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The Odd Couple

His Rolling Stone is in trouble, but at least he's got Bonnie Fuller working her black magic at Us Weekly. Now all Jann Wenner has to do is find a rock-and-roll Bonnie to save his flagship.

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Mr. and Mrs. Wenner Media: Jann and Bonnie at the Waldorf.  

Jann Wenner and Bonnie Fuller look alike. They're about the same size, and both are always very turned out -- Bonnie has her signature bangs and Jann has his fancy hair -- and their eyes work the crowd in a similar, miss-nothing way. In a big gathering, especially a gathering of one's peers, some people narrow their focus -- they don't really want to see or be seen -- and others, like Jann and Bonnie, take everything in, measure, deduce, figure out friend or foe, admirer or mocker. Most of all, perhaps, they are calibrating everybody else's awareness of them. It gives a certain look.

So there we were at the National Magazine Awards, the Oscars, as we'd like to think, of our business. Thirteen hundred magazine people crammed into the multi-tiered (although you certainly don't want to be in the upper tiers) grand ballroom at the Waldorf. I was focused on Jann and Bonnie as part of my own effort, because I was up for an award, to be invisible, or out-of-body. I didn't trust myself as a winner or loser. Whereas Jann and Bonnie, just a table away, seemed innately public -- and prepared. Staged. Ready to be seen in any variation of success and failure. Together -- because Bonnie now works for Jann, and Jann is now uniquely dependent on Bonnie -- they were like figure skaters in a complicated doubles routine.

Jann, of course, has been public for more than 30 years. Iconic. Durably iconic. He was certainly the most famous person in the room (among his accomplishments was to have, over the years, won many of these awards). And, save for Si Newhouse, possibly the wealthiest person there. What's more, he is an owner-editor (a dying breed -- a dead breed, in fact). And his company, which received nominations this year for its magazine Men's Journal and in the stepchild category of online achievement for Rolling Stone, is something that hardly exists anymore, an independent magazine publisher. But for all that achievement, there wasn't anyone in the room who didn't know that his stature and wealth were, at this moment, about as fragile as they could be -- that in the reverse sweepstakes of who would be the biggest loser of the current magazine recession, it could be Wenner Media.

Bonnie, for her part, is just an employee -- but with no less public a career. You hire Bonnie because she's supposed to know something about speaking to millions of nameless women, about their mass-market desires. She's a vulgarizer and a titillator -- but fashionably so. She'd come out of Canada to run YM, the girls' teen magazine, giving it a boy-crazy spin. Then Hearst had hired her to launch the American Marie Claire and then run Cosmo. Then Condé Nast got her to run Glamour. You hired Bonnie not just because she might know how to talk to these unknown women and girls. But, too, because she got publicity. (David Granger, editor-in-chief of Esquire, would tell David Carr at the Times, for the next-day story on the event, "We are editors . . . We're boring." But that was, in some sense, a class distinction, separating Granger from editors like Bonnie who were certainly not boring.) Publicity trails her; it's like an aura around her -- the Tina Brown–Anna Wintour–Helen Gurley Brown aura. Bonnie also got fired for her publicity talents. She had no ability to restrain her public needs -- no ability not to live her career machinations large (at Condé Nast, she was dumped, at least in part, for campaigning for the Harper's Bazaar job while she still held the Glamour position). Now Bonnie had come to Wenner Media's Us Weekly, which had been unable to find an audience or identity or to stem its big losses since it began weekly publication two years ago in a vainglorious effort to compete with People.

So whatever anxiety I was feeling at the Waldorf that afternoon, I was, at least, not Jann or Bonnie. To win something at an awards ceremony like this is not to succeed, and to lose is not to fail. (The fact that The New Yorker, a semi-subsidized publication, wins all the time seems to confirm this sense of there being little at stake.) It's very safe anxiety: Whatever happens, you're the same person -- you get to go home to your house. For Jann and Bonnie, on the other hand, it would be curtains if they lost the magazine game they were playing. Jann could even, possibly, lose his house (all of them).

Earlier in the week, Jann had announced that he was firing Bob Love, the editor of Rolling Stone. Jann had thereby acknowledged what everyone knew: Rolling Stone, a model of magazine publishing, among the most successful magazines of the seventies, eighties, and nineties, a cultural milestone, was in big trouble. In fact, in some oddly naked way, Jann seemed to keep going out of his way to publicly announce Rolling Stone's troubles. Blender, he said, the upstart music magazine spun off from the upstart men's magazine Maxim, was a serious competitor. By his acknowledgment, he promptly increased the force of the competition. (Neither Blender nor Maxim, the most successful magazine of the era, was nominated for any awards.)

In an almost painful act of public expiation, Jann began to speculate about the ways that Rolling Stone would have to change. Already, he was imposing a hard-and-fast word count -- no more of Rolling Stone's famous epic-length articles. What's more, he seemed to dub Mark Golin, the former Maxim editor and beer-and-babes epicure (and Bonnie Fuller protégé), the front-runner for the job.

