Big Change for GOOD: When Publishing Content Isn’t Enough

336/365 By DorteF
336/365 By DorteF, via Flickr

GOOD was founded to do as much good in the world as possible and doesn’t feel like simply publishing content is going to accomplish that goal as much as it would like. We need to mobilize and organize a larger community of people than we employ and we felt like asking people to get involved without giving them a way to get involved (via a one-way, publishing-only platform) was very hypocritical. We feel the need to go beyond just telling people what to do or bringing things to their attention; we want to start finding ways to not only inform people but also to give them ways to make a difference.

Douglas Sellers, CTO of GOOD

I’m still pondering last week’s surprising news that GOOD laid off most of its editorial staff and was making a controversial pivot on an intriguing business model I’ve previously argued could never exist in the world of corporate publishing:

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.

A large part of GOOD’s appeal (to me, at least) was its unique business model, its compelling mission, and its target audience: “For People Who Give a Damn.” While not replicable in any scalable way, it had a far more noble mission than the mercenary and fickle “connecting advertisers to eyeballs” model of most magazines, and it looks like that mission ultimately forced a complete and radical rethinking of the magazine itself.

 Journalism was increasingly tangential to what the GOOD founders saw as its mission, staffers say…

“Why hire Ann [Friedman] if you don’t want really ambitious journalism?” [former Managing Editor Megan] Greenwell said. All the prospective editorial staffers had to write memos about their vision for the magazine, and Greenwell, a former Washington Post reporter, said [co-founder, Ben] Goldhirsh was receptive to the one she laid out. “I don’t think they were lying about anything when they hired us,” she said. “I think it changed over time.”

(Interlude) The Vexing C-Word: Containers

Without a shift in mindset, we are vulnerable to a range of current and future disruptive entrants. Containers limit how we think about our audiences. In stripping context, they also limit how audiences find our content.

Context First, Brian O’Leary

A few years back, in the midst of a huge downturn in ad revenue across the industry, I was Ad Director for three extremely print-centric magazines, none of which had a dedicated publisher, and at one point I presented the staff with a simple question: “What happens if three years from now the print magazine goes away?”

It was a jarring question, especially for the editorial teams, because our entire structure was built around the print magazine, from subscription and ad revenues to workflow and resources. A lot of magazines (and newspaper and book publishers, too) are in the same position today, struggling through the difficult process of transforming workflows, rethinking context, and dodging “disruptive entrants” every step along the way, many of whom don’t have any reliance on print-centric revenues, nor the burden of print-centric expenses.

It’s a challenge that comes with myriad potential solutions, and few proven successes, but it’s one that can’t be dodged.

The Controversial C-Word: Change

Some companies choose to go about change incrementally, while others, like GOOD, choose a more aggressive route. Only time will tell if they’ve made the right choice, but Goldhirsh’s email to remaining staffers, and co-founder Casey Caplowe’s public follow-up at least suggests a clear understanding of the enormity of the decision:

“I’m really proud that we made the tough decision here, have put the turmoil behind us, and I’m so stoked about all that lies ahead,” Goldhirsh wrote.

In an email late Monday night to Poynter, Caplowe shared Goldhirsh’s sentiments: “Tough decisions are made for a reason though, and I have never been more confident about our future – the people who work here, the community we’ve built, and new tools and offerings we have in the pipeline.”

More importantly, though, there’s a consistent throughline in their comments (including Sellers’) of a clear-eyed focus on their underlying mission:

“GOOD is a collaboration of individuals, businesses, and nonprofits pushing the world forward. Since 2006 we’ve been making a magazine, videos, and events for people who give a damn. …This isn’t easy, but we are not afraid to fail. We’ll figure it out as we go.”

About GOOD

Unlike most media brands, GOOD was never defined by the magazine it published, but rather the magazine was defined by GOOD’s underlying mission, one which remains unchanged despite this tactical shift, and they clearly believe it will become more achievable because they were willing to make some tough decisions, unafraid to fail as long as it was in support of their mission.

While their business model may not be replicable for most magazines, that uncompromising focus on their mission most definitely is. It might simply require thinking about things a bit differently. And actually having a mission beyond connecting advertisers to eyeballs.

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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.

4 thoughts on “Big Change for GOOD: When Publishing Content Isn’t Enough”

  1. I agree that the mission is not the same as the medium, and your post is a useful reminder for publishers, among many businesses.

    The way that GOOD handled the layoffs may have caused some of the recent buzz. If they had engaged with the staff earlier and in a more transparent manner, rather than host an issue party and then drop the crew, the subsequent focus might have been closer to your points.

    1. Yes, it does seem like clear and transparent communication with staff was lacking here, an unfortunately common aspect of this kind of change. (eg: The Times-Picayune) Odd, though, in that GOOD isn’t your typical soulless corporate publishing operation where you expect that sort of thing.

      A reminder that doing good starts at home, and GOOD’s execs should have taken “Be the change you want to see…” to heart.

  2. It really does come down to the mission (statement) of your company, no matter what you produce. What is your end goal? Who do you serve? GOOD was truly singular in mag publishing in their transparent collaboration with advertisers. I’m curious to see how they will evolve.

    1. Funny thing is I always saw myself as being within GOOD’s target audience, (philosophically, at least), but I never really connected with the magazine nor the website. I wouldn’t go as far as Sellers did and call it hypocritical, but I think he’s on the right track that they were missing a key connection to push interest into action.

      Definitely curious to see what comes next as I think there’s so much potential there.

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