The Secret to Rolling Stone’s Success

NYT explores how magazine prospers off the news cycle

That David Carr column flagged by Ryan Chittum this morning wasn’t the only item about Rolling Stone in today’s New York Times. The magazine was also the subject of a mash note on the front of the business section by Jeremy Peters, who notes that Michael Hastings’s explosive profile of Stanley McChrystal “was just the latest in a string of articles resonating in the nation’s corridors of power”:

Its excoriating takedown of Goldman Sachs last summer was one of the most provocative and widely debated pieces of journalism to come out of the financial crisis. In the article, the writer Matt Taibbi described the investment bank as “a great vampire squid wrapped around the face of humanity, relentlessly jamming its blood funnel into anything that smells like money.”

And this month, the magazine published a critical take on the Obama administration’s regulation of the oil industry, which started a firestorm on cable news and in the blogosphere. (The current issue contains a follow-up on BP’s plans to drill in the Arctic.)*

What all those things have in common, of course, is that Rolling Stone made a virtue of the fact that it is not wedded to the news cycle in order to produce journalism that helped drive it—through deep original reporting, in the case of the McChrystal story, or by marshaling ammunition for a gloriously overwritten broadside, as in Taibbi’s piece on Goldman Sachs. In other words, it has remained very much a magazine, with the ethos, the approach, and yes, the timetable that that implies. (Hence executive editor Eric Bates’s remark to me, “our day doesn’t start at 9 normally,” which came in for a little grief on Twitter.) Here’s Peters again:

Under [managing editor Will] Dana, the magazine has put more of its resources into longer profiles and investigative pieces.

“This is what we do,” Mr. Dana said. “We let our reporters run.”

Rolling Stone’s success also could be, in part, a function of its publishing schedule. Many newsweeklies have faltered and lost their impact on shaping the national conversation, but as a biweekly Rolling Stone has thrived in defiance of a digital age in which articles are supposed to appear then vanish within hours.

“In a way the advantage almost goes to monthlies or biweeklies in that we don’t chase the previous week,” said Graydon Carter, the editor of Vanity Fair. “We sort of describe and cover our own worlds as we see them. And you have the time and the space to spread out a story and go after it in a deeper way.”

Of course, it’s not just a matter of which stories you chase—it’s also a matter of how your time horizon affects your view, and your telling, of the story you’re on. This is a point the blogger Matthew Yglesias made last week, as he ventured into the debate over whether a beat reporter could have written the story Hastings did:

The scenario in which a two-day trip to Paris “turned into this month-long journey following General McChrystal and his staff around from Paris to Berlin to Kabul to Kandahar and then back to Washington, D.C.” due to the travel disruption caused by the Icelandic volcano simply never could have happened to someone working for a daily newspaper or a web reporter. You’d be filing dispatches regularly, no single incident would be particularly newsworthy, and you’d obviously be eager not to piss everyone off and get kicked out of the entourage. Instead you might report, in general terms, that General McChrystal is a manly-man who’s uncomfortable with fancy-pants European stuff.

You’d report what beat reporters have in fact reported, namely that there’s tension between McChrystal and other key officials, much of it centered around their different approaches to Hamid Karzai. You’d let what you see and hear inform your coverage. But you wouldn’t publish anything like “The Runaway General.”

It’s an obvious point, but one that seems to have been overlooked in some places, especially those quarters of the Web most concerned with whether the magazine“blew” its McChrystal scoop by not having Hastings’s story up online Tuesday morning, during a period of intense public interest. No, the story’s timing to the Web wasn’t optimal, and yes, hopefully Rolling Stone’s online operation gets a little nimbler, so it can adjust its plans more quickly the next time that’s called for. But if that’s the cost of its editorial leadership focusing on running a magazine—and, at the moment, doing a darn good job of it—it’s a small price to pay.

* These links were not actually embedded in the Web version of that Times story, by the way, though links to the Times Topics entries for Goldman Sachs and BP were.

Has America ever needed a media watchdog more than now? Help us by joining CJR today.

Greg Marx is an associate editor at CJR. Follow him on Twitter @gregamarx.