Rolling Stone and the General: Media Lessons for Both of Them

As mags are still scratching their heads about what they’ll do to survive, Rolling Stone proves as savvy as ever. Or does it?

After launching a branding initiative a few years ago (something even most national mags haven’t really thought through well), their investigative bureau has been kicking butt lately, which is doubly impressive in this age where this type of reporting is becoming an endangered species at pubs, frequently getting farmed out to 3rd parties to do the heavy lifting.

Not only did RS get some good scoops about what the government did or didn’t know about the Gulf Oil Spill early on, but they also made news quicker than even they could report it with the rapid fall of General McChystal, which similar to White House press maven Helen Thomas came about from some stupid remarks that he made. But while Thomas made a few dumb, indefensible comments to a video blogger (which in this visual age is a much worse crime than just having a damning print quote), the General made an endless stream of stupid gaffes to a reporter over the course of a few months, only later realizing that maybe he shouldn’t have been so contemptuous of his co-workers and boss (Obama) in front of a reporter.

Even though the RS reporter himself, Michael Hastings, was surprised that the whole incident blew up as much as it did, instead guessing that it would just a be a little firestorm that would blow over in a few days. RS editor Eric Bates rightly pointed out in an interview with CNN that this didn’t seem to be a casual mistake by the general:

The comments made by McChrystal and other top military aides during the interview were "not off-the-cuff remarks," he said. They "knew what they were doing when they granted the access." The story shows "a deep division" and "war within the administration" over strategy in Afghanistan, he contended.

As part of the blow-back from the story, The Politico wondered if Hastings acted stupidly by getting the scoop and thus 'burning his bridges' by making himself a pariah- i.e. he wouldn't be able to get any more scoops from the military his perch in Afghanistan now that the word was out about his RS story. Jay Rosen covered this controversy well on his blog (see link below).

Whatever the case may be (I happen to agree with Bates), RS didn’t just nail the story and get an incredible scoop, they made history with it, even if some of the other editors were thinking (and hoping) that Lady Gaga’s racy cover photo was going to get more coverage in that same issue.

Ideally, there’s a lesson here, not just for RS but for other music publications. With the field shrinking more and more, RS is smart for doing these kind of stories which stand out and help them stay relevant and make a big name for themselves.

As Talking Points Memo astutely explains though, RS actually blew part of the momentum that they had going for them with the General story- not only did they hold off on posting the article itself online but they were scooped with their own story as The Politico actually posted it only before RS itself did. The Politico had to take it down but by then, the damage was done. It wasn’t just the article that was circulating everywhere but the gist of it was already making the rounds so that when RS finally did post their scoop online, they themselves had been scooped not just by The Politico but by hundreds of other sites reporting the story about the fall of the General and quoting the juiciest bits of the RS article. After millions of readers already saw those tidbits, why bother to read the actual RS article itself?

(Mind you, this isn’t the first time that RS hasn’t quite gotten the hang of the Internet or how to use it properly- they’ve also discouraged their writers from having blogs.)

As such, RS provides a good cautionary example with their story too. Getting the scoop is just as important, maybe even less important, than getting the news out there as fast as you can.

Late Breaking Thought (ha!): Even though Stone kind of blew it in terms of timeliness in getting the story out, the attention that they're getting for the story still helps their brand-name in the long term, at least in terms of political reporting. Wouldn't it be nice if they could also get scoops like this in the music world?

Update: David Carr has a good NYT article detailing how The Politico and Time both got scoops on the story at the expense of RS. Clearly, the other two pubs had journalistic lapses in doing so but RS is being naive to think that a great story that they've been circulating privately will stay that way. Hopefully they'll realize that they'll have to step up their game in getting the word out about their own scoops.


- Rolling Stone exposes documents about what govt knew about the oil spill early on

- The Rolling Stone article about the General

- Rolling Stone reporter didn't think General would lose his job

- Rolling Stone editor talks about the article and its controversy (near the end)

- Jay Rosen on the Politico controversy

- Talking Points Memo story about how Rolling Stone lost its own scoop

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