The Brag Media
News April 10, 2024

Rolling Stone CEO Gus Wenner Discusses AI, Growing Pains and the Pivot to Digital

Senior Journalist, B2B
Rolling Stone CEO Gus Wenner Discusses AI, Growing Pains and the Pivot to Digital

Running the family business, one that’s facing a death by a thousand cuts, is a burden few would choose to carry.

Gus Wenner knows from experience.

The son of Jann Wenner, co-founder of Rolling Stone and the Rock And Roll Hall of Fame, and media heavyweight Jane Schindelheim, the younger Wenner joined the family company a decade ago, when the print industry was staring into the abyss.

Wenner helped navigate the tsunami that was the transition from hard copy to a multi-media organisation, built on the foundation of that glossy mag.

“Up until 10 years ago, Rolling Stone was a magazine, primarily,” he recounts to The Brag Media managing director Luke Girgis and editor-in-chief Poppy Reid for ‘The Music Network Podcast’.

Back then, print was like “probably 80% of our revenue.” Today, it’s roughly 10-15%, he continues, the transition well underway into a digital future. The mag, however, remains the “heart and soul of what we do” and a “huge part of our identity.”

Wenner joined Wenner Media following his graduation in 2012, and, the following year, at the age of 23, was named head of digital for the online versions of Wenner Media’s Rolling Stone, Us Weekly, and Men’s Journal titles.

The company rebuild wasn’t “unpainful,” he recounts. In a sign of the times, those last two brands were sold to satisfy financial obligations.

The challenge – to create a viable vision for the future, while protecting the past, upholding something the family built, and doing so in a climate when print was falling off a cliff, bleeding out. And do it against the backdrop of “paying down an enormous amount of debt”.

Factor in Jann Wenner’s near-death experience of having a heart attack in the summer of 2017, and there was, asserts Gus, “an unbelievable amount of pressure, an unbelievably high level of difficulty.”

In rode Penske Media Corporation (PMC), the media empire which acquired Rolling Stone in 2017, the “perfect home” for the title, reckons Gus, who played a key role in facilitating the sale.

Gus stayed on as president and COO, then, in 2021, was promoted to his current capacity as CEO.

Fast forward to 2024, the ambition is for seven to eight healthy revenue streams, a combination of events, e-commerce, licensing, and its top-earner, digital advertising.

Rolling Stone‘s “Future of Music” showcase at SXSW is part of the mix, “the perfect alignment for us,” he insists, a curated music experience that enables music fans to “walk into the pages of the issue” over four nights, and potentially live on across streaming platforms.

It’s been “an amazing rise” for Rolling Stone, he enthuses.

On the thorny subject of artificial intelligence, Wenner admits computer learning assists the research team as a “tool,” though there are “no plans” to use AI “in place” of writers.

“I don’t know what the future holds. We’re very focused on the reporting, that’s something AI can’t do.” The value of “real reporting and long-form journalism will only be greater” in time, he assures. “There’s a premium on it.”

Stream the podcast here.


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