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Rolling Stone downsizes

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08/10/2008 08:53 PM

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Rolling Stone downsizes
The Classic Rock Magazine Is Switching to a Smaller, Rack-Friendly Size

Some packages like the curvaceous old Coke bottle become so iconic that they are recognizable at 30 paces. So it is with Rolling Stone, whose large format has stood out on magazine racks for more than three decades. It won’t for much longer, however. With the Oct. 30 issue, which will go on sale Oct. 17, Rolling Stone, published by Wenner Media, will adopt the standard size used by all but a few magazines.

In an interview in his office, Jann Wenner, founder, publisher, editor and general guiding force behind the nation’s biggest music magazine, was characteristically brash about the change. Leaning back in his chair, one leg slung over the side of it, he said, “All you’re getting from that large size is nostalgia.”

But as he knows well, nostalgia is a powerful marketing force, as is a package that instantly evokes not only the product, but an era. It is tempting to apply that logic to a 41-year-old magazine that seems to put as many pensioners as teenagers on its cover, but Rolling Stone’s readership, bigger than it has ever been, has a surprisingly young median age, in the early 30s, according to market research firms.

Rolling Stone, published every other week, has paid circulation in the United States of more than 1.4 million, the highest in its history, but its single-copy sales have fallen from 189,000 in 1999, to 132,000 last year. Magazine racks at bookstores, newsstands and checkout counters tend to be made for the standard dimensions, and if Rolling Stone is there, it is often on a high or low shelf, out of eye level, or even on its side or folded over.

Gary Armstrong, chief marketing officer for Wenner Media, pointed to Vanity Fair, which has lower overall circulation than Rolling Stone, but nearly three times the single-copy sales. With a standard format, he said, it should be possible to raise newsstand sales significantly.

“The consumer we want to reach watches ‘Lost’ on a big TV screen, on a computer screen and on an iPhone,” he said. “They’re agnostic on format.”

While the people who run the magazine argue that there is much to be gained from the change — in advertising, sales and aesthetics — they also admit to losing something that made Rolling Stone distinctive. “I myself was kind of torn about it,” Mr. Wenner admitted.

Along with the change in size, Rolling Stone will switch to heavier, glossy paper and sleeker page designs, and it will be glued rather than stapled — “perfect bound” instead of “saddle stitched,” in magazine lingo — giving it a flat spine rather than a tapered edge. In all, the revisions make for a more professional, more grown-up look.

Those might be fighting words to Rolling Stone’s original audience, and no big deal to a generation raised on desktop publishing that makes even dorm-room projects look polished. The changes fit a magazine that, after taking a much-maligned detour in the 1990s toward more celebrity, pop culture and bite-sized reports, has returned to form in the last few years, winning awards for long articles on topics from Iraq to presidential politics.

To save money on paper, many newspapers and magazines have taken to printing smaller pages, fewer pages or both. But Rolling Stone says it will spend more and print more, not less: in addition to using more expensive paper and binding, it plans to add 16 to 20 pages per issue.

Magazine size has become increasingly standardized, at around 8 by 11 inches, give or take a fraction. Rolling Stone, at 10 by 11 3/4 inches, is, like ESPN and W, one of the few large-circulation magazines left that are significantly taller and wider.

Rolling Stone is profitable, according to Wenner, a privately held company — outside analysts agree — but like the industry as a whole, it is going through a rough period. The magazine had 486 ad pages in the first half of 2008, according to the Publishers Information Bureau, down 33 percent from the same period in 2005.

On balance, going to standard size should appeal to advertisers, according to Brenda White, senior vice president for publishing at Starcom USA, a major media agency. “But when you change something that’s been that way for — how many years? — people might hesitate,” she said.

For most advertisers, she said, the improved picture quality on glossy paper more than compensates for the smaller size, and it will save many of them the expense of revising their usual ads to fit in Rolling Stone.

Media buyers and Rolling Stone executives say the change in size is likely to make a bigger difference in selling insert ads, like those with scent strips or tear-out postcards. For technical reasons, it is more difficult and more expensive to put them into saddle-stitched magazines than into perfect-bound ones.

Independent experts agree that the new size could help Rolling Stone strike better deals with retailers, distributors, even printers — all fields that, over the last decade, have experienced great consolidation and a drive toward standardization.

“There are disadvantages to being an odd size in handling, moving it through distribution centers, in addition to retail display,” said John Harrington, editor of The New Single Copy, a newsletter about magazine marketing. “If you came forward trying to sell a brand new magazine today with that size, you’d have to have a lot of money behind it for it to be accepted.”

Rolling Stone created a prototype issue at the smaller size in July, sent it to more than 3,000 readers and asked them to take a survey. The company says the reaction was overwhelmingly positive, and it showed the survey results to some of its major advertisers and ad buyers.

In the large format, long articles often turn up as daunting expanses of almost uninterrupted type. With the revision, such pages are smaller and less intimidating, and more likely to be broken up with photographs. Sections filled with shorter items look less cluttered with fewer of them on a page. Smaller design changes give the pages a slightly airier, cleaner look.

“We’ve evolved,” Mr. Wenner said. “But the core tradition, the mission, remains the same.”
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