OPINION: Stuart Elliott in America

Days away from 4 July, when America celebrates its independence from England, Madison Avenue is marvelling over the new dependence on all things British. The first episodes of American Idol: The Search for a Superstar on Fox, adapted from the British smash Pop Idol, were ratings winners, with the second installment outdrawing the first, a rarity in US TV.

Then there's the deal signed by Sarah Ferguson, Duchess of York, with Universal Television Enterprises to host a daytime talk-variety series, tentatively planned to start in fall 2003.

Perhaps most significant was the hiring of a British editor, Ed Needham of FHM, as the new managing editor of one of the quintessential American publications, Rolling Stone, by Jann Wenner, one of the premier meisters of US print media. Needham was, you may recall, the editor of the UK edition of FHM for two years before being dispatched to New York in 1999 to run the new US version. FHM has been a huge success on American soil, emulating Felix Dennis' Maxim, which arrived earlier; FHM's circulation has climbed from the initial 225,000 to more than one million, making it America's fastest-growing magazine.

"Wenner's decision to bring in a British editor seemed a surprise to some, Keith J Kelly, the magazine reporter for The New York Post, wrote, "because Rolling Stone had been such an iconic part of American counter-culture. But Needham told Kelly he didn't think that would be a problem because "everyone's second culture is American. We've all grown up watching American TV shows and celebrities."

Whatever Needham watched as a lad, the challenge he has accepted is daunting.

Rolling Stone, founded in 1967, is perceived as off its game, striving mightily to hold on to circulation and advertising pages in the face of intensifying competition from magazines that cover music, entertainment and popular culture. Complicating matters is the attractiveness of Maxim, FHM, Stuff and other US versions of the British "laddie books to the younger male readers Rolling Stone once had to itself. Agencies at first were wary of those magazines, worried that the contents were too tasteless for their clients, but changed their minds when the marketers became impressed by the rapidly rising circulation figures.

By hiring Needham, according to David Carr, who covers magazines for The New York Times, Wenner is signaling "the end of Rolling Stone's history as a publisher of epic narratives and literary journalism". The plans call for the jettisoning of articles that sometimes run to 10,000 words in favour of shorter, newsier stories that will appeal more to males aged 18 to 34, along with more eye-catching photos that the target audience sees in the US laddie magazines.

For years, Rolling Stone has had a dual editorial mission. It reports on the freshest fads that appeal to its youthful readers, from Beavis and Butt-head to The Osbournes, but it also includes coverage of the musicians, actors and politicians who resonate with its original readers as typified by Wenner himself. Many on Madison Avenue urged Wenner to relinquish that approach in favour of the one followed by books such as 17, Cosmopolitan and Glamour, which "super-serve readers in a certain demographic group, then bid them farewell when they age and welcome the next batch to arrive as they mature.

That's the direction it seems Needham will be taking, supported by a new art director, Andy Cowles, who recently arrived from Mademoiselle and before that, Q. Yes, Cowles is British, too. Anyone want to toast Independence Day with a spot of English tea?

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