News that Jann Wenner’s 22-year-old son, Gus, is taking the reins at RollingStone.com has provoked mostly two reactions: anger and snark. The recent Brown University graduate has worked at the magazine’s website for only a few months and, until Monday, he was known mostly for playing in a country band with Scout Willis -- if he was known at all.
But that all changed after Gawker posted a memo from Rolling Stone’s co-founder and publisher, who stated that he was proud to announce Gus’ new role “heading up operations” at the magazine’s companion website. Across Twitter Tuesday, users reacted to the news largely by making cracks about nepotism and privilege. And why wouldn’t they? The younger Wenner, who in pictures looks like a teenage Billie Joe Armstrong, would seem to fit the description of a contemptible, lazy one-percenter spawn. But one former high-ranking Rolling Stone staffer who worked with Gus told IBTimes that not all those characterizations are fair.
“He’s a good kid who came in with a lot of great ideas,” said the staffer, who spoke on the condition of anonymity. “He shadowed [chief digital officer] David Kang at the website for a while, and he was pretty deep in it.”
The source added that Gus also interned at Rolling Stone a few years ago, and that, out of all of Jann Wenner’s older three kids, he was “the one who showed the most promise” as an heir to the family business. (Alexander, the oldest Wenner child, is sometimes said to lack his father’s ambition, while Theo, the middle child, works as a freelance photographer.)
A victim of one of the many layoffs that have taken place at Wenner Media over the last year, the former staffer said Rolling Stone’s parent company, for all its perceived size and high profile, is still a family business, fully subject to the whims of its idiosyncratic owner.
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“A lot of it is about finding people that Jann can trust,” the source said. “So if one of those people is going to be Gus, that makes sense for Jann and it makes sense for the company.”
Mind you, none of this is to suggest that Gus was hired solely on merit. “Of course, it’s nepotism,” the source said. “Nobody else would ever hire Gus to run a website.”
Indeed, more than a few tweeters pointed out the irony that Gus -- whose job description will include overseeing the website’s editorial, advertising and social media development -- apparently doesn’t even have a Twitter account.
I would troll Gus Wenner, but the new head of Rolling Stone's website isn't on Twitter
â€” Hunter Walker (@hunterw) May 20, 2013
In an interview with Ad Week on Tuesday, Jann Wenner, who founded Rolling Stone when he was a year younger than Gus is today, attempted to counter some of the charges that his son is unqualified.
“He’s smarter than I am. Young people today are a lot more savvy than people were 40, 50 years ago. They’re better educated. And he’s a college grad. I wasn’t. He’s grown up around me and the company. But there’s an inborn level of maturity and intelligence and smartness and ambition. … Trust me, he’s a lot better trained and educated. His judgment is a lot better. I just had this one big idea.”
The former staffer said that was a fair enough assessment, calling Gus a “sweet kid” who got along with most of the employees and wasn’t afraid to get his hands dirty.
“It wasn’t like he would show up and we’d all go, ‘Oh God, Jann’s kid is here,” the source said. “Everyone liked him.”
Jann Wenner has been vague about exactly what position his son will fill. A few bloggers managed to dig up a job posting for RollingStone.com editor-in-chief, pointing out the fact that Gus falls far short of the seven-plus years’ experience the job calls for. However, a spokesperson for Wenner Media told IBTimes that Gus will be “director” of RollingStone.com, not editor-in-chief.
Over the last few years, Wenner Media has been plagued by shrinking revenues, debt troubles and staff reductions -- all in line with the print industry as a whole. At the same time, Jann Wenner has been criticized for failing to devote resources to Rolling Stone’s website, and he has not shown much interest in developing the brand’s Internet presence -- until now, that is.
As the person tasked with doing so, Gus is going to have his work cut out for him no matter who his father is, so maybe it’s premature to castigate the 22-year-old whose dad set him up with a cushy position. Then again, some facts do speak for themselves.
“On the face of it, this whole thing is as everyone thinks it is,” the former staffer said. “But it’s only keeping in line with the ridiculous way Jann has always run the company.”