If you care at all about U.S. politics, chances are you’ve heard about the Rolling Stone profile of General Stanley McChrystal that could cost the commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan his job.

The magazine sent copies of of its explosive interview with the general to other news outlets yesterday. But it didn’t put the story online until today, leaving precious hours for other websites to discuss and reprint the story in its entirety. There are arguments to be made for preserving print. And then there’s shooting your page views in the foot.

Michael Hastings, the freelancer who wrote “The Runaway General,” reportedly got some help with the story from the volcano eruption that grounded planes this Spring. He spent a week with the general and his troops rather than the shorter period that had been planned. But RollingStone.com was hurt by its own print bias.

The magazine sent excerpts of the story to other news organizations yesterday. The Associated Press ran with a story yesteday afternoon, and online news outlets ran with things from there. Politico and Time magazine linked to PDFs of the full story. But none of that info was available on the Rolling Stone website. It took until 11A today for the magazine to realize that the story could be useful to them online.

Instead of RollingStone.com getting the majority of the traffic for its big scoop, the site was boasting a picture of Lady Gaga wearing these:

As Yahoo’s Michael Calderone put it:

“While a magazine understandably wants to reap the financial benefits of
having a major, deeply reported story only available on the newsstand,
the idea of holding breaking news for print doesn’t easily mesh with
the demands of the 24/7 online news cycle. Not to mention, with McChrystal summoned to the White House
to discuss his comments made in front of reporter Michael Hastings, the
public is going to want to know what he actually said.”  

RollingStone often holds its content for the print publication, but this particular strategy was botched from the beginning. Magazine spokesman Mark Neschis tells Yahoo that he sent an advancer to the AP. But the magazine could just have easily put a teaser on its site and sent other outlets links.

McChrystal is currently en route to the White House to be chastised and potentially resign (UPDATE: he has now resigned). The magazine got Politico and Time to take down their PDFs when it put the story up on RollingStone.com, but key hours were wasted.

Will people now go to newsstands this weekend and purchase Rolling Stone’s story? That’s unclear. But letting other news sources get the initial traffic online and then belatedly posting the whole thing is clearly not the best strategy. Rolling Stone’s traffic is surely spiking today. But the site could have gotten even more readers if they’d taken a proactive rather than a reactive digital approach to today’s news.