Pirates’ wages

In the July 8 issue of Rolling Stone, correspondent Michael Hastings profiled General Stanley McChrystal, who at the time of his reporting was leading the military arm of the United States war efforts in Afghanistan. In front of Hastings, General McChrystal openly criticized both the war strategy and some administration officials. In short order, he was relieved of command.

There is some debate about how much the general understood was a matter of record, but there is no debate that the story broke in Rolling Stone. Interestingly, the story first appeared online not at Rolling Stone but at Time.com and Politico, each of whom posted PDFs of the story.

That is, they pirated it.

Apparently, Rolling Stone had sent advance copies to various news organizations but wanted to release its online version only after the physical newsstand copies went on sale. Single-copy sales for Rolling Stone are healthy enough, averaging over 100,000 copies sold per issue in the second half of 2009.

The story broke pretty fast, and various news organizations struggled with how to “cover” a story for which the content was effectively unavailable. Time.com and Politico decided the story was the story, and so “fair use” could justify copying an entire article and posting it on their sites.

Rolling Stone objected, and the two competing news sites did take down the content. A spokesperson for Time Inc. said that chairperson Ann Moore “believes it was an honest mistake and we don’t believe it will happen again.” (Helpful hint: don’t try using that excuse with the RIAA.)

For me, though, the question is, “How did this affect sales at Rolling Stone?”

One report indicated that Rolling Stone was selling “five times” its average sales on the newsstand, “easily shaping up to be the biggest-selling issue of the year”. In the three days after Time.com and Politico posted the purloined PDFs, Rolling Stone’s web site saw traffic spike from 120K to something closer to 1 million visitors per day.

Let’s agree: the PDFs were taken down pretty quickly. Let’s also agree: we don’t have any way of measuring what would have happened if they had not been published at all.

But many news organizations covered the story (and the story about the story) quickly. Once its newsstand copies were available in major markets, Rolling Stone itself made the content in question available for free on its own site.

Newsstand distribution deals are somewhat customized, but it’s fair to guess that Rolling Stone keeps 40% of the cover price on its single-copy sales. If it really does winding up selling an additional 400,000 copies of the current double issue (priced at $4.95), the incremental revenue approaches $800,000.

Not bad for pirates’ wages.

About Brian O'Leary

Founder and principal of Magellan Media Consulting, Brian O’Leary helps enterprises with media and publishing components capitalize on the power of content. A veteran of more than 30 years in the publishing industry and a prolific content producer himself, Brian leverages the breadth and depth of his experience to deliver innovative content solutions.

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