Hurts So Good

When Ben Goldhirsh launched GOOD magazine two years ago, he offered journalists an irresistible story. It was A Heartbreaking Work

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.

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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: 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.

Hurts So Good