NEW YORK » Through decades of digging into the private lives of rock stars and providing a forum for colorful writers like Hunter S. Thompson and P.J. O’Rourke, Rolling Stone magazine publisher Jann Wenner has never been afraid to push boundaries.
Now Wenner, who founded the magazine as a 20-year-old college dropout, is weathering the stiffest test of Rolling Stone’s credibility that the magazine has faced in its 48-year history.
On Sunday, the magazine retracted last November’s story on sexual assault at the University of Virginia in advance of the release of a damning Columbia University report about its reporting and editing, and on Monday, a fraternity named in the story threatened a lawsuit.
The magazine also faced criticism Monday for what some critics deemed a muted response to the problems outlined in Columbia’s exhaustive report.
The sharply funny O’Rourke, who worked at Rolling Stone from 1985 to 2000, said he found the editing and fact-checking there to be as rigorous as the legendarily tough New Yorker magazine.
"When Hunter S. Thompson dies and I leave, and the factual reliability of a publication goes down, there must be something wrong with modern media," he said.
Rolling Stone’s unique niche in magazines was an outgrowth of Wenner’s interests, a mixture of authoritative music and cultural coverage with tough investigative reporting, usually from a liberal world view. The magazine’s circulation of just under 1.5 million copies an issue has been consistent over the past three years, according to the Alliance for Audited Media.
The music coverage now bears the hallmark of a clumsy 50-year-old struggling to stay hip. Cover subjects can range wildly from Miley Cyrus and Kanye West to Bob Dylan and Ringo Starr as Rolling Stone tries to cater to all tastes.
Specialty websites like Pitchfork offer sharper music coverage. Like many media organizations founded in a different era, Rolling Stone has struggled to become an influential online presence, said veteran music writer Alan Light, a former Rolling Stone employee and still occasional contributor.
Yet the magazine has survived and thrived as once-hip competitors Spin, Vibe and Blender fell out of publishing.
The music coverage coexists with the long-form journalism, from Thompson’s drug-fueled political coverage to an investigative report that forced the resignation of Gen. Stanley McChrystal in 2010. Rolling Stone has aggressively covered climate change and the impact of money in politics. The Virginia story had an immediate impact: Its 2.7 million online views were more than any non-celebrity story the magazine ever published.
The Columbia report criticized Rolling Stone for failing to establish that a man accused of orchestrating a fraternity house gang rape even existed, failing to contact the accuser’s friends and not pushing hard to investigate information that might contradict its narrative.
The episode doesn’t erase Rolling Stone’s legacy, but it’s a significant blow, Light said.
"Obviously the greatest risk is that this becomes so associated with their name and this kind of a story," he said. "It’s bad for everyone — it’s bad for the magazine, it’s bad for the readers, it’s bad for the issue that they were setting out to address in the first place."
Like many publications, Rolling Stone has suffered with the online explosion. Its editorial staff, not including people working in art and photo, has dropped by 25 percent since 2008, according to the Columbia report. But the examination said Rolling Stone’s failures in the Virginia story had nothing to do with being short-staffed.
The magazine’s managing editor, Will Dana, took responsibility for the retracted story, written by Sabrina Rubin Erdely. In a note to readers — Rolling Stone published the full Columbia report on its website — Dana called it painful reading and said the magazine was committing itself to a series of recommendations about improved journalistic practices that was recommended.
At least initially, no one — Dana, Erdely or Sean Woods, the principal editor on the story — lost their jobs. That has surprised many long-time observers of Wenner, who’s been known for having a quick trigger finger for employees who don’t meet his standards, and speaks to his respect for veteran employees Dana and Woods.
Asked at a news conference on Monday about whether he thought the incident should cost someone their job, Columbia University School of Journalism Dean Steve Coll, one of three authors of the report, declined to offer his opinion, saying he didn’t know the work of the journalists involved beyond the one story.
"We’re not the D.A.’s office," Coll said. "We’re not a special prosecutor."
It’s a tough call, since there’s no evidence the journalists involved were intentionally deceitful, said Kelly McBride, an ethics expert at the Poynter Institute. The initial response suggests Rolling Stone is putting its own self-interest ahead of its readers, she said.
"That’s a completely reasonable management reaction to this," she said. "But you also have to look at what the audience needs to trust you."
Samir Husni, a University of Mississippi journalism professor who publishes an annual guide to consumer magazines, said it was a master stroke by Wenner to invite Columbia in to investigate Rolling Stone’s practices.
"It takes guts to apologize for everything that has gone down," Husni said. "The only person that can save Rolling Stone is Jann Wenner. By going outside and doing what he did, he was able to contain the story."
The lasting damage may be if Rolling Stone decides to pull back from investigative pieces. It already feels that this has happened to a certain extent while the magazine waited for the Columbia report to come out, said Aileen Gallagher, an assistant professor in the magazine department at Syracuse University’s Newhouse School of Public Communications.
Wenner, 69, is at the stage of his career where legacy is an important issue. New York magazine writer Joe Hagan recently signed to write a biography, with Wenner’s cooperation, to coincide with the magazine’s 50th anniversary. Wenner’s son Gus is a potential successor at the company that also includes Us Weekly and Men’s Journal, works at Rolling Stone if his father opts to leave things in the family.
Gallagher said that ultimately, writer Erdely’s career will suffer more than Rolling Stone as an institution.
"The writer always takes the heat for these things," she said. "The magazines do at the beginning, they apologize and lessons are learned. Are people not going to read Rolling Stone anymore? I don’t think so."