Behind the Page: Rolling Stone’s Stephen Rodrick Takes us Through Writing a Cover Story and How Ethics Shape his Writing
If you have seen Rolling Stone’s latest climate issue, you have likely seen Stephen Rodrick’s name. A senior writer for Rolling Stone, he wrote “Greta’s World,” the magazine’s cover story on Greta Thunberg. He has also written for Esquire, New York Magazine, and The New York Times Magazine.
For our second “Behind the Page” feature, Rodrick spoke to eMagazines about the wide-ranging characters he has profiled, the responsibility that comes with longform reporting, and what he hopes you take from his stories.
Stephen Rodrick was studying to get his master’s degree in political science at Loyola University in Chicago when a professor scribbled a note in the margins of his paper on Greece’s entry to the European Union: “They will pay good money for writing like this at the Sun-Times or the Tribune.”
Rodrick was in the middle of a foray into speechwriting for a conservative Democrat in Illinois, but the professor’s words got him thinking. After Loyola and some more speechwriting, he applied to Northwestern University’s top-tier journalism program. He found a new career and a new idealism.
“And that was really the first time I thought, you know, maybe I could do this.”
Even so, a childhood spent following his Navy pilot father may have prepared him more than he realized for his adopted profession. New schools, new towns, and new environments were the norm.
“You have to make friends and figure out where the bathrooms are, and stuff like that pretty quickly, which is not too dissimilar from being a magazine writer,” he says.
As a “generalist,” Rodrick covers any topic he finds interesting—usually ricocheting from politics to sports to art and back again. But he specializes in profiles that dig deep and usually require embedding with his subjects for anywhere from days to weeks. He has covered celebrities like Lindsay Lohan and Johnny Depp, zeroing in on the complexities underneath the glossy veneer of celebrity. He uses the same lens to look at politicians and activists like Greta.
In the course of his career, he has bunked for three weeks with a Navy squadron, camped out for 19 days of a 23-day movie shoot, and spent 72 nocturnal hours with Captain Jack Sparrow, himself.
Just before the current pandemic froze our lives, he flew to Davos, Switzerland, then Stockholm, Sweden, before returning to the States to write his most recent profile for Rolling Stone on the controlled flame that is Greta Thunberg.
Rodrick is “on” for however many hours he is with a subject. In the case of Depp, it was 72 hours of meandering conversation in a darkly lit mansion through a haze of smoke and dimly sketched recollections. Every meeting began at sundown and ended at sunrise. “It’s exhausting,” Rodrick remembers.
His style is highly observational, and he mandates spending copious amounts of time with a subject to get to know them better, but it is not just the time spent that gets exhausting. It is the intense, active listening and attention to every detail.
To profile people as well-known as many of Rodrick’s subjects, finding the space between public and private personas, as well as where they overlap, is what draw his curiosity. He does not judge his subjects or go into a story to tear down their PR walls.
“You want to find some middle ground,” Rodrick says. “Like- ‘that is not their public image but here is who they really are. And in some ways, it’s more interesting than their public image.’”
Letting a reporter into your inner circle is vulnerable. Rodrick knows this acutely. And that sense of ethics and responsibility has grown with his career. Without it, Rodrick’s story on Johnny Depp could have been a simple takedown of Hollywood’s privileged elite. His profile of Greta Thunberg could have been one of the ego-inflating hero portrayals the young activist so thoroughly hates. But those stories were neither.
His glimpse into Depp’s private world reveals things as they are. He catches the pauses, the musings and regrets that pop up behind the actor’s eyes. In the case of Greta, he likewise sketches the brief, contemplative moments that might be missed by someone not paying attention.
When Rodrick was writing a story on a high school wrestling team, he gave the teenagers the option he would never present to someone in the public eye like Depp or Lohan. He told them that if they later regretted something they had told him, he would not include it in the published story.
After 20 years of writing for magazines, Rodrick has accumulated “a greater understanding of the impact that your words might have on somebody’s life.” These ethics govern everything he does. Sometimes it is choosing the anecdote for a story that will do the least harm to the person he is profiling. Other times, it is excising that one clever line that, while factual, may not be fair.
The landscape that Rodrick first entered when he began to write for magazines is changing every day as it has been for decades now. It is not that fewer people are reading Rodrick’s article now that it is digital as well as print. But the ways magazines generate revenue are adapting, just like the content they are producing.
“For what I do,” Rodrick acknowledges, “the internet has both been a godsend and a disaster.”
While Rodrick’s article is more accessible than ever, it is also easier than ever for anyone to summarize its contents in a list or a blog. But when a longform magazine piece is packaged into bite-sized trivia, readers lose the experience Rodrick had in mind. They lose the detail and the context that he spent weeks and months compiling based on thorough research and deep observation. They have lost the purpose of the piece.
“I’d like to think on some very small level a well-researched piece like this…gives you a glimpse into the human condition,” Rodrick reflects. “I think one reason I write a fair bit about creative people is because it’s like a free lesson seeing how other people create.”
We are the ones who benefit from his generalist reporting. The insights in his writing do not just teach us about the creative process or the political process. They also remind us of the scope of human endeavor.
eMagazines’ “Behind the Page” articles present you with an insider’s perspective on making the magazines that inform and inspire us. Conde Nast Traveler’s Corina Quinn speaks with us next on how COVID-19 has impacted her work as an editor, writer and head of the magazine’s City Guides.
Published on: May 14, 2020