June 6, 2012

Max Schorr isn’t interested in engaging in what he calls “he said/she said back and forth” with the former staffers of GOOD, the magazine he cofounded that laid off most of its editorial staff last Friday. Over email, Schorr politely expresses great respect toward the employees who’ve left and a vague sense of what’s next for GOOD: “At the end of the day, we just want to create solutions that work for the world and live up to our organization’s potential through the work we create vs. anything we could share here in type,” Schorr writes.

A job ad apparently posted by the company on Craigslist Tuesday casts not a great deal more light on GOOD’s plans: It’s a position at something called GOOD Maker, “an online platform that crowdsources ideas and actions on critical social issues.” GOOD Maker will allow organizations to “create ‘challenges’ that ask the broader community to submit ideas or take actions that engage them in the challenge creator’s mission. Through these challenges, we tap into the GOOD community’s energy and creativity and give people new ways to make good happen.”

At least we know what some of the employees are going to be doing: On Tuesday Alexander Abad-Santos broke the news in The Atlantic Wire that some of the former staffers will put together a probably one-off magazine called Tomorrow, something former Managing Editor Megan Greenwell confirmed to Poynter Tuesday afternoon and the Tomorrowers announced to the world in a Tumblr post that evening.

Still, the story of what brought GOOD’s journalistic operation to such a strange end hasn’t been told in detail. The following is pieced together from multiple interviews with staffers who left. Like Schorr, cofounder Casey Caplowe declined to comment on the staff accounts here, but he did frame the layoffs as a tough call that’ll leave the company stronger: “Our mission is to maximize good in the world, and to that end, we are evolving our platform in a way that will allow the whole GOOD community to engage more deeply—to learn and do things that make ourselves and our world better,” he wrote in an email to me. Ben Goldhirsh, the third cofounder, didn’t reply to any emails or phone calls.

How things fell apart

Last March, GOOD hired Ann Friedman to edit its magazine, an earnest Web and quarterly print property. Journalists followed, welcomed to the company by owners seemingly eager to implement her vision of building on GOOD’s “reputation for positive, solutions-oriented journalism while pushing it a bit—making it funnier, edgier,” as Friedman told Julie Greicius just last month. Over the next year, though, GOOD’s cofounders slowly revealed an evolving, competing vision, one communicated in multiple meetings illustrated with PowerPoint presentations. GOOD would become less a magazine and more a “content driven media platform” or maybe a “community-driven engagement platform.” (A “Reddit for social good” is how Greenwell described the plans to CJR’s Alysia Santo.)

One three-hour meeting in March stands out to several staffers as the moment they realized GOOD’s days as a traditional publication were probably numbered. That’s when the owners presented their most thorough refinement of their ideas. At the end of the presentation they showed a slide with an org chart, and Greenwell wasn’t on it. “I burst out laughing and said, ‘Max, I’m not on there,’ ” Greenwell recalls. “He said, ‘Oh man, that was a total oversight, it was a mistake.’ The meeting didn’t go well anyway. The staff, defensive about what they saw as ownership devaluing their jobs, were asking tough questions that bummed out the owners so much Schorr sent an email to staffers saying he’d been hoping for a lot more “Yes, and” responses than the “No, but” ones he was receiving.

There’s a word that embodies the growing enthusiasm gap between the magazine’s idealistic owners, who thought they’d found a way to unify their brand’s somewhat confusing faces, and the journalists who made its magazine: “They always wanted us to be more stoked,” Greenwell said.

After the March meeting, staff contact with the owners petered out. Last Thursday, to celebrate GOOD’s summer issue, the magazine threw its customary launch party, this time at an “arts + innovation” complex called Atwater Crossing and for the first time with a cover charge — $10 got you a copy of the new issue and all you could drink. The staff wasn’t in particularly high spirