Is the Future of Publishing…GOOD?

Don't Believe Everything You ReadThe bad news in the publishing industry didn’t let up last week as reports of cutbacks and layoffs and dramatically decreased revenues continued to pour in, and TheMediaIsDying tweeted every depressing bit of it, from major publications to small local radio stations, the rare bit of positive news they offered up paling in comparison.

One tweet in particular caught my eye because the issue in question had just arrived in the mail, one of several unsolicited “trial subscriptions” that have come my way recently, presumably to shore up increasingly problematic rate bases for ad-supported magazines:

themediaisdying The February WIRED is only 113 pages, of which only 31.5 are ad pages, per alleyinsider.com – not the usual 1:1 ratio. (@woodenhorsepub) 10:55 AM Jan 23rd from TweetDeck

Interestingly, there’s a letter to the editor in that issue that tweaks Wired about the amount of advertising they usually run, with a surprisingly defensive (and five times as long) reply that concludes with: “P.S.: Advertisers, please do not read this note.”

About an hour before that depressing tweet, GOOD magazine’s blog ran an interesting, if somewhat self-serving post, “Don’t Be (Quite As) Evil“, that posed the question, more or less, What if companies stopped advertising completely and, instead, put that money towards doing good things and getting PR for it?

These are scary days if you’re in the ad business, and not because the economy has bolted out from under us and off into a canyon. No, it’s scary because on the other side, there’s more terror still, because even when consumers begin to buy again, it’ll be harder to reach them. They don’t buy print media; they skip past television ads using their DVRs; they ignore pop-ups and banner ads online. And even if they’ve noticed your ads and go shopping for your gizmo, your $300 million ad-spend might be undone by a single, anonymous reviewer on Amazon: “This product sucks.”

Against that background of flailing ad effectiveness, companies are shifting their ad budgets, one tiny step at a time, towards meaningful P.R., dedicated to noble causes. But what’s stopping a massive company from working at a grander scale, to really do something?

The unavoidable answer: It’s because of you. It’s because you’re too uninformed, too indifferent, and too cynical. I’ll explain. Consumers haven’t quite yet proven that they put money where they’re morals are—or that they’re willing to spend the time and effort to figure out what’s moral to begin with. Too often, cynicism yields to blanket indictments of “corporate America,” which leaves businesses with few incentives to try harder. What really prevents big companies from investing more is the nagging fear that you, the consumer, won’t notice. Or what’s worse, that even if you do, you’ll never reward them for it.

Despite being marred by a gross over-simplification of how advertising works and an unfortunate “blame the reader” angle, it’s worth reading as its underlying premise is sound: companies should do good things and tell people about their efforts.

In the context of advertising vs. PR, though, and the currently precarious state of publishing, as the cover of their second issue (above) noted: “Don’t Believe Everything You Read”.

As someone who works in publishing and has dealt many times with the implied and overt expectations that advertising = editorial coverage [thankfully, I’ve yet to work for a magazine that crossed that line], I think equating doing good work for the PR hit with paid advertising is not just ill-informed about how advertising done correctly works, but is treading dangerous ground, potentially opening an ethical can of worms.

If I inherited significant millions of dollars, one of the things I’ve always said I’d do is publish a literary magazine that prominently featured poetry and would endow it generously so it wouldn’t fall victim to the fickle ebb and flow of advertising revenue. (If it happened tomorrow, though, I’d be very tempted to put it towards saving Garden & Gun instead, but that’s another, though not completely unrelated, story.)

Ben Goldhirsh found himself in pretty much the exact same situation a few years ago and came up with a very interesting idea, not just a magazine, but a multi-media platform “for people who want to live well and do good… a company and community for the people, businesses, and NGOs moving the world forward.”

He called his idea GOOD, added the catchy tagline “For People Who Give a Damn”, and launched it into the unforgiving consumer marketplace backed by $2.5 million from his trust fund.

Last September, the New York Observer ran an interesting article about the improbable start-up, “Hurts so Good“:

The photogenic Mr. Goldhirsh, just 26 years old [when he launched GOOD], was starting a socially conscious magazine and movie company with almost no experience (but a lot of talented, eager friends) upon becoming mind-bogglingly wealthy after the death of his father, Inc. magazine founder Bernard Goldhirsh.

The elder Mr. Goldhirsh, who sold his entrepreneurship magazine for a reported $200 million to Gruner + Jahr in 2000, created the philanthropic Goldhirsh Foundation.

GOOD, which the younger Mr. Goldhirsh was funding with $2.5 million from his own trust fund and whose mostly 20-something staff included Al Gore’s son, “Big Al” III, would be progressive but not partisan; dense with information, but not wonkish. The subscription price would be donated to charities through a program called “Choose Good,” reinforcing the company’s goal to be both a business and a force for social change.

The company’s dual purposes—or, to the less favorably inclined, dueling purposes—are united right there in its corporate URL: Goodinc.com. GOOD would be more than just a magazine, a Web site, or a film company: It sought to position itself at the forefront of a new social movement, to be the embodiment of a growing, nameless sensibility that found itself echoed in young people’s embrace of Barack Obama (or before him, Howard Dean), eco tote bags, and socially conscious retailers like American Apparel or Whole Foods.

I’ve read a couple of issues of GOOD that caught my eye on the newsstands and recently subscribed to its RSS feed, and I’m comfortable in saying that I’m in their target audience, though perhaps slightly to the right of their bullseye. While its reach arguably exceeds its grasp, much like my embracing of Barack Obama’s candidacy days before the Iowa caucuses last year, I’ll take an ambitious effort that might fall short over business as usual any day. As a reader, I absolutely love the idea of GOOD and laud Goldhirsh’s putting his own money behind it.

Of course, I also wanted Dennis Kucinich to get the nod for the Democratic Party back in 2004 and believe that I could publish a successful magazine built on poetry, so context is important!

Goldhirsh’s $2.5 million sounds like a lot of money, but for a magazine that’s as high-quality as GOOD is, that donates 100% of its subscription revenue to non-profit organizations, and has the kind of surprisingly bloated masthead GOOD sported in its Sept/Oct 2008 issue, they’ve probably burned through most if not all of that cash already. Even if ultimately successful, their business model certainly isn’t replicable on any notable scale and isn’t a potential template for the future of publishing.

One thing they’re doing very well, though, and that is definitely replicable, is that they’re fully leveraging the platform they’ve built/are building to benefit both their readers and their advertisers. They treat their readers with enough respect to offer them high-quality content in a variety of formats, while staying true to their mission to be “a collaboration of individuals, businesses, and nonprofits pushing the world forward.” In the spirit of Seth Godin’s Tribes, they have made the decision to lead and are attracting a tribe that wants to follow them.

Equally important, they treat their advertisers like partners not just a revenue stream, exhorting them to “authentically engage” their audience, not just pitch products at them. In their media kit they state that they are “working to create partnerships that help businesses make money and do good while engaging our audience in a powerful way.” There is no rate card.

In the world of corporate publishing, where faceless investors with little to no experience in publishing make short-sighted decisions to squeeze every potential drop of life profit out of their “portfolio”, a magazine like GOOD could never exist. That it does anyway offers hope for anyone willing to think a little differently. That certainly worked out for Obama, no?

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Guy LeCharles Gonzalez

As in guillotine. Old/new media pragmatist. Sometimes loud, one-time poet, still opinionated. Reading, writing, running, gaming, soccer, beer.

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