Before word of his departure leaked on Wednesday night in The New York Times, it had been widely assumed at Rolling Stone that managing editor Will Dana had survived “A Rape on Campus”—the catastrophically error-ridden article that exposed the magazine to lawsuits, censure by the Columbia University School of Journalism and public scorn—and would live to edit another day.
Although a select few of Dana’s colleagues were aware days ago that his exit had been ordained, most learned of his resignation on Wednesday, and greeted the news with shock, sadness, and even tears.
“I was crying. People were crying,” one loyalist told The Daily Beast, reflecting the high level of esteem in which Dana is held among the writers whose careers he launched and nurtured. “This is horrible. This was tragic. It was very unexpected.”
The precise timing of Dana’s departure—with no other job lined up, according to the Times—might have surprised many on the staff, but after a period in which Rolling Stone has suffered severe reputational damage and, like other print outlets, the harsh financial realities of the Internet Age—including a recent round of layoffs, declining revenue, and daunting debt—many outside observers considered his eventual exodus a forgone conclusion.
“As Deep Throat said, follow the money,” said one former colleague, citing industry rumors that “things are economically in dire straits” at the magazine founded by editor in chief Jann Wenner, and at Wenner Media, which also publishes Men’s Journal and Us Weekly.
The reason for Dana’s departure is “2 percent UVa and 98 percent the direction of the company,” said a Wenner Media insider, referring to Rolling Stone contributing editor Sabrina Rubin Erdeley’s discredited story alleging a fraternity gang rape at the University of Virginia.
“There has been a tremendous struggle in terms of revenue, and they’re bailing on some of the higher-salaried people”—Will Dana’s rumored $475,000 salary among them—this insider said.
“The budget cuts are serious,” said another of Dana’s colleagues. “I think that there’s a real worry about the bottom line. I don’t actually think the UVa thing is what this was about. And Jann likes to change things up.”
The prospect of spending significant amounts of cash to settle lawsuits arising from the rape story or else pay lawyers to defend against them—including a complaint from three members of Phi Kappa Psi, filed on Wednesday—hardly prettifies the financial picture.
Another factor, said insiders, is the boss’s desire to install his 24-year-old son Gus Wenner, who has been overseeing the digital presentation of Wenner Media’s magazines, in ever more responsible leadership positions within the privately held company.
But for now, an insider said Men’s Journal editor in chief Jason Fine could be a logical choice to replace Dana on an interim basis.
Having reportedly offered his resignation to Wenner after the rape story blew up last November—an offer firmly rejected by his boss—Dana did manage to last another eight months, capping a 19-year career at Wenner Media.
A corporate press release issued Thursday morning included a terse sentence from Wenner—“Will is one of the finest Editors I have ever worked with”—and attempted to portray Dana’s leave-taking, from a job he has held for a decade, as his own idea.
“After nineteen years at Rolling Stone, I have decided that it is time to move on,” the release quoted Dana. “It has been a great ride and I loved it even more than I imagined I would. I am as excited to see where the magazine goes next as I was in the summer of 1978 when I bought my first issue.”
The release noted that the 47-year-old magazine, which expanded its original mission from pop music to politics to science and beyond, had won five National Magazine Awards, including the 2006 award for general excellence, under Dana’s leadership.
Yet a former colleague of Dana’s—who, like several people contacted for this story, spoke on condition of not being identified—expressed doubt that he’s leaving his perch of his own accord.
“If your magazine is in trouble, do you allow one of the finest editors you’ve ever worked with to resign?” this person said. “Also, Will says he has no job lined up. So who quits an extremely lucrative editorial position in this economic climate without having another job?”
Rolling Stone contributing editor Matt Taibbi, who has worked closely with Dana since 2002, called him “a really important person in my life…It’s always difficult for an editor to give a writer bad news, but Will has a way of making suggestions and being completely genial…More than that, he’s a decent, honest, caring guy in a business where you often don’t get that.”
Enumerating Dana’s strengths as an editor, Taibbi continued in a Twitter message: “He has a great eye for young talent and is constantly searching for new voices.
“He has tremendous enthusiasm for stories and an uncanny (and odd) knack for finding obscure/unusual stories in the news landscape that could be researched and turned into major magazine features.
“And he has a great touch with people, he makes everyone feel like a friend and listened to, and that was key in a place like Rolling Stone where there’s such a broad mix of personalities.”
Taibbi continued: “I should add that from my end, I went through a lot personally over the years, had some very dark times, and Will always had my back.”
“It’s a big loss,” said Rolling Stone environmental writer Jeff Goodell, who has worked with Dana since their days together at the alternative newspaper 7 Days in the late 1980s.
“I think Will has done a really great job at Rolling Stone, and I think with everyone on staff he’s viewed with respect and great affection.”
Messages of praise and grief over Dana’s departure, meanwhile, proliferated on Facebook, including this one from Rolling Stone contributing editor Janet Reitman: “I really owe much of my career to him, in all honesty. He believed in me far more than I’ve ever believed in myself, and he taught me so much about how to tell a compelling story, how to structure it, how to have fun with it—all the small things that make him so unique, and so amazing. He’s truly a writer’s editor and I will miss him more than I can possibly articulate. I’m just crushed by this, I really am.”
Still, the decision to publish Erdely’s story and stand by it for two weeks as other news outlets, especially The Washington Post, picked it apart and showed it to be a thinly reported confection of apparent fabrications, will remain a blot on Dana’s otherwise enviable record.
“In America, you’re known not for the best thing you did, but for the last thing you did,” said a former colleague of Dana’s. “He’ll have to bear that cross.”