Growing Up Gus Wenner
A scion of the magazine empire his father, Jann Wenner, founded and sold to Penske Media, the CEO of Rolling Stone is now “basically an employee versus ‘my dad owns the company’”
When Gus Wenner first came to Rolling Stone as a summer intern in 2007, it was never explicit that he would succeed his father. Jann Wenner had built the magazine from the ground up and turned it into a sprawling publishing empire. Though he had grown up the son of the baby food king of the Bay Area, much of the early money had come from the family of his wife, Jane Schindelheim, who stayed on as an executive at the company after they separated in 1995. “When Gus started as an intern,” former managing editor Will Dana told The Fine Print, “let’s just say people all knew that there was a better chance they’d end up working for Jann’s kid than Bruce Springsteen’s son or Kurt Cobain’s daughter, other interns from around that time.”
In 2012, Jann appointed Gus (born Edward Augustus), the youngest of the three sons he and Jane had together and then a fresh Brown grad, first to work on Rollingstone.com, then a year later, at age 22, to be the head of the site. In 2014, Jann would promote his son to be head of digital for all of Wenner Media, which then also included Men’s Journal and Us Weekly. “It was just like, ‘here’s my son, he’s in charge, he has a corner office,’” recalled a longtime Wenner employee who marveled at the ridiculousness of the situation but acknowledged that family-owned companies sometimes operate like that. “I know that that’s gross and not the way things should work, but it is Jann’s business. It is Jann’s baby.”
But Rolling Stone wouldn’t stay a family business. In 2017, Jann and Gus sold Us Weekly and Men’s Journal to American Media Inc. and then, sitting for a New York Times photoshoot, Jann announced they were putting Rolling Stone up for sale, too. Soon after, fellow scion Jay Penske, the son of transportation kingpin Roger Penske, would buy the controlling interest in Wenner Media before purchasing the rest in 2019. The younger Wenner, who had by this time risen to the title of chief operating officer, spun it as a move to secure the magazine’s future, but it would irrevocably change his and his family’s relationship with the institution that had defined the Wenner name. When Penske appointed Gus the CEO of Rolling Stone in January, it was his first promotion at a company his family didn’t own. Rolling Stone did not respond to requests for comment.
There was little Gus had done up to that point that hadn’t been overshadowed by his father. Even his high school blues-rock band, The Ellis Unit. “We were playing these big venues,” recalled drummer Reuben Fuller-Bennett. “There were all these celebrities in the crowd. It was very strange shows, very odd places to be at that age and in that level of band.… There was a pretty huge mismatch between the level of gig that we would get and any level of gig that we deserved to get via musicianship or natural occurring buzz, and apropos of that there was this buzz, there were these articles written. Within the first three or four sentences, it became clear why that reporter was interested.”
Gus’s world was surreal for Fuller-Bennett, who grew up lower middle class in Ditmas Park and Windsor Terrace. “It was one of the strangest things I have ever done in my life, playing in that band,” he said. “There was going to Central Park West for these rehearsals in this big, beautiful row house that Jann owned.” One night, while Jann was entertaining Sheryl Crow upstairs, the singer of “All I Wanna Do” heard the band rehearsing in the basement and headed down to jam with them for a bit. In some ways, the pop star fit right in with the high school band: along with Gus, who was the lead singer and played guitar, the lead guitarist, Jack Byrne, was the son of Ellen Barkin and Gabriel Byrne. Neither of them seemed completely comfortable with how their music was being digested. “I got the feeling that they also thought it was a little lame,” Fuller-Bennett said. “They weren’t going to say no, but they were a bit self-conscious about [what] their position in the social hierarchy did to the opportunities for the band.”
In the band, Gus flexed his muscles as a leader and developed a style that would persist into his tenure at Rolling Stone. “He was sort of reserved. I hesitate to say quiet because it’s not like he had any trouble speaking up for himself, but a little soft-spoken,” Fuller-Bennett said. Unlike Jann, who was notorious with his staff for flying into rages, Gus would stay in control even when taking bandmates to task for not taking their music seriously enough. “He would be quiet, sort of a tense silence,” Fuller-Bennett said. “He would say, ‘Jack, you were late,’ or, ‘We can’t take a break now, we’ve just started.’ He would say it, but his lips would be pursed.”
