El Chapo: Rolling Stone’s Necessary Risk
And other musings on the start of the new year in magazine media.
Rolling Stone: Recovery and Redemption
It was, undeniably, a huge score, getting the notorious drug lord El Chapo on the record. It made headlines everywhere. A big exclusive for Rolling Stone and a rather big deal in the overall scheme of things. In an era where magazines aren’t much in the news, except for when they dump staff or roll over dead, what book wouldn’t lop off an appendage for that kind of broad public adulation?
Except that for Rolling Stone, the applause came with some eye rolling. The book actually gave Joaquin Guzman, the world’s most notorious drug trafficker, final edit approval on the story? Hard to imagine. But that is exactly what happened.
As it’s been acknowledged and explained by RS, Guzman was satisfied; he asked to change not so much as an adverb. OK, good on him, I guess. But what casts a shadow on RS’s marvelous tale — reported in adventure-book detail by actor-activist Sean Penn — is that the magazine ceded editorial control to a known drug-cartel mastermind. The Associated Press said the episode “raised questions of ethics and judgment.”
On the other hand, let’s be real: RS has needed to work extra hard at reclaiming its reputation since the huge campus-rape story fiasco last year. That was inexcusable. Therefore, publishing a blockbuster story, assuming it was properly vetted this time, and even though it more or less walked in the door unbidden, could go a long way toward helping Jann Wenner’s magazine redeem itself.
Still, even though the decision to pursue the story was a no-brainer, it was risky. Jann Wenner had to know that. As soon as the 11,000 words of copy was released, the Society of Professional Journalists published a blog piece titled “Rolling Stone Gathers No Accolades.” Ouch.
I tend to focus on the long arc of a magazine’s life cycle—bearing in mind that there will be blips and blunders, but the great work ought to count as capital that can be banked. And it is here that RS has earned points. Year after year, it’s managed to publish at least several important pieces. Not always about music or culture, interestingly; more often about politics and national gamesmanship. As Jeffrey Toobin, the estimable New Yorker writer, said on CNN the other day, Rolling Stone “has a history of really great journalism.” And it does.
So, I’m giving Wenner a pass on this one. El Chapo should not have been granted edit privileges, but then he shouldn’t have escaped from prison twice before either. Real life is stupid and often senseless, and a great magazine, despite its occasional egregious transgressions, gets a little more leeway than crappy books that are too timid or too hung up on niceties to go after the great gets.
A Killer Cover Wrap
I can’t recall there ever being any kind of deeply emotional angst over a magazine’s cover wrap, but we’ve got a lively example going on now, in Britain. The January and February editions of their Cosmopolitan arrived with a wrap featuring a photo of a woman being suffocated. Tough stuff. Off-putting. What takes it to the next level is that the magazine is enclosed in clear plastic, greatly amplifying the impression that the woman “inside” is gasping for oxygen, dying. Wrap your head around that. It is horrifyingly realistic.
But is it effective?
The whole thing is an ad sponsored by a charity called Karma Nirvana, which focuses on the demented act against women sometimes called “honor killings.”
This one’s a tough call. There’s little doubt that Karma Nirvana’s provocative stunt attracted attention to its worthy cause. But at what cost? Moreover, at what cost to Cosmo? Is it socially acceptable to give your paying customers nightmares? I’m thinking this may have crossed that line. But I’m open to counter-arguments.
Audi’s Magazine is Like Audi Cars: Cool, Techy
In the pre-Lexus era, when Toyota Motor Corp. was getting ready to launch an upscale line of cars in the U.S. (it had three brand names under serious consideration: Vector, Caliber, and Lexus), I wrote a letter to the company’s marketing chief suggesting that a beautiful custom magazine be given to every buyer of these new luxury rides. I never heard back.
In the years since, it’s become common, if not standard, for car manufacturers to publish their own magazines. And some of them are pretty darn good.
The other day I received the latest issue of Audi Magazine. I happen to own a new Audi, but you don’t need to drive an Audi to get this book. Subscriptions are free to anyone who asks, although I doubt there’s a huge backlog of requests. The book is odd in a way—a very faithful reflection of the car line, which is focused on high technology and elegant engineering.
How that translates to a print magazine: embossed paper stock, faux foil, fancy tip-ins, and artsy design. Expensive stuff. It’s not always easy to read this book (which I count as a serious strike against), but each issue is filled with useful info for Audi drivers. And each is a keeper if you’re into saving magazines for their production values alone.
Overall, the books custom-published by big, rich auto manufacturers have come a long way since the days of Ford Times, but not as far as many college alumni magazines, which in recent years have made remarkable strides and are now wonderful in their own right. But perhaps more on those another time.
The New Republic: The Little Mag That Couldn’t
Right around the time that Al Jazeera America announced that it had failed as a cable channel and would be shutting down come spring, we heard from the New Republic’s owner, Chris Hughes, admitting that his vision for the magazine had failed as well. He’s put the book on the block.
Frankly, the Al Jazeera America revelation was a bigger shock.
The New Republic, under Hughes’ stewardship, never found its footing. There were troubles almost from the start, and key staffers bailed. Remarkably, in a season of exceedingly high political drama in the U.S., and against the backdrop of global religious extremism, TNR was unable to break through. Simply put, it was no longer an important voice.
Will anyone buy the magazine? At the right price, possibly. Or it may go away as a print entity. If someone dares to breathe life (i.e., cash) into the ol’ chap again, it will need to be reinvented. The venerable, thoughtful New Republic of yesteryear won’t cut it in 2016. A fresh model is its only chance, and it’s a longshot to succeed at best.
The Best Magazines Blog in the World
If the art and craft of magazines fascinates you — which, if you’re reading The Modern Magazinist, I assume is the case—then I must recommend to you the finest blog in this space. It’s called magCulture, and of course it comes out of London, from which emanates a constant stream of fabulous magazines.
The man behind magCulture is Jeremy Leslie. A more astute observer of magazines would be hard to find. His network of fellow writers and editors—each passionate about everything magazine—is unrivaled. Their work is worth following.
As an example, here is the opening graf of magCulture’s review of a new-ish book, Vestoj, written this month for the blog by Madeleine Morley:
What I love about Vestoj, the infinitely impressive journal of sartorial matters, is the way that each inch of the publication has been crafted to subtly but evocatively convey its theme. You can draw incredibly rich meaning from every typographic and graphic detail, and you can read the editorial design almost like a painting. For the latest theme ‘On Failure’, Vestoj’s design continues to succeed, and it does so from the very start, making the most of its new larger format.
You can hardly do any better than that. Just sharp and lovely.
If writers aren’t paid enough these days—and even the good ones generally aren’t—I say at least sometimes award them a cover credit. It hurts no one, and for the writer it’s a huge ego boost, not to mention incentive to keep working for the book despite being poorly compensated.
Yet except where a marquee talent is featured, most magazines still resist putting writers’ bylines on covers.
The exception is Graydon Carter’s Vanity Fair. Better than most editors, Carter—who can afford to pay his writers well—understands the psyche and motivations of the creatives in his network. On the latest cover of VF, Fox News anchor Megyn Kelly, who is pictured, is surrounded by the names of seven writers and photographers whose work appears within. Seven credits! Graydon Carter is generous with his appreciations. Smart guy.