And then there's his Us mess. So far, his only real success with Us has been to recruit Disney to be his partner and share his losses. Even his longtime editor, Terry McDonell (who had worked with Jann, in some famous feat of magazine endurance, on and off for nearly 30 years), recently fled the job for the editorship of Sports Illustrated.

Of course, everybody having lunch at the Waldorf has cost overruns and circulation problems and personnel defections, and competitors up the wazoo. But Jann, in addition to those everyday bummers, has more epic struggles: He's fighting cultural and generational and Zeitgeist battles (in fact, many others are facing those same issues, but not as personally as Jann is). He has to face down the Britney-MTV-Maxim culture. He has to hold on to his very youthfulness -- just as Rolling Stone's great 34-year footprint in the middle of youth culture is eroding, disappearing. He is, too, the victim of something larger: the end of the music business as we know it -- there are simply no profits in music anymore, no new ruling class of rock-and-rollsters. He'd risen up with the growth of the music industry -- now it could take him down.

Then, too, the devil's bargain at the heart of Rolling Stone's profits, that the magazine was a good way to sell cigarettes to 14-year-olds, had finally come undone. Cigarette companies had been forced out of youth-market publications. (Rolling Stone's big circulation -- 1.27 million -- was pumped as high as it was not least of all because cigarette companies would pay big-circ advertising prices. That hustle was now gone.)

Everybody knew that something major was passing -- indeed, when Vibe took one of the big awards of the day at the Waldorf, did anyone even think of Rolling Stone?

As an editor-owner, as cultural avatar, as iconic figure, as overindulged personality, Jann has often been compared to Hugh Hefner (indeed, at past Waldorf luncheons, both had won hall-of-fame awards).

In the mid-seventies, the Playboy empire had suddenly encountered a second revolution in sexuality (the age of porn) and the rise of new competitors, Penthouse and then Hustler. Playboy's very existence hung in the balance for quite a few years, until, with Hef shuttled aside and his managerial daughter Christie put in his place, the business stabilized and achieved some modest profitability. It survived. Indeed, its arch-rival, Penthouse, is now at death's door. So even though Playboy has lost its cultural currency, its famous writers, and its big profits, it is still a hopeful magazine story. Could Rolling Stone find such a course?

If Jann were Hef, I was thinking, this might make Bonnie Fuller Christie. Could Bonnie and Us save Jann from his Hef-like jam?

Us Weekly is, really, the exact opposite of Rolling Stone. Where Rolling Stone was conceived as a passionate exercise, Us was a specifically cynical one. Jann thought he could do it by the numbers. If you imitated People, and displayed yourself next to People, you'd be able to take x-plus percent of the celebrity-magazine audience, with anything above x being profit. This was magazine science -- magazine adulthood. It was also the way Jann would pass from editor-owner to mogul. The trouble was, Us never achieved more than x-minus percent of this audience.

In Bonnie Fuller, though, you could argue that Jann is abandoning his scientific method and turning to something of an artist. That in Bonnie, someone who a short time ago he might have disdained to sit at a lunch table with, much less trust his very Jann brand to, he is embracing true meretricious, fabulous, lower-than-low, princess-of-darkness magazine vulgarity, a genius at the border between seduction and tastelessness. Already her first few issues were going gangbusters off the newsstand. She's taking Us's generic newsstand-celebrity approach and has begun to turn it into something truly and excitingly and originally tawdry.

What Jann is giving up, though, is not just stature and cultural standing but control. As editor-owner, he controls everything at Wenner Media. Over everyone in his empire he exercises an absolute kind of dominance (Rolling Stone's offices are preternaturally neat -- just one of Jann's fetishes). But he can't hope to do what Bonnie does. She's bringing vast new skills to the Us enterprise -- un-Jann talents for expressing un-Jann-like aspirations. What's more, she's as much a control freak as Jann (they're both famously difficult to work for -- chewing up each member of their staffs).

And so far, Jann does seem to be acceding to Bonnie -- what choice does he have, especially if her newsstand numbers hold? They arrived together at the awards ceremony artfully joined at the hip. Mr. and Mrs. Wenner Media. Indeed, Jann could do worse, as he commences his search for a new editor at Rolling Stone, than find a rock-and-roll Bonnie.

Of course, the discomfiting and not-a-little-depressing point, I noted as I ate my salmon hodgepodge at the Waldorf, was that the best thing Jann could wish for was never to be nominated for another National Magazine Award. That was the fate you had to avoid, the high-blown tendency you couldn't give in to. Jann himself, for Rolling Stone to survive, was going to have to read his magazine and be, well, aghast -- that was probably his only hope. And it was probably already hopeless. Rolling Stone's legacy was too intelligent, its place in pop culture -- a teen magazine with a national-affairs column! -- too anachronistic, its interests in journalism too long-winded. As mass as Rolling Stone, over the course of its successful and satisfied years, had made itself, mass was now somewhere else. And Jann, you could see as he looked over the crowd for another Bonnie, was trying to figure where that place was and whom he could call to help him get there.

As for me, I won, for writing at much greater length than any magazine future that I can imagine will allow.

E-mail: michael@burnrate.com


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