Gus didn’t often share experiences, like meeting musical legend Bob Dylan, that he’d already accumulated through his father’s magazine connections. “I think Gus may have kept those stories close to his chest, to not flaunt his upbringing,” said Fuller-Bennett. That didn’t mean the utterly privileged life he enjoyed didn’t sometimes show. Once, the band flew by private jet to spend a weekend at Jann’s Sun Valley estate and play a show at the base of a slope, and the cultural divide between band members became clear. “There was a pantry in this guesthouse that was somewhat well stocked and we were like, ‘Oh, let’s make some spaghetti,’” Fuller-Bennett recalled. “I remember getting the distinct feeling that this was a somewhat revolutionary idea to Gus and Jack. The idea of just putting a pot of water on the stove and boiling it was like, ‘Oh, shit, yeah, we could do that. We don’t have to call the cook and have them whip us something up.’”
A big supporter of Gus’s nascent music career was Lyor Cohen, global head of music for Google and Youtube and former president of Def Jam and CEO of Warner Music. Cohen had met Jann through Ahmet Ertegun and got to know Gus as a teenager. “I loved the music,” he told The Fine Print. Despite their age difference, Cohen said he connected with the younger Wenner on a deeper level, too, developing a friendship. “As much as he likes being with older people, I like being with younger people. I think we were just lucky. He had great insights for the things that interested me and the things that I was thinking of and vying to do, always encouraging me to take maximum risk because he just believed in me, and I would say the same about him,” he said. “I always thought that he was extremely curious, insightful, and wanting to be in the paint.”
While attending Brown, Gus kept playing in bands, often with other children of celebrities, including Steven Spielberg’s daughter, Sasha, and Bruce Willis and Demi Moore’s daughter, Scout. “He very much hung out with other children of famous people,” one of his classmates said. “I think there was certainly some shared experience there. Having grown up in that world, they sort of naturally gravitated to each other. But I think there were probably also mutual connections and sort of one degree of separation between some of these folks. Tyra Banks’s stepdaughter went to school with us, Emma Watson was at school with us, Bruce and Demi’s daughter. There were many celebrity offspring running around Providence from 2008 to 2012.”
Gus majored in literary arts (basically creative writing) and wrote an unpublished novel with a character based on his father. “He just wore this one face all the time,” said the classmate. “The resting face that he wore most of the time was one of general, like, he was better than everything. Or at least that’s how I read it.” A Wenner Media employee who’d meet him later said, “Gus definitely kind of looks like his father, although Jann has a much bigger smile. Not that Gus is an unhappy person, but he usually has a solemn look on his face.”
After graduating with “honors in concentration” in 2012, Gus started at Rolling Stone. He was still in a band playing country music with Willis. For Gus, it was a serious commitment — more serious, at the time, than his commitment to the magazine. “That was always something that cracked us up,” said a Wenner employee at the time. As Gus told The Business of Marketing podcast last year, “When I joined I had other aspirations. I was doing music.” He said Jann was on the same page then, too. “My dad also sat me down and was like, ‘This is not going to lead to anything, just so you know.’ And I was like, ‘Yeah, I just want to learn something and be here for a year and just have some exposure to this company and learn how it works,’ but had no intentions of continuing on. And he basically told me that that wasn’t an option and even if it was an option his words were, ‘I wouldn’t burden you with this responsibility.’”
But employees at the company had a premonition of what was coming. “When he arrived on the scene fresh out of school, we were all like, ‘Okay, this is happening, a 24-year-old has taken over,’” said one. “There was a lot of skepticism and private eye-rolling about all of it.” The tone was different when the staff met with Gus face to face. “Rolling Stone editors would be tasked with doing things for him and with him, and they would just all be kind of falling over themselves to joke around with him and be bros,” said another employee from that time. “I thought it was ridiculous the way that these men who were twice his age had to kiss his ass.”
No one who spoke with The Fine Print who worked with Gus when he first started had a uniformly bad impression. “He’s clearly smart,” said one employee, though later employees disagreed. “I thought in the beginning that he was very willing to listen to people and learn, but then he’s also really like his dad, where if you pissed him off, that’s it.” According to Sticky Fingers, Joe Hagan’s biography of Jann, Gus “started by firing dozens of staffers.” Gus told Hagan, “People have always asked in the past, ‘Was that weird being so young and inexperienced at firing people who are established?’ It was never, has never, won’t ever be weird to me, because I believe so much in the cause.”
Some people found him endearing. “I don’t know if he’s a stoner or not, but he has this very laconic, chill vibe. He didn’t really project a lot of gravitas or authority and he definitely is not a type-A business executive personality, either. So it was very random, certainly, to be in meetings with this kid,” said a former employee. “He was a sweet guy in some ways. That’s the thing: He was definitely just this coddled, protected, somewhat clueless guy who would eventually make some cutthroat decisions and not really have a sense of reality.”
