A Rolling Stone That Gathers No Moss
Keith Blanchard has a mature magazine brand on his side, and in the struggle to stay afloat during the onslaught of digital content delivery, the Rolling Stone name is going to come in pretty handy in the weeks and months ahead.
It’s that prominent brand, the essence of what the famed magazine was, is and can be that will help separate RollingStone.com from every other Johnny-come-lately rock ‘n’ roll writer with a Web site, says Blanchard, Wenner Media’s new executive director, online.
“It’s the leading music brand—period,” he says of Rolling Stone.
Even though the Wenner Media publication has had a steady online presence for about a decade now, the recent push in the industry calling for everyone to provide exclusive digital content led publisher Jann Wenner to take action. Instead of continuing to take timid steps onto the Web as he had in the past, Wenner made a full-force leap of commitment last summer for his three titles.
The framed photographs of rocker Neil Young and actress Sharon Stone that hang from Blanchard’s office wall are an inheritance from the previous office dweller and are not truly indicative of his own celebrity preference, although he says he’s perfectly content with the two looking over his shoulder as he taps away on his keyboard each day. Blanchard, who’s gotten some flack in the past for his previous endeavors in lad-mag journalism, is directing the creation of the company’s online rock ‘n’ roll and celebrity news.
Blanchard, 41, became a leading force at Dennis Publishing back in the mid-’90s, when the Princeton grad had a hand in the early successes of Maxim magazine, the popular men’s lifestyle magazine that begat countless imitations. Blanchard started with the magazine during its launch a decade ago as its deputy editor, and later became the group creative director. He helped launch Maxim’s Web site and then served as the magazine’s editor in chief from 2000 until 2004, when he left that post for a very short stint developing multimedia programming for all of Dennis’ brands.
After a few consulting gigs at Hearst Magazines and Bauer Publications, here he is today, set up in Wenner’s Manhattan office, focusing on reshaping the company’s online properties. Initially brought on board in May 2006 as a freelance consultant to help turn the Us Weekly site into a proper Web site—it was relaunched last Labor Day—Blanchard stayed on to help spice up RollingStone.com, a much larger project. In October 2006, he was hired for his current role.
Over the years, Blanchard earned the reputation of being a jack-of-all trades. Besides his background in magazine writing and editing, he was a staff writer for a Comedy Central series, “Wastes of Time,” wrote an episode for “The Drew Carey Show,” penned a novel, “The Deed” and dabbled in video-game development.
He quickly discovered covering the rock ‘n’ roll world is a tough gig, he says. Once upon a time, it was a subject matter that virtually no one covered seriously. Then came 1967 and the first issue of a magazine that was less about pin-ups and juvenile profiles and more about serious journalism. Since then, thousands upon thousands of other voices joined in, in print and television, and now online, to offer their own unique spin on popular music culture.
“You can’t ever rest for a moment,” Blanchard says of the competition, “because you’re only as good as your most recent post. It’s a continual process.”
The Rolling Stone site—updated eight to 10 times a day by Blanchard and a staff of five full-time employees and two interns—is going through some interesting changes to bring the property more in line with current magazine trends.
What exactly wasn’t working with the old site?
“I think the particular problem of RollingStone.com was that we were acting like a breaking news site without breaking news,” he says. “How can you be on top of everything when there’s not much happening in a typical day? Kid Rock’s in the studio or Fall Out Boy kicks off a tour. It wasn’t breaking news. We had to refocus the news.”
Instead of trying to scoop everyone, the decision was made that the site would act more as a filter of the music news it would feature. It would take in the big stories, funnel them through the Rolling Stone persona and offer it up to the site’s visitors.
“We’re learning people want news featured with a little bit of opinion,” he says of the new direction.
So the personality that people have come to identify with the magazine was put upfront. The site’s home page quickly became the place where all of the real action happens on the site. But it was not always like that.
“It was not reflecting the site,” he says of the former home page. “Good features of the site were more than one click away. The lifeblood of the site was on ‘Rock & Roll Daily,’ and it was on a secondary page.”
The blog and most of the reviews, for both the music and movies reviewed by the staff of the print edition, are now on the home page for all to see.
The editors of the site ask visitors to post their own opinions of what they read—whether they loved something or hated it. People are encouraged to debate with the editors and with each other.
“You’re seeing a democratization of the reading process,” Blanchard says. “You can use the news as a way to engage people in dialogue. But democracy has its downside. It opens the floodgates to uninformed opinion, untrained and inappropriate comments. But it allows people to respond with feedback. And they feel they’re part of a club and are more inclined to read on a regular basis.”
With page views up from 14 million to approximately
19 million in just a few short months, his strategy has begun to show signs of paying off.
Blanchard says understanding the online readership was the first step in the process of recreating the online presence.
Us Weekly was easy. “It’s a 23-year-old, successful young woman who’s interested in celebrities, but [is] not a gossip-hound,” he says.
Rolling Stone, however, has been much more difficult because of the multiple generations who have read and continue to read the magazine throughout the years.
“It’s a tough brand to manage because it means different things to so many people,” he says.
Another of Blanchard’s top priorities: to reconnect the site with the print magazine. The biweekly magazine was featured on the site, but not prominently. “Online wasn’t promoting print,” he says. “Now, there’s a strong connection [between the print and online products]. … It’s a constant, regular reinforcement of the brand. … When we put Borat on the cover [of the print magazine], we had a link to the best clips from his TV series.”
Sometimes the print edition does what it does best, while the online edition does what it does best, he says. Although the approaches are different, each works in its own medium.
Earlier this year, an issue of the magazine featured a retrospective of the life of James Brown, who had taken his final curtain call from our world just a few weeks earlier. Content from the issue—with the iconic tribute cover (a keepsake for many readers) Rolling Stone magazine does best—was featured on the site. A playlist of essential James Brown songs was created exclusively for the Web site, with links to listen to the songs.
At the same time, RollingStone.com’s main feature was an exclusive package that featured the 20 best bands of MySpace. Visitors could click, listen to music and vote for their favorite band featured on the popular community Web site. It was what the Internet does best.
“If you ran that story in print, it would be a very small piece of the story,” he says. “There is stuff that print does extremely well, but this is what works online.”
Video has also become one of the top priorities for Blanchard. One of his first moves was to partner the site up with blinkx, a video search engine, that helped index the artists’ videos featured on the site. It helped RollingStone.com users search and watch the videos, a process that was a bit more complicated when it was done in-house.
Next up—having the vast back-issue archives digitalized for visitors to peruse. Those who subscribe to the print magazine will soon be able to come to the site to view the entire run of the magazine. Wenner Media is working to digitize more than 1,000 issues published since the magazine made its first appearance on newsstands 40 years ago.
After RollingStone.com starts to take its final shape, Blanchard will move onto Wenner’s Men’s Journal, a monthly magazine aimed at active men. The site, currently bare bones with minimal original online content, is scheduled to re-launch in mid-2007, Blanchard says. PE