100 Minutes With Gus Wenner

Photo: Christopher Anderson/Magnum Photos/New York Magazine

Hey! Gus!” “How’s it going, Gus?” The uniformed staff of Il Cantinori greet Gus Wenner with the sort of deferential familiarity that seems more appropriate for a weathered regular than a just-turned-23-year-old in a loose-­­fit­ting T-shirt. “This place is near and dear to me,” says the newly crowned director of ­RollingStone.com—who also happens to be the son of Rolling Stone magazine’s founder, Jann Wenner—before ordering a glass of red wine. “Do you have any interest in sharing the burrata?”

Gus, who looks like an amalgam of a young John Mayer and a Breathless-era Jean-Paul Belmondo, came to dinner straight from the office. Since May, when his dad took him to lunch and asked if he’d run the magazine’s website, Gus has been putting in ten-plus-hour workdays. Most days, he’s too tired to go out afterward, though the night before he did manage to make it to dinner with his good friend Lyor Cohen, the 54-year-old music mogul. “I’m friends with a lot of old people—weirdly,” he says. “The age thing, for me, it kind of fades into the background.”

This has proved a helpful trait, given that many of his employees happen to be quite a bit older than he is. When Wenner’s appointment was announced—via a leaked memo to the Rolling Stone staff—the Internet responded with an inevitable heaving groan: “Gus followed the traditional route to a perch atop the media hierarchy: playing in an alt-­country band in college,” Gawker sneered. “I knew it would be done in two days,” says Wenner now, “because that’s how the news cycle works.”

It wasn’t as if the job offer came completely out of thin air. “When I was 16, I shadowed David Fricke at the Crossroads Guitar Festival in Chicago and interviewed some musicians,” he says. “I was so nervous with my little tape recorder.” As for his other bona fides, growing up Wenner meant being surrounded by all things Rolling Stone—the people who appeared in its pages included. “I’m not crazy about this conversation,” he says, when pressed to reveal which rock-and-roll icons he’s encountered passed out on his living-room couch. He will say, however, “I once spent a day with Bob Dylan. I learned a lot. He told me to listen to Charlie Christian and I’d be all right.”

And then there is his alt-country band: Gus + Scout, the other half of the duo being Scout Willis, daughter of Demi and Bruce. (“The quivers, quakes and occasional cracks of Gus’ voice [are] bolstered by Scout’s own strong, solid rock bellow,” declared Rolling Stone.)

After graduation, he says, as a waiter arrives with a complimentary cheese-and-meat plate—“Wow, thank you, how about that?”—the idea was that he would work informally with Rolling Stone’s chief digital officer to learn about the web side of the business. “I couldn’t help but get really involved in a lot of things. I had so many ideas.” One of them was pushing for a strong digital component to accompany the magazine’s “weed issue.” Another, he says, “was starting to change the way we portray long-form journalism online. I kept thinking about how we could push this space further and use videos and photographs to add to an amazing story.”

The elder Wenner seems to have a soft spot for wunderkinds; he was only 21 when he founded the magazine, Cameron Crowe was just 16 when he profiled Led Zeppelin for the cover, and Annie Leibovitz was 23 when Wenner named her chief photographer. Plus, with Jann’s eldest son, Alexander, working at a home-brewing company in Brooklyn and 26-year-old Theo working as a photographer (and reportedly dating the magazine’s recent cover star, Miley Cyrus), Gus is the most obvious choice for inheriting the Wenner­sphere. Jann recently told Adweek that speculating on Gus’s potential takeover is “premature,” but added: “It’s a path open to him if he wants it.”

Gus himself is vague on the subject. “Can we go outside for a cigarette?” he asks. In front of the restaurant, the early fall breeze sends a chill through the air. Gus hunches up his shoulders. He’s been smoking since he was a freshman at the all-boys Collegiate School. “I’m trying to qu—what am I saying, no I’m not.” Talking about work, he can sound like a recent M.B.A. grad getting to use the words he learned in class for the first time. But phrases like “programmatic buying” and “audience segmenting” are made more charming by his decidedly 23-year-old-like earnestness. He uses the words wonderful, beautiful, and amazing to describe his summer, his recent birthday party, and his pasta, respectively.

Back inside, two glasses of Champagne that we didn’t order appear at the table just as Wenner is speaking proudly of his decision to create a box of listicles at the top of the home page. Also under his reign, the site reached an all-time high of 11 million monthly visitors and will soon launch an offshoot dedicated to country music. “But without a doubt I think the great asset I bring to this role is being able to communicate with my dad,” he adds, in between bites of his pappardelle Bolognese. “I can disagree with him—without being nervous that he’ll yell at me.”

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100 Minutes With Gus Wenner