Not long ago, I saw Jann Wenner at Michael's, the media-business canteen on West 55th Street, sitting at the front table in the bay window eating his Cobb salad with Mick Jagger. It occurred to me that these two guys were probably the most intact survivors of the sixties. And that, in some fathomless irony to anyone who remembers anything, they had probably survived and flourished, triumphing over periods of excess and ridiculousness, and achieving their current elegance and courtliness, on the basis of their business skills.
There is certainly no more perfect rock-and-roll career -- for accomplishment and longevity and financial rewards -- than Mick's, and there may not be, in that regard, any more perfect media career than Jann's.
Wenner Media, which consists of Rolling Stone, Men's Journal, and Us, is a private company owned by Wenner and his wife, Jane (from whom he is separated, but "with no plans to divorce," as the company officially phrases it), worth somewhere between $500 million and $750 million, with earnings in the $40 million-to-$60 million range. Wenner Media has no outside investors and no debt. This is a kind of personal and business perfection that, in the age of venture capital, technology-infrastructure costs, and IPOs, does not exist anymore. Indeed, Wenner Media may be the last surviving closely held independent midsize publishing company in America.
That's one of the reasons Wenner doesn't have to worry too much about taking Us magazine, his monthly People imitator, to a weekly schedule -- an ambitious and by some estimates perilous undertaking that begins this week. It's one of those I-can-do-it-because-I-want-to things you can do when the business is your own. It's your itch to scratch.
"When you talk to Wenner, you can hear a tinge of regret, the vague and compelling call of roads not taken. What he might have done with Geffen, or Pittman."
But the other reason is that after 33 years of doing what you do, it's not unlikely that you know more or less what you're doing -- and it's likely that you're not going to risk the farm. Wenner -- star, starfucker, friend to stars and other starfuckers -- is in fact a conservative business guy.
"I know how to publish a magazine. It's what I do, for 33 years now," he says with pride but with some fatalism too.
Although Wenner has used his life as the playbook for the Zeitgeist-ish magazines he has developed -- Rolling Stone, Outside, Family Life, and Men's Journal among them -- what he and his company have particularly excelled at is the technical side of magazine publishing. Magazine numbers -- newsstand draw, sell-through, response rates -- tend to be precise, unforgiving, and immutable (far from the soft numbers of the movie business or the record industry or the new-media world). Wenner and his company turn out to be very good at analyzing those numbers, and fearing them (reading the numbers, Wenner Media recently killed its Internet-magazine start-up). What's more, the magazine business is a business made up of a very small circle of older, unglamorous men -- in which circle Jann Wenner fits very tightly -- who have been doing business together over many years. Indeed, who do business not least of all because they like to do it together. (Wenner is a lot more like these guys than he is like David Geffen; then again, even the mighty mogul David Geffen, in the end, is probably like these guys, too.) While it is a good bet that at their lunch at Michael's, Jann and Mick touched on the subject of the weekly launch of Us -- this is, after all, Wenner's biggest professional challenge in decades -- it's likely that they talked less about the stars who would be in the magazine than about Jann's plan for making the numbers work.
Us, as a magazine, or as a magazine-business proposition, has been hanging around the media business almost as long as Wenner himself has. Us is the collective fantasy of that small circle of guys who make up the magazine business that they could somehow compete with People, perhaps the most successful magazine of all time -- the Holy Grail of magazine publishing.
Us was started, in a quirk of corporate character, by the New York Times in 1977, because People had launched so successfully three years before. After losing $10 million or so, the Times came to its senses and sold Us for small change to magazine entrepreneur Peter Callahan. With nowhere near the resources to publish a biweekly national magazine, Callahan turned to the magazine-distribution company Steve Ross acquired on one of his buying sprees for Warner Communications (before it was Time Warner). It agreed to put up the money.
But by 1985, Warner was tired of funding a consistent money-loser and pulled the plug. Wenner, who had some brief experience as a celebrity-picture-magazine publisher when he helped revive Look with the French publisher Daniel Filipacchi (Filipacchi pulled the plug on that one), stepped in and purchased Us from Warner and Callahan for $5 million. But Wenner didn't have the resources to publish the magazine, either. So he went into partnership with Don Welsh and his company Telepictures, which published Muppet Magazine. Then, in short order, Telepictures was acquired by Merv Adelson's Lorimar (the producers of Dallas). Then, two years later, Lorimar, which meanwhile had lost $30 million publishing Us with Wenner, was itself acquired by Ross for Warner Communications.
Wenner, once again, went over and bought Us from Warner -- the 75 percent he didn't own now went for $10 million.