UPDATE Friday morning: Rolling Stone movie reviewer Peter Travers, one of the most familiar bylines in the industry, has been moved from staff to freelance status and reportedly isn’t happy about the demotion. Asked about the status of Travers, a 26-year RS veteran, Wenner Media spokeswoman Kathryn Brenner told the Los Angeles Times, which first reported the situation yesterday, “I can confirm he is still with Rolling Stone. He is our movie critic now and will continue to be, and he is not leaving the magazine for as far into the future as we can speak.”
The shifts reflect a wider cost-cutting trend in the beleaguered print journalism business, where veteran (read: well-compensated) writers with staff positions that include health coverage, paid vacation and other benefits are being moved to freelance contracts that don’t include the expensive add-ons. Similar recent moves include longtime Rolling Stone staff writer David Fricke, shifted last month to a contract position, and reviewers Owen Glieberman and Nick Catucci, who were among seven staff members laid off in April by Time Inc.’s Entertainment Weekly.
EARLIER: A tumultuous 24 hours at Wenner Media began Wednesday with the resignation of longtime Rolling Stone managing editor Will Dana; the filing of defamation lawsuits in New York federal district court by three University of Virginia fraternity members; and unconfirmed reports that Jason Fine, editor of Wenner’s lifestyle magazine Men’s Journal, has been tapped to take over Dana’s lofty perch on the Rolling Stone masthead.
The resolution might cap the radioactive fallout from Rolling Stone‘s publication in November of a story headlined “A Rape on Campus” that purported to detail the sexual assault in 2012 of a UVA freshman during an initiation party at the Phi Kappa Psi fraternity house. The story’s subject “Jackie” claimed to have been raped for several hours by a group of fraternity brothers.
The plaintiffs in the lawsuit — George Elias IV, Stephen Hadford and Ross Fowler — assert that they were verbally attacked, mocked and harassed after the article was published. The graduates are suing the magazine, reporter Sabrina Erdely and Wenner Media and are seeking at least $75,000 for each of three counts, according to the Associated Press. All three graduated in 2013. Elias and Hadford live in Virginia, while Fowler is from South Carolina. Earlier, an associate dean who was named in the article sued the magazine for $7.85 million in damages.
Following an uproar on campus over the story, Rolling Stone‘s internal postmortem and a lengthy independent investigation led by the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism revealed breakdowns in the editorial process at pretty much every step of the way, from the idea proposal to the published story, which relied solely on the apparently fabricated testimony of the anonymous alleged victim. In April, after the investigations had concluded that an attack could not have taken place at the time or location described in the story, Rolling Stone took the extraordinary — and humiliating — step of retracting the entire piece.
“The failure encompassed reporting, editing, editorial supervision and fact-checking,” according to the Columbia report. “The magazine set aside or rationalized as unnecessary essential practices of reporting that, if pursued, would likely have led the magazine’s editors to reconsider publishing Jackie’s narrative so prominently, if at all.”
“The idea that they behaved irresponsibly is not surprising,” says someone with intimate knowledge of the Wenner operation. “It’s just that Will Dana didn’t manage to prevent the worst of it. He usually keeps that from happening.”
Although blame was spread throughout the masthead, ultimate responsibility for publishing the piece was laid at Dana’s feet. Until this week, he appeared to have survived the tempest. What became clear to media watchers, however, was that if Rolling Stone had any hope of reclaiming its place in the iconography of old media/new media culture, Wenner would have to sacrifice a loyal lieutenant who is well-liked throughout the industry and also has been seen as one of the few in Wenner’s inner circle capable of negotiating the minefield that is working for the famously mercurial publisher.
“Will Dana is pretty nice and also smart, and he had one special quality: He knew how to kowtow and deal with Wenner in a way no one else in the world did,” said someone with intimate knowledge of Wenner Media who spoke on condition of anonymity. “The idea that they behaved irresponsibly is not surprising. It’s just that Will Dana didn’t manage to prevent the worst of it. He usually keeps that from happening. I’m surprised Wenner forced him out right when he will have to give depositions in court cases.”
Dana, whose final day was announced as August 7, is attempting to leave on a graceful note. “After 19 years at Rolling Stone, I have decided that it is time to move on,” he said in a statement. “It has been a great ride, and I loved it even more than I imagined I would.”
As for Jason Fine, he will join the growing fraternity of top editors — from The New York Tines to The New Republic and NBC News — called in to restore trust at an institution whose name has been tarnished at the very moment when serious enterprises have to scrape, scramble and fight for every reader or viewer. That won’t be easy in a climate where pretenders are popping up like whack-a-moles and no one is certain of who’s guarding the gate. Whatever the gate is.