But people also found him hard to read. “That kind of smug, affectless tone that younger people tend to have on social media, he projected that,” said one. “There was a fear of him. Not necessarily him blowing up, but of him being displeased, and then telling dad, and you losing a job.” They added, “I just was never really sure what his motivation was, because he wasn’t just your high-powered executive or even your spazzy male version of Anna Wintour. It was like, ‘Well, what are you? Do you secretly really want to please your father? Are you afraid of living in his shadow? Are you afraid of losing money? Do you want to have purpose?’ Because of his comportment, it was harder to interpret.”
Gus wasn’t the first family member to whom Jann granted a position of power in his (and Jane’s) company. When he launched a spinoff magazine called Rolling Stone College Papers in 1979, he appointed his sister Kate as editor. Gus’s older brother Theo began photographing Rolling Stone covers not long after graduating from Bard. (Like Gus, Theo was known for hanging out with the children of famous people, dating Liv Tyler and being spotted with Miley Cyrus.) But Gus was the one who has stayed closest to the family business.
Gus started working for chief digital officer David Kang. When Kang left the company a year later in 2014, Jann tapped Gus as his replacement. “When Jann promoted Gus, I was optimistic. Digital leadership had been inconsistent,” Dana said, “and Gus was eager to learn.” Though he clearly brought little in the way of experience to the role, youth signaled digital savvy, at least compared to the print veterans. “I think he was genuinely excited about what the digital experience meant,” said one former employee. “That is maybe what Jann recognized in him and why Jann actually let his son do all this stuff. Because I think that Gus genuinely had some instincts about it. Maybe sometimes it needed a lot of shaping from people, but I think his main thing was modernizing and helping the brand survive in a digital context.”
Cohen thought the digital side was the right path for Gus to come up in the business. “His father has his DNA throughout the organization and is a person that has a memory unlike anyone I’ve ever seen and attention to detail unlike I’ve ever seen. I would say his blind spot was the transition of media in general,” he said. Putting Gus on the digital side helped fill that blind spot, and, he added, “it also allowed Gus to have a larger playing field to gestate and develop.”
Jann was a mentor to his son. “There were definitely some meetings where Jann was encouraging,” said one Wenner Media employee. “We’d go around the table, and he’d be like, ‘Well Gus, what do you think?’ It would definitely be a father-son mentorship moment, and it felt very perform-y. Gus was sort of performing for his dad and playing the businessman.” But Gus wasn’t content to simply steward the company his father built. In 2014, echoing the sound that had influenced his college music, he spearheaded the launch of a Rolling Stone Country website. In 2016, he launched Glixel, a video game site. At first, perhaps as a gesture to Rolling Stone’searly Bay Area roots, he hired staff in San Francisco and opened an office there. A year later, he fired them, replacing them with Brian Crecente, who founded Kotaku, co-founded Polygon, and now works as a game industry consultant, working out of Wenner Media’s New York offices.
“It was me and then I had a pretty small freelance budget,” Crecente told The Fine Print. “My feeling was that Glixel was an attempt by Gus to try to build something that was his own legacy.” Unlike his father, who started Rolling Stone as a rock and roll superfan, Gus’s intentions with Glixel seemed to be more purely mercenary. “He was aware of games, but it was certainly not part of his identity, and I don’t think it was even something he did regularly. I think every once in a while, he was like, ‘Hey, can you get me a copy of this game?’ And they were usually sports games,” Crecente said. “So, I don’t think it was any driving personal interest in video games. I think it was more perhaps an interest in what he saw as a market that was worth tapping into.”
Gus could echo his father in more uncomfortable ways, too. One woman who worked with him at Rolling Stonerecalled him confusing her with another woman who looked nothing like her. Another woman who worked at the company under Jann recalled an almost identical experience with Gus’s father a decade earlier. When she heard about Gus repeating the mistake, she burst out laughing. “Oh my God, that’s crazy. That’s fucking sad,” she said before pausing.
Gus could also seem out of touch with other norms. One staffer remembers him using the word “retarded” casually in the office and recalled him greeting editor Jason Fine with Jamaican patois. Part of that might come down to the fact that the people he hung out with and dated, for instance, Ethan Hawke and Uma Thurman’s daughter Maya, lived in a totally different world from the typical editorial staffer. Like his Ellis Unit bandmate, some employees couldn’t help noticing. “One day, I’m sharing an elevator with him,” recalled one former employee. “I was like, ‘Hey Gus, how was your weekend, man? What’s going on?’ And he was like, ‘Oh, it was pretty good. You know Jemima Kirke?’ I was like, ‘Yeah, I love that show. She’s great in Girls.’ He was like, ‘Yeah, it was her birthday, so we all like went to a party at The Spotted Pig, and that was pretty cool.’ And I’m just like, ‘Oh, that sounds great.’ And he asked me, ‘What did you do over the weekend?’ I was like, ‘Oh, my partner and I went shopping at Woodbury Commons, the outlet center.’ And he’s like, ‘What are outlets?’”
