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How Does It Feel?

The neatness, the sobriety, the quiet, the general air of brisk professionalism -- Wenner figures it all serves to make Rolling Stone great.

"Rolling Stone is one of the best magazines in the United States," he says.

He may be right. Rebounding from a period frequently described as "all Britney all the time," Rolling Stone is enjoying a renaissance. The biweekly's circulation is up to a record 1.4 million -- far above such rivals as Blender and Spin -- and in the past few months, it has published a long exposé on Scientology, plus excellent articles on Iraq, Congress, Hurricane Katrina and, of course, pop culture.

In 2004 it won a National Magazine Award for its Iraq coverage, which the judges called "brilliant down to the last detail." This year, it's been nominated for three more of the awards, which will be announced Tuesday.

At this point, Rolling Stone is a bit like the Rolling Stones: rich, successful and reliably entertaining but no longer as innovative or exciting as in their heyday.

"It's certainly not as novel as it once was," says Abe Peck, a former Rolling Stone editor who teaches magazine journalism at Northwestern University. "But short of blowing itself up, how could it be?"

Quality Hip

It all started in San Francisco at the tail end of the Summer of Love, when a pudgy 21-year-old Berkeley dropout started a rock music tabloid with $7,500 raised from family and friends and a mailing list swiped from a local radio station.

"I had no idea what I was doing," Wenner says. "I don't think I'd ever heard the word marketing , let alone branding . I just thought it was a good idea, and I had a lot of energy and a love of music. . . . Nobody starts a magazine like that today. They come at you with a business proposal and six-year projections and focus groups and direct-mail tests. We just made it up."

"Rolling Stone is not just about music, but also about the things and attitudes that the music embraces," Wenner wrote in the first issue, dated Nov. 9, 1967. He printed 40,000 copies, and 34,000 were returned unsold.

Later, he concocted a crafty marketing scheme -- a free roach clip with each subscription. "Act now," the ad said, "before this offer is made illegal."

Soon, Rolling Stone was running ads from record companies eager to find a way to reach young people in an era when most publications either ignored rock or scoffed at it. The magazine found a unique niche: hipper than "straight" newspapers but not as raunchy or radical as the "underground" press.

"It was hipper than anything better, and better than anything hipper," says Peck.


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