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Rolling Stone's Coup and The Power, and Limits, of Magazines

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The news since yesterday has been dominated by Rolling Stone’s bombshell story about Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, who (along with aides) made disparaging remarks about Obama Administration officials (i.e., his civilian bosses). There’s something quaint—and I say this as a magazine writer—about the notion of a major Washington scandal, possibly affecting the command in an ongoing war, being driven by that most old-timey of artifacts: a long-form story in a print magazine. Yet the way the cycle played out shows what print platforms like Rolling Stone can, and cannot, do when it comes to driving the news.

On the one hand—strictly in business terms—the story was tremendous advertising for Rolling Stone, getting the name of the Baby Boomer legacy mag mentioned more times in the media than it had in ages. On the other hand, once the story got out, as stories do, it took on life mostly outside of Rolling Stone. Indeed, even though the magazine had this exclusive and clearly knew it was going to make news, it didn’t post the story on its homepage until relatively late in the day yesterday, at which point it had been widely summarized elsewhere, if not reprinted entirely.

Eventually, Rolling Stone relented and put the story up online—where readers can find it for free, and where ad rates are significantly lower. (Even now, as I write, the original Rolling Stone story is not the first hit returned by a Google search on “Rolling Stone McChrystal.”) Leading, of course, to the modern dilemma of print publications: either you give the story away to your readers, or you’re giving the story cycle away to other outlets. Either way, it becomes harder to compel anyone to pay the actual cost of the work.

All this tidal wave of news generated plenty of attention and traffic for media outlets—TV, blogs, aggregators like the Huffington Post, this website—which never had to invest in the original story in the first place. Yet the story itself was the example of one of those costly things that you can’t pay for with buzz and good intentions: paying somebody to travel and embed with a subject for over a week, not to mention any ancillary costs of research, writing and production.

The argument—the hope—is that by raising (or in RS’s case reviving) the profile of a publication, big stories like this (and recent big Rolling Stone stories on Wall Street and BP) bring in readers and subscribers to a publication, on the notion that there will be more where that came from. Yet I’m sure Rolling Stone wouldn’t mind if someone actually went out and bought the actual physical copy of the magazine that pays the freight for all this secondhand news and commentary. Shall we draw straws for it?

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