In 2017, Gus took the lead in the company, handling the sales of Us Weekly and Men’s Journal. That June, a few months before announcing he was ready to sell Rolling Stone, too, Jann had a heart attack and broke his hip, making him even less of a presence in the Midtown offices. When Crecente started at Glixel in July, the office had emptied. “Parts of it were like a ghost town,” he recalled. Gus led the sale of a 51 percent stake of Wenner Media at the end of the year — the son of a Singaporean palm oil billionaire had bought the other 49 percent in 2016 — and he tied himself to yet another scion. “Jay [Penske] is a brilliant businessman,” he told The Business of Marketing podcast. “It was clear to me also then that he was going to be a great mentor for me in my own growth and to realize all the things that I wanted to do.”
But as much as Gus identified with his new boss, former employees cautioned against drawing too many comparisons between the two. “I don’t think that those two are comparable,” Crecente said. “Jay strikes me as a guy who is building a media empire. If you’re going to compare him to anybody, you’re going to compare him to Jann. Gus is somebody who was maintaining a well-known media brand. Those are two different skills, maintaining something versus building something. Often the same person can’t do both.” Others drew other distinctions. “Jay is also a slightly different figure because Jay is so dashing. He looks like a movie star and he just comports himself in a different way than Gus does,” said another former employee. “And he’s older too.”
For some of the staff, Penske’s ownership felt like a breath of fresh air. “Jay came in like — this is going to sound so cliche — but like a knight on a horse,” said Crecente, who compared the new owner’s clarity of vision with Gus’s relative murkiness. Penske mandated that the magazine had to refocus on its core strengths, particularly music. Gus’s pet projects, including Glixel, were shut down. (Crecente was moved over to Variety, by then another Penske property.) Gus took these reversals in stride. “I didn’t get an impression at all that it bothered him,” Crecente said.
He threw himself into expanding the business in other ways, licensing the Rolling Stone brand to cannabis companies and overseas editions. “I think early on, he was very interested in brand extensions, and just making lots of money and just staying afloat by those kinds of measures,” a former employee said. “A lot of people did not feel very comfortable with that. They thought it really cheapened the Rolling Stone brand and the Rolling Stone legacy.” A former employee said that, at least early on, Gus was getting notes from his dad on how to run the business. According to the company, the new strategy worked. The magazine told Adweek it has been profitable since 2019. Perhaps that’s why Penske promoted Gus to be CEO in January.
And yet, challenges are burbling near the surface. The Fine Print reported last year on the magazine’s anti-union hiring policies. Others have criticized the lack of diversity of the staff. “I think that the magazine has real awkward issues when it comes to writing about race and dealing with race in its internal structure,” former senior editor Amy X. Wang, who joined The New York Times Magazine as assistant managing editor last September, told Insider last October. “It’s a big part of why people who are people of color and not the core demographic of the white male do tend to leave.” That was part of what made staff so upset over Gus’s 2020 attempt to run a relatively soft interview he’d conducted with rapper 6ix9ine as a cover story with photography by his brother Theo. He was ultimately cowed after a staff revolt, hearing them out on the idea that putting someone who’d been convicted of using a child in a sexual performance on the cover was not the best idea. Some staff were dismayed when he appointed Noah Shachtman, another in a long line of white men at the top of the Rolling Stone masthead, as the magazine’s new editor last July.
It’s relatively rare for scions to stay on with a family business after it leaves the family’s control. “Now, he’s basically an employee, versus ‘my dad owns the company.’ Now he’s like, ‘Well, my buddy owns the company.’ So I wonder what that is like for him,” said a former employee. Though the Wenners are wealthy by any definition and with plenty of A-list friends, there were times when it looked like the magazine industry’s struggles had diminished the family fortune. After the 2008 financial crisis, the company took on heavy debts and Jann was forced to sell his private plane. “It was never really clear how much money the Wenners really have,” said the ex-staffer. “They had all these problems because they once had three print magazines like Men’s Journal, Us Weekly, and Rolling Stone, and then they could only make do with one. And I wondered if Gus never worked again, could he keep up whatever his lifestyle is? I wondered whether secretly there was this urgency to either keep up the lifestyle they have of owning lots of homes and just being fancy and all that, or did he feel the pressure of maintaining the legacy that his father built?”