Apr 19, 2022 - Economy

Rolling Stone pivots to creators

Photo courtesy of Rolling Stone

Rolling Stone will debut its inaugural "Creators" issue Tuesday, featuring the first in-depth profile of YouTube star MrBeast. A social media celebrity has never before graced the magazine's iconic cover.

Why it matters: The company, which is now fully owned by Penske Media, had its most profitable year in two decades in 2021, according to CEO Gus Wenner.

  • Much of that turnaround is tied to a renewed investment in live events, which will be a central part of the company's new editorial focus on creators.

Details: In an interview, Wenner called the inaugural creators issue a "crescendo moment" for the company, which plans to invest heavily in covering creators as a part of youth culture moving forward.

  • In May, the outlet will host a live, in-person event in Los Angeles, sponsored by Meta, that will bring together hundreds of creators.
  • Wenner said Meta will help open up a pipeline of online creators with whom Rolling Stone can start to build relationships.
  • The new issue will also feature an exclusive interview with TikTok star Bella Poarch, as well as a deep dive into Black creators.

Be smart: The story on Black creators underscores a wider effort by Rolling Stone's top brass to address concerns of attrition of people of color on staff.

  • Wenner tapped the Daily Beast's top editor Noah Shachtman as Rolling Stone's editor in chief last year, in an effort to help further digitize the 55-year-old magazine company. Shachtman and Wenner told Insider last year that diversity is a top priority.

Between the lines: Live events will continue to be a much bigger part of Rolling Stone's business, as resources shift away from print and move toward digital revenue and experiences.

  • In February, Rolling Stone acquired a majority stake in Las Vegas' "Life Is Beautiful" music festival. Deal terms weren't disclosed.
  • Rolling Stone parent Penske Media acquired a 50% stake in SXSW last year as a part of its push to get into events.
  • Rolling Stone launched a live-streaming partnership with Amazon-owned Twitch last year and now produces five shows a week for the app. That experience has informed its push into the creator world and has helped digitize its live events.
  • Wenner said roughly 1 million people live-streamed its concert events from SXSW in March on Twitch this year, for example.

The big picture: Rolling Stone was losing money when Penske Media acquired a stake in the magazine from Wenner Media in 2017. It later bought out the rest of the publication in 2019.

  • Wenner said the company broke even in 2019 and would've posted a bigger profit in 2020 if it weren't for the pandemic. Last year, he noted, was its most profitable year in two decades, and Wenner said the outlet is on pace to surpass that margin in 2022.
  • "We've had an unbelievable turnaround," he said, pointing to the company's investments in new revenue streams, including commerce, licensing and events.
  • The company has produced and released three docu-series for television and streaming and has nearly two dozen others in various stages of production, Wenner said.

Yes, but: Rolling Stone, like other traditional print publications, is still mostly reliant on advertising as its core business, and print advertising has suffered from circulation declines.

  • The New York Times reported last year that the monthly print magazine had a circulation of roughly 500,000. A spokesperson said the magazine now has a print circulation of 425,000, while its digital audience hovers around 22-28 million monthly unique visitors.
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