Rolling Stone Founder: ‘It’s a Mistake’ to Make Magazines Available Digitally

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The future of magazine publishing may be digital, but that future is further away than you’d think, according to Rolling Stone founder Jann Wenner, who believes that the publishing industry’s push towards digital publishing is a “rush to throw away [the] magazine business [through] just sheer insanity and insecurity and fear.”

Oh, and he also thinks that the music industry screwed itself when it came to its own digital transformation. He’s either a modern-day luddite, or a rare digital visionary.

Wenner, the man behind last year’s pro-print magazine ad campaign – gave the contrary interview to Advertising Age magazine, saying that “it’s a mistake to think that you should put your magazine itself online” because there isn’t enough money there to support it, and explaining his take on the iPad:

I don’t think that gives you much advantage as a magazine reader to read it on the tablet — in fact less so. It’s a little more difficult. From the publisher’s point of view I would think they’re crazy to encourage it. They’re going to get less money for it from advertisers. Right now it costs a fortune to convert your magazine, to program it, to get all the things you have to do on there. And they’re not selling. You know, 5,000 copies there, 3,000 copies here, it’s not worth it. You haven’t put a dent in your R&D costs.

So I think that they’re prematurely rushing and showing little confidence and faith in what they’ve really got, their real asset, which is the magazine itself, which is still a great commodity. It’s a small additive; it’s not the new business.

That might change, he admits, but “who knows how far down the road — years though and probably decades”:

People’s habits will shift, they’ll make improvements in the delivery system, the screen will change, it will get lighter, whatever, and new people growing up will find that as a habit. But you’re talking about a generation at least, maybe two generations, before the shift is decisive. Look at the music industry as an example. I think it’s split about 50-50 between CDs and digital delivery. There is a place where there are extraordinary advantages in the distribution delivery system. Otherwise the products are indistinguishable; there’s no difference in the physical products as there is here.

And talking about the music industry’s digital performance…

The music business more screwed itself than Apple screwed it. The music business refused to embrace internet technology when it first was introduced just as they first tried to fight and stop CDs, just as they used to fight and try to stop home taping, all of which was known to spread it. So now you have an ironic situation where music is more ubiquitous than ever — everybody in the world has access to everything — my kids can listen to the Beatles because they don’t have to pay $15 to buy an album, they can either get it free or buy a Beatles song for a buck if they want. So it’s the music business’s fault more than anything else. And then their failure to develop what Apple did develop, which was a good convenient easy delivery system. They fell on their own sword, you know? …But the lesson for magazine publishing business is not to rush like the music business should have done, because it’s a different product. Music is really easily reducible to digital. There’s a different beat to it.

The first takeaway from this interview? That Wenner is clearly a big believer in print as a medium, and just as big a skeptic about the lure of digital publishing. The second? Don’t expect that Rolling Stone app to take over from the print magazine anytime soon.

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