Cost/Benefit: A Rolling Stones Article

03Jul06

I got an email from the organizers of a leadership retreat I’m going to this fall a few days ago. Among the suggested readings was a recently published story in Rolling Stone magazine. To summarize briefly, the article made me very angry and forced me to take a walk before I could think clearly about what the implications of it were.

There are arguments against the factual accuracy of the piece on multiple levels ranging from sample size to the near exclusive use of hearsay as evidence. However, I want to look at this piece from an economical incentive point of view. Whether it made me angry or not, did this piece accomplish its goal as an article in Rolling Stone Magazine?

Part one of answering this question lies in discovering what its goals are to begin with. After checking several sources, I couldn’t find an exact mission statement or declaration of purpose. In fact, the wikipedia page contains neither of these phrases in the entire entry. All wikipedia does provide on the subject is the following:

Rolling Stone is an American magazine devoted to music and popular culture.

This definition is open to two very different interpretations. The first says that Rolling Stone is a magazine devoted to reporting on music and pop culture. The second is that Rolling Stone is a reflection of popular culture (as borrowed form the Daily Nebraskan piece). The difference lies in that the first interpretation holds the magazine to a higher standard of factual accuracy, ie. The New York Times, whereas the second does not, ie. The National Enquirer.

The homepage of the magazine yields no real clues either, mixing in headlines of “Prez Bush Considers U2 Karaoke Career” next to a sit down interview with Al Gore on global warming. So, in absence of a stated purpose otherwise, I’m going to assume that the purpose of the magazine is simply to make money. Further I’ll presume they decided there market to be arts and pop culture fans, and for extra credit I’ll say that the magazine didn’t start this way, but in the context of when the Duke article was written, this is the sole mission of the magazine.

Popular culture magazines should want to write about popular topics. As is appropriate, the article ties together a University recently in the news (Duke), along with its perceived problem (the sexual landscape), together with recent controversial book releases (Wolfe’s I Am Charlotte Simmons), and even throws in some pop movie references (American Psycho). As such, the article has sufficiently covered popular topics and is worthy of inclusion in the magazine.

With appropriate references in hand, the article should then catch readers in some way. While many approaches exist, this author chose to utilize the idea of indecency to shock his readers. I would have to say that his approach is affective, in that while I stormed out of the room after reading the article, I did make a point to finish it. If the article angers a few (duke students and alumni) in the process of hooking many more in the story (the rest of the country), then the article has struck a good balance in attracting readers.

More readers turn into more copies of the magazine sold, and more copies sold means more profit. In terms of cost and revenue, the revenue generated by the story is significant.

The costs of the piece are harder to measure. There will be several from Duke who may refuse to purchase the magazine due to its less than shining appraisal. Others will find that the lack of journalistic quality will signal a degradation in the entire magazine and chose to put the magazine down for good. The reputation of the brand Rolling Stone has to be considered well, though one relatively minor story shouldn’t pose too much of a negative impact on the brand’s power. All in all, the costs are minimal as compared to revenues.

So, I must conclude that the “Sex & Scandal as Duke” article is an article which fulfills the aims and purposes of its employers. I applaud Janet Reitman’s writing in generating profit for her employers.

With the analysis done, I’ll go ahead and say on a personal note that I utterly hate this piece. I find it disingenuous, inaccurate, full of false assumptions and misleading statements, sensational, and missing key parts of Duke life that clearly relate to her story, such as the movement that works very hard to directly combat what she observes. I for one have never subscribed to the Rolling Stone, and don’t intend to in the future.

Note: I picked this piece to analyze on purpose, precisely because I’d have to have a very level head and rely on my logic to come to a conclusion.

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