While I was in college I started reading Outside and Rolling Stone magazines and grew to love them both. I loved Outside because they published intelligent, long form stories written by insightful explorers and dirtbag adventurers who also possessed the enviable gift for conveying into writing the complex thoughts and emotions that often accompany a deep trip into the wilderness. It was written by and for people who had grown up camping, hiking, hunting, fishing and tramping around outside. When it arrived in the mail I read it cover to cover in two or three days.
But in the late nineties my favorite Outside writers left. I don’t know if they quit or got fired. About that same time Outside quite publishing as many long features and began running more 100 and 200 word articles better suited for American’s shrinking attention spans. And, yes, the new format was better suited for Americans with short attention spans, but for those of us who still enjoyed a well-told story, no matter its length, the short, sugary articles held little appeal. I let my subscription expire.
Once in a while I’ll thumb through an Outside at a newsstand to see if they’ve gone back to the old, thoughtful ways. Nope.
The other magazine I used to read religiously was Rolling Stone.
They covered more than just music and musicians. Every issue had three to five long essays that really delved into the issues of the day. They wrote about every aspect of culture from politics to women’s rights, the environment and more.
Rolling Stone took the ideas and attitude of the rock`n’roll lifestyle, the philosophy of the counter-culture and fleshed it out.
Its writers took the message and soul of a rebel song, and expanded on it, and in so doing started national conversations. When musicians were telling their fans to drop out, Rolling Stone was telling them to get pissed off and get involved. And people did because Rolling Stone had cultivated their respect and spoke their language.
Jann Wenner, Rolling Stone’s co-founder (the other was Ralph Gleason) wrote in the inaugural issue’s ( Nov. 9, 1967) Letter from the Editor that the magazine aimed to celebrate “the magic that can set you free.”
And they did it. They did it in a variety of ways and they did it very well. Until Oct. 30, 2008 when they stopped doing it.
It came with a very noticeable change. That’s when they shrunk from their iconic, large format, 10 by 11 3/4 inch design, to a standard, 8 X 11 inch format. Just like all the other magazines in the stands.
It wasn’t soon after that that their content changed as well. Like Outside they ran fewer in-depth features and ran a lot more one-bite, easily consumable pieces. They became the sound-bite of print journalism to conform to what a Madison Avenue ad agency had told them their readers wanted.
So instead of speaking for the little man and the outsider it chose to dumb itself down to better appeal to the dumb masses and dumbasses.
The square peg magazine that spoke up for America’s square pegs had conformed (read deformed) itself into a round peg.
Some things are just iconic. The front end of a VW bus. National Geographic’s yellow border and the large format of Rolling Stone magazine.
When Rolling Stone switched from their large format down to standard format to appease some Madison Avenue execs it was like Nike redesigning the Swoosh to appeal to those who lacked the ambition to “Just do it”.
How discouraging, how disheartening, how depressing, really, to witness a magazine that had been founded on non-conformity, that celebrated counter-culture, suddenly conforming itself. Especially because a Madison Avenue agency told them to.
I canceled my subscription.
But, fast forward a decade, and something amazing happened.
Walking through Safeway the other day I saw Rolling Stone on the newsstand in its original large, 10 x 11 3/4 inch format, standing head and shoulders above the other magazines on the shelf.
I opened it up and saw three, long format essays inside. It also had great photos, great interviews, great graphics and design. It cost $10 and l happily paid it.
I have since learned that Gus Wenner, Jann Wenner’s son, was recently made president of Rolling Stone and it was he who encouraged the magazine’s owners to go back to the old look.
Rolling Stone I hope you also go back to your roots of reporting about politics, the environment and counterculture. And speaking up for the little man and the outsiders. And yes, of course, keep reporting about the music and musicians that remain at the heart of your publication.
How apropos that one of the world’s greatest voices for free expression, human rights and democracy should return to its purple haze shamanic ways just as it did in its glory days on the week we Americans celebrate our independence.
Welcome back, Rolling Stone.
I hope you stick around a while.