Thursday, July 25, 2024

Rolling Stone promised subscribers a ‘lifetime’ print magazine for just $99—now they’re canceling and readers are ‘enraged’

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The pages of Rolling Stone, the legendary music magazine kick-started by Jann Wenner when he was a hippie student, have chronicled rock stars, searing political commentaries, and iconic photography since its inception in the late 1960s. From an 11-year-old Michael Jackson in 1971 to a now-legendary cover photo of a naked John Lennon wrapped around Yoko Ono, shot just hours before the star was shot and killed, the magazine was there for the major cultural moments of the 20th century.

But the counterculture icon is now trying to adapt to a radically different world than the one in which it was founded—and making some longtime fans mad in the process.

The magazine, which Wenner and local journalist Ralph J. Gleason of the San Francisco Chronicle started on a wild hair, offered a sweet deal in the 2000s as it tried to stay competitive with a growing internet—a lifetime subscription to the print magazine for just $99. But that’s just been changed too. 

In early May, lifetime subscribers received a letter from David Roberson, the magazine’s senior vice president of subscriptions, stating that “we are transitioning the delivery of Rolling Stone’s lifetime subscribers to a digital format. Your final printed copy will be the June 2024 issue.” While the magazine will continue printing physical editions of the magazine, current subscribers, including those who purchased the $99-for-life deal, will now receive digital copies unless they explicitly choose a print subscription, which costs $60 per year. 

The electronic edition, the letter states, is “an exact replica of the magazine you can read on your computer, tablet, or phone,” and subscribers will receive reminder emails each time a new issue is published. They will also be able to access a library of issues from the past five years. 

Penske Media Corporation, which owns Rolling Stone along with Variety, Deadline.com, and other brands, did not respond to Fortune’s request for comment on lifetime subscribers’ options, or on whether the move signifies any broader changes in its magazine distribution—but these are questions on many readers’ minds.

‘My mother saved them all’

On one Reddit forum, hundreds of users vented about the letter and the magazine’s switch to digital, many bemoaning the changed terms of the deal. The offer to access a digital catalog that dates back just five years—when many subscribers still have physical editions from past decades—added insult to injury.

“Right now I can read 25 years worth of back catalogue,” one user wrote. “I’d like to continue doing that with physical copies of the magazine.” 

Another user wrote, “My mother saved them all. I have every copy from about 1990–1994.” Another said, “I’d be requesting a refund, since they want to change the terms of the sale afterwards. Companies need to stop doing this.” 

But while infuriating for subscribers, the move might not constitute a breach of contract. The magazine’s ownership changed in 2017, and without a clause that requires future owners to abide by past terms the lifetime subscribers bought into, “the new owner is probably not bound by the lifetime subscription deal, hence, no breach,” Alexandra Roberts, a professor of media and law at Northeastern University School of Law, told Slate

“There’s no reason to think this wasn’t a valid contract when it was struck,” she told the publication, but added that the magazine may be planning what’s known as an ‘efficient breach,’ or a scenario in which it’s cheaper to pay the damages of a breached contract rather than continue to operate less profitably under its terms. 

Of course, publishing a print magazine is much less profitable now than it was decades ago, thanks to the declining profits from advertising and increased costs of paper and mailing. But the turn away from print to digital also highlights the increasingly fleeting nature of media consumption in the 21st century. Just as physical magazines and books have been largely replaced by digital copies, the rise of streaming services for music, movies, and shows has supplanted owning physical records or videos.

Spotify, the world’s largest music streaming service, has radically changed how people access music since its inception in 2006, chartering the path from more physically rooted modes of listening, like radios and records, to a digital library of millions of tracks, podcasts, and audiobooks that can be listened to instantly with a just few taps of your finger. 

Today, the platform has more than 615 million users, including 239 million paid subscribers, in more than 180 markets around the globe—but those users are subject to the whims of Spotify’s catalog, and their access to music varies depending on what artists the platform may have deals with, or not. And the model is far less profitable for artists who use the platform to stream their work—Spotify estimates the average song generates between $0.006 and $0.008 per stream in royalties to artists.  

Beyond the price tag, the media industry faces persistent challenges. More than 17,436 media jobs were lost in 2023, which is the highest number of layoffs (excluding layoffs at the height of the pandemic) since 2009, according to data from Challenger, Gray & Christmas, a global research firm that tracks layoffs. As of the end of January this year, there were already 528 new layoffs in the media sector. 

Separate from the overall decline of the industry, Rolling Stone has also made some expensive mistakes. Perhaps the most notable mishap includes publishing a now discredited account of a University of Viriginia student’s alleged gang rape, which paved the way to a costly libel battle in 2014. That was one of the drivers of Wenner’s sale of Wenner Media, which encompassed Rolling Stone, Us Weekly, and Men’s Journal, to Penske Media Corporation in two tranches, in 2017 and in 2020.

In an interview with the New York Times, Wenner said he wanted to find a buyer that understands the magazine’s “role in the history of our times, socially and politically and culturally.” That role apparently does not include placating longtime, but likely unprofitable, subscribers.

Lifetime subscribers will receive their final print issue this month, according to the letter sent by Rolling Stone, which did not include instructions on how to subscribe to the print version of the magazine. An annual subscription to physical copies costs $60 per year, and a subscription to both print and digital versions costs $120 per year, which is more than the one-time $99 payment lifetime subscribers paid. 

Beyond the price tag, subscribers insist the physical copies have value—and that they’re now being swindled out of their deal. 

“I got the lifetime subscription in 2004. I have every issue in my basement,” one Reddit user wrote. Another stated, “The physical issues have value and that is what I paid for 25 years ago,” adding they’re “glad to hear that other people are similarly enraged.” 

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