Wenner was born in New York City and grew up in a secular Jewish family. His parents divorced in 1958, and he and his sisters, Kate and Merlyn, were sent to boarding schools to live. He graduated from high school at Chadwick School in 1963 and went on to attend the University of California at Berkeley. Before dropping out of Berkeley in 1966, Wenner was active in the Free Speech Movement and produced the column "Something's Happening" in the student-run newspaper, The Daily Californian. With the help of his mentor, San Francisco Chronicle jazz critic Ralph J. Gleason, Wenner landed a job at Ramparts, a high-circulation muckraker, where Gleason was a contributing editor and Wenner worked on the magazine's spinoff newspaper.
In 1967, Wenner and Gleason founded Rolling Stone in San Francisco. To get the magazine off the ground, Wenner borrowed $7500 from family members and from the family of his soon-to-be wife, Jane Schindelheim. Salon.com People | Wenner's world In the summer following the start of the magazine, Wenner and Schindelheim were married in a small Jewish ceremony.
Wenner backed the careers of writers such as Hunter S. Thompson, Joe Klein, Cameron Crowe, and Joe Eszterhas. Wenner also discovered photographer Annie Leibovitz when she was a 21-year-old San Francisco Art Institute student. Many of Wenner's proteges, such as writer/director Cameron Crowe, credit him with giving them their biggest break. Tom Wolfe recognized Wenner's influence in ensuring that his first novel, The Bonfire of the Vanities, was completed, stating "I was absolutely frozen with fright about getting it done and I decided to serialize it and the only editor crazy enough to do that was Jann."
In 1977, Rolling Stone shifted its base of operations from San Francisco to New York City.The magazine's circulation dipped briefly in the late 1970s/early 1980s as Rolling Stone responded slowly in covering the emergence of punk rock and again in the 1990s, when it lost ground to Spin and Blender in coverage of hip hop. Wenner hired former FHM editor Ed Needham, who was then replaced by Will Dana, to turn his flagship magazine around, and by 2006, Rolling Stone's circulation was at an all-time high of 1.5 million copies sold every fortnight. In May 2006, Rolling Stone published its 1000th edition with a holographic, 3-D cover modeled on The Beatles' Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band album cover.
Wenner has been involved in the conducting and writing of many of the magazine's famous Rolling Stone Interviews. Some of his more recent interview subjects have included: Bill Clinton, Al Gore, John Kerry, and Barack Obama for the magazine during their election campaigns and in November 2005 had a major interview with U2 rockstar Bono, which focused on music and politics. Wenner's interview with Bono received a National Magazine Award nomination.
Rolling Stone and Jann Wenner are chronicled in two books, Gone Crazy and Back Again as well as Rolling Stone: The Uncensored History. Former Rolling Stone journalist David Weir is working on a biography, as is poet and Beat historian Lewis MacAdams.
Wenner founded the magazine Outside in 1977; William Randolph Hearst III and Jack Ford both worked for the magazine before Wenner sold it a year later. He also briefly managed the magazine Look and in 1993, started the magazine Family Life. In 1985, he bought a share in Us Weekly, followed by a joint purchase of the magazine with The Walt Disney Company the following year. The magazine went weekly in 2000; after a rocky start, it now reaches over 11 million readers a week. In August 2006, Wenner bought out Disney's share and now owns 100% of the magazine.
Working with a small group of distinguished record company heads and music industry professionals, Wenner co-founded the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Foundation in 1983.
He also produced Boz Scaggs's self-titled major label debut album in 1969.
In 1985, he produced and appeared as himself in the movie Perfect with Jamie Lee Curtis and John Travolta. He also had cameo roles in Cameron Crowe's films Jerry Maguire and Almost Famous.
The American Society of Magazine Editors inducted Wenner into their Hall of Fame in 1997, making him the youngest editor ever inducted.
In 2004, Wenner was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in the Lifetime Achievement category.
Wenner also made a guest "appearance" in the Marvel Comic "Daredevil" issue 100 in 1973, in which he interviews the Superhero, who is thereby motivated to remember his origins (which he shares with the readers of the comic, but not with Wenner.)
In 1985, Wenner had a Rolling Stone cover photograph of Don Johnson digitally edited to remove the handgun and holster from the Miami Vice star because of Wenner's opposition to handguns.
In June 2007, Monkees bassist Peter Tork alleged to the New York Post that Wenner is excluding the group from the Rock and Roll Hall Of Fame and Museum. Tork claims that Wenner who co-founded and is a vice-chairman of the Cleveland-based museum, "doesn't care what the rules are and just operates how he sees fit. It is an abuse of power. I don't know whether The Monkees belong in the Hall of Fame, but it's pretty clear that we're not in there because of a personal whim." Tork believes Wenner doesn't like the fact that The Monkees, who were originally cast as actors for a TV sitcom, didn't play their own instruments on their first two records. "Jann seems to have taken it harder than everyone else, and now, 40 years later, everybody says, 'What's the big deal? Everybody else does it.' Nobody cares now except him. He feels his moral judgment in 1967 and 1968 is supposed to serve in 2007."
Wenner has endured a bit of controversy during his career, as it relates to his involvement in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Fans and supporters of several artists, which include Chicago, Deep Purple, Kiss, Electric Light Orchestra, Yes, Jethro Tull, Linda Ronstadt, Neil Diamond, The B-52s, ELP, Rush, The Guess Who, Bachman Turner Overdrive, and The Moody Blues have placed a large amount of blame on Wenner for keeping them out of the Hall of Fame. They claim Wenner has lobbied to keep them from consideration and nomination to the Hall based on personal bias and a dislike for their music.
Wenner also received some controversy when he fired notable rock critic Jim DeRogatis in 1996 after DeRogatis published a negative review for an album by the, then popular, band Hootie and the Blowfish. Wenner was reportedly angry because the band's record label, Atlantic Records, bought lots of advertising in the magazine and were expecting a good review for the band's sophomore effort, Fairweather Johnson. Wenner pulled DeRogatis' review from the magazine. Asked by the New York Observer if Wenner was a fan of Hootie and the Blowfish, DeRogatis responded that Wenner "is a fan of any band that sells eight million records." Wenner fired DeRogatis the next day.
In the fall of 2007, Wenner published an oral biography of Hunter S. Thompson titled "Gonzo: The Life of Hunter S. Thompson." Co-written with Corey Seymour, this work traces the life of Thompson as told through the stories of those closest to him.