Rolling Stone Aims To Stay 24

There are plenty of rock acts over the age of 30. When one pauses to think of a few, the names Hootie, Sting or U2 are among those that come to mind. But take that list and present it to a 24 year old and ask them if your favorite bunch of “dinosaur rocker” is cool – and you will no doubt walk away wondering what happened to your youth. That’s what Rolling Stone is up against.

Borne out of the rock revolution of the late 1960’s, Jann Wenner’s 35-year old ode to rock and all things cool found itself remarkably uncool earlier this year as readers defected to hipper titles like Blender and Vibe. While the median age of its reader is still a young 24, its recent redesign is aimed to keep that number from moving any higher.

“The key to our success as a business is to keep our median age in the twenties,” says publisher Rob Gregory. “The changes we made this year were not to try to move the demographic to a different place, they are preemptive changes to keep the demographic where it its. We like having a median age of 24; we want to keep it there – and to keep it there we knew we would have to respond to the way they read a magazine today.”

So in late August, Rolling Stone got a new look, and an updated rock and roll attitude. Its familiar logo and trim size remain, but it has a new look otherwise. “We want the magazine to be instantly recognized as Rolling Stone, but we also wanted to make it more modern, a little hipper, and a little sexier,” he explains.

So Wenner turned to former Q magazine designer Andy Cowles, who was charged with making Rolling Stone a flashier read. The result was a magazine that resembled the laddie titles. It tripled the amount of photography, a new font was adopted, and the magazine has a lot more short-read stories and boxed elements for the short-attention spanned reader of today, says Gregory. “For them especially, the first third of the magazine is packed with a lot more points of accessibility and visuals,” he says.

The magazine won’t say its redesign is in response to the recent flood of very successful “laddie” magazines filling the newsstand with high heels and low cleavage. “Our redesign is a reaction to the way reading habits have changed with teens and young adults, primarily in our male audience,” says Gregory. “There are elements of what the lad books do visually that obviously work well and I think we can always learn something from our competitors. But the changes we have made are not a reaction to any thing, they’re preemptive changes. It’s all about audience demographics with advertisers.”

As part of its “preemptive” strike to remain relevant, Rolling Stone has hired a fashion editor and the magazine has committed itself to doing at least four pages of fashion every issue. “Fashion is so influenced by rock and roll now that it’s a natural move for Rolling Stone to increase our fashion coverage. Does it help us sell more advertising? Of course.” In fact, advertisers like Dolce & Gabbana and Christian Dior have now deemed Rolling Stone hip enough to carry their ads.

In October, ad pages were up 64% and revenues increased 71%, according to PIB. Year-to-date, the title has posted a 3% gain in ad pages with revenues totaling $128 million. “Our ‘women in rock’ issue was our biggest in two years. It had 112 ad pages in it,” boasts Gregory of the October 31 issue. Since the redesign, Rolling Stone has been able to crack a number of new ad budgets, such as Mitsubishi, Mazda and Cadillac in the auto category. It is also seeing new revenues from gaming and packaged goods companies. The current issue has a 28-page insert calendar featuring rock stars along side Chevorlet products. “It’s the largest ad unit we’ve ever run,” says Gregory. To help fuel the momentum, Rolling Stone place ads in a number of trade magazines as well as the New York Times.

Fallon Minneapolis print buyer Carol Pais, whose agency buys for such clients as Citibank, United Airlines and Starbucks, is taking a wait-and-see attitude toward Rolling Stone’s changes. “Rolling Stone is deeply rooted in this tradition of journalistic integrity, therein lies their strength,” says Pais. “I worry that they might stray far from that.” In particular, she gives its rocker chic fashion spread filled with crotch shots a thumbs down. “It was a disconnect for me. It was like it was put in there for shock value, and I don’t think they need to do that,” she says.

Readers will also need to be convinced to come back to Rolling Stone. Through the first half of 2002, its newsstand sales dropped 15.6%. Gregory thinks it is “too soon to tell” whether readers like the changes, saying they’re waiting for the official results from the Audit Bureau of Circulations before grading readers’ reaction. That said, recent issues featuring Eminem and “The Women of Rock” have been particularly good sellers.