There is a whiff of decay from the Manhattan offices of Rolling Stone magazine. It is an open industry secret that its numbers are slipping badly – newsstand sales fell 10 per cent in the six months that ended in December. Editors have been distracted by a pesky new competitor with a British pedigree, called Blender. And the advertising numbers are, well, awful.
Is the party almost over for the venerable magazine, launched by the irrepressible Jann Wenner in San Francisco back in the flower-power days of 1967, with John Lennon in granny-glasses on the cover? Is this icon of the US counter-culture fading, along with Penthouse and Playboy, as its readership gives up pot in favour of Viagra?
The question is often asked. It would be misleading to suggest that Rolling Stone, a biweekly, is anything but a gorilla even now. With a circulation – most of it still through subscription – of 1.25 million, it is the flagship title of Wenner Media, the company that Wenner, now aged 56, still heads.
That all is not well, however, was underscored last week, when Mr Wenner abruptly sacked the magazine's managing editor, Robert Love, who happens also to be one of his closest friends, and demanded that it shift its centre of gravity away from long, detailed feature articles, to shorter, more punchy pieces and zappy visuals.
Signs of Mr Wenner's dissatisfaction had been accumulating. After returning from a holiday earlier in April, he grumbled about a six-page feature commissioned by Love on Marlon Brando. Just when the following issue was due for release to the printers, he switched the front cover, ditching the wrestling-action star The Rock in favour of the hit MTV reality series The Osbournes.
Few people had expected such treatment of Love – least of all Love, who has laboured at Rolling Stone for 20 years and served as its managing editor for almost five. "Jann looked me right in the eye and said he felt it was time for a change," he said last week. "I said, 'Is this something I can change your mind on?'" Mr Wenner apparently replied: "No, it is something I feel in my gut."
So what is Wenner after? No replacement for Love has yet been announced, although names have been wafting on the hot drafts of rumour. They include Mark Golin, a former editor of the American Maxim. At Maxim, Mr Golin was a senior lieutenant of Felix Dennis, the British publisher. Maxim scored a huge success in America.
Importantly, it is Dennis who has nurtured Blender, the one-year-old music magazine that is nipping at Mr Wenner's heels. With its brat-boy humour and focus on female singing stars, Blender has established a base circulation of 350,000 in short order. Shortly to be expanded to 10 issues a year, the newcomer also has higher newsstand sales – 150,000 to 250,000 – than Rolling Stone, which shifts 160,000.
"I am not overly worried about Blender," Mr Wenner told The New York Times, after announcing his switch of focus. "I know it is coming along and is backed by a very shrewd publisher. But we have enormous competitive assets and editorial assets that we can use to compete with threats. It's a good and healthy competition."
Lance Ford, general manager at Blender, was also candid. "As a company, we look for what we perceive to be voids in the market place – when venerable titles become vulnerable. The most obvious reason that Rolling Stone has become vulnerable is that it has less relevance among the young, music-buying public."
Actually, Rolling Stone has been hit by multiple challenges. The most mundane are economic ones. The title has been hit harshly by the advertising slump since Philip Morris decided to pull all of its cigarette promotion from youth-oriented outlets in 2000. In 2001, Rolling Stone was $15m short in advertising revenue. All music-related publications have also been hurt by a slump in album sales and a dearth of new talent on the recording scene.
And while a magazine such as Blender can identify the kind of voice it needs fairly easily, Rolling Stone is battling a personality split. With his demand for a magazine with pieces requiring short attention spans, Mr Wenner hopes to capture a greater segment of young readers. But analysts warn that he must take care not to alienate the generation that has given him his millions over the decades – people just like him.
Meanwhile, there is a journalistic tradition at Rolling Stone that may now be in jeopardy. This is the magazine that has given long expanses of glossy newsprint over many years to the likes of P J O'Rourke and Hunter S Thompson. It was in Rolling Stone that Tom Wolfe penned The Right Stuff, which was made into a film.
Nor is it easy to decide how wide a horizon readers should see when they open Rolling Stone. Is it strictly about music, or is it a general entertainment magazine? The latter is probably the answer. The current issue has Kirsten Dunst on the front cover. Dunst is a hot commodity right now, but she is not a rock star. This may make Rolling Stone interesting to a wider readership, but it also pits it against all sorts of other titles, like Vanity Fair and Entertainment Weekly. Mr Wenner is also aware of that.
"We are all competing against each other, and we are competing with the broader market," he told The New York Times. "Time magazine had Star Wars on their cover, which used to be our baby, and Vanity Fair now puts out a music issue. Everybody is competing for the same set of stories and we don't have the field to ourselves any longer." Until recently, there was another magazine skirmishing on the same battlefield. That, of course, was Tina Brown's now defeated Talk.
When a magazine as storied and as powerful as Rolling Stone stumbles, the rest of the industry reacts with overblown excitement. The fading – if that is what is happening – will surely be long and protracted. "In the words of Jethro Tull," Mr Ford remarked, "they're too old to rock'n'roll, too young to die."