be, in part, a function of its publishing schedule. Many newsweeklies have faltered and lost their impact on shaping the national conversation, but as a biweekly Rolling Stone has thrived in defiance of a digital age in which articles are supposed to appear then vanish within hours.
"In a way the advantage almost goes to monthlies or biweeklies in that we don’t chase the previous week," said Graydon Carter, the editor of Vanity Fair. "We sort of describe and cover our own worlds as we see them. And you have the time and the space to spread out a story and go after it in a deeper way."
Vanity Fair has published its share of bombshells in recent years, the most stunning being its revelation of the identify of the Watergate source known as "Deep Throat." The magazine reported in 2005 that W. Mark Felt, a top-ranking FBI official during the Nixon administration, was the source for The Washington Post as it exposed the Watergate scandal.
Carter says biweekly publications have the best of both worlds: They can respond nimbly to the news and take their time on longer enterprise pieces.
"Rolling Stone sort of owns even a better schedule being fortnightly, being not weekly, and not monthly. And they’ve had a hell of a run the last few weeks," he said.
Of course, Rolling Stone is something of an anomaly among its peers in national affairs reporting because it had always pushed against the limits of objective journalism. It was the longtime home of Hunter S. Thompson.
Some close to McChrystal have grumbled anonymously to newspapers that the critical comments the general and his aides uttered in front of the Rolling Stone reporter were off the record. The reporter, Michael Hastings, has denied that, saying that few ground rules were set for his interactions with the general.
One side-effect of the McChrystal piece could be to make magazines rethink what Northwestern journalism Professor Charles Whitaker described as a dumbing down of coverage.
"I think it’s encouraging for writers and editors because they can say we can still have impact," Whitaker said. "We don’t have to pander so much to an audience with pop culture stories. We can’t continue to do these kinds of stories, which are expensive and hard to report."