When Ben Goldhirsh launched GOOD magazine two years ago, he offered journalists an irresistible story. It was A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius meets Brewster’s Millions featuring the cast of MTV’s Real World, but for a progressive Current.TV audience.
The photogenic Mr. Goldhirsh, just 26 years old at the time, 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.
There’s a risk in attaching a magazine to an untested, unfocused “movement”: A shift in the wind, and you could wind up like George (whose first cover promised “Not Just Politics as Usual”) or Swing, a failed “Gen-X” magazine launched by Ralph Lauren’s son, David, in 1994 (when Mr. Goldhirsh was still in middle school). Catch it, though, and you could be Wired, Rolling Stone, or (dare Mr. Goldhirsh to think it!) Inc.
But to do that, the magazine would have to grow up.
Sharon Waxman, then of The New York Times, filed a condescending Style section story pegged to the launch of the magazine (headline: “A Magazine for Earnest Young Things”), which among its details included Mr. Goldhirsh’s Phillips Academy Andover diploma, and the length of twine that held up his pants.
The Los Angeles Times West Magazine managed to catch Mr. Goldhirsh at that moment between amateurism and professionalism, where an interview subject is still flattered to talk to the press and unguarded about what he says. He quoted the Notorious B.I.G. to writer Douglas McGray (“a lot of the life lessons my dad tried to pass on to me bear a striking similarity to Biggie’s 10 Crack Commandments”) and even talked about the night of his father’s funeral when “I got laid, in my yard, under the stars.”
Most of the early press focused on Mr. Goldhirsh’s youth and inexperience and took great pleasure in mentioning Mr. Goldhirsh’s dog, Daryl, having the run of the office. “Much of the enterprise has the scattershot feel of a dormitory where the kids are putting on a show,” wrote The Times’ Ms. Waxman. “Neither Mr. Goldhirsh nor his top lieutenants seem to have a clue of the circulation numbers at other magazines they admire and cite as the kind of company they would like to keep.”
More recently, though, the bimonthly magazine was nominated for two National Magazine Awards, and is still afloat in an increasingly hostile newsstand environment, an especially difficult feat given that it doesn’t rely on celebrity covers or news-cycle-dependent stories. The current issue features no focus group’s idea of a big seller: A concept cover of a multiple-choice test form that spells out “HELP” with the headline “In the fight over public education, is anyone winning?” Amazingly, in an industry that continues to slough off talent, GOOD is hiring. (Yes, even in the editorial department.)
But the real sign that the magazine is growing up came six months ago, when the company brought in a new—a real—CEO. Jonathan Greenblatt, a 37-year-old former Clinton White House staffer and co-founder of Ethos Water, which he sold to Starbucks for $8 million in 2005, took the title over from Mr. Goldhirsh himself.
“I got scared,” Mr. Goldhirsh told The Observer. “I personally got scared and I personally got stressed out about my ability to execute and really actualize the potential of the whole thing. And that for me wasn’t fun at all.” (Mr. Goldhirsh remains chairman of the company.)
The Sept. 14 issue of The New York Times will encase a mini-issue of the magazine (sponsored by the car company MINI) that will feature updated content from previous issues. And this week, GOOD is scheduled to launch its new Web site, Good.is, which they intend to make more than just an extension of the magazine.
The site will feature more video, including a recently launched series called “America Love It or Fix It,” which will roll out a dozen new installments as the election season continues. Mr. Goldhirsh’s film company, Reason Pictures, will be scaling back its feature film ambitions—including a project called Marching Powder that has Don Cheadle attached to it—in order to focus on Web and mobile video.
During a recent swing through New York for press meet-and-greets, GOOD’s newish CEO, Mr. Greenblatt, exuded none of the “scattershot feel” noted by Ms. Waxman in 2006. Mr. Greenblatt and Mr. Goldhirsh couldn’t be more different in their approach to the press: Mr. Greenblatt seems more likely to quote a management textbook than the Notorious B.I.G., and comes equipped with press kits and a polite but vigilant PR rep. When Mr. Goldhirsh ends his conversation with a reporter, he signs off with “peace, brotha”; Mr. Greenblatt offers one of those bone-crushing M.B.A. handshakes.
Sitting in the glassed-in conference room above GOOD’s New York office, a bottle of Ethos water at his side, Mr. Greenblatt lays out his mission with succinct, PowerPointed language: “The mandate is to help mature GOOD and take it from what was once a very magazine-centered business to a diversified media company.”
Will a new CEO, partnerships with companies like BMW (which owns MINI), prominent ad buys from companies like BP (on the back cover of the May/June “Don’t Be Scared of China” issue), and a growing profile challenge the core values that make GOOD good?
“This is a serious challenge for our company,” Mr. Goldhirsh says. “If we sacrifice the culture that this whole thing started with—this kind of ‘fail hard, fuck it all, let’s just do it’—you know, if we lose that, then that’s a shame. And then we’ll fail in the long term. Or, if in pursuit of success we alter our definition of what success is, start making little subtle sacrifices that deteriorate the mission, you know, then we failed, too.
“For me, it’s what’s keeps me up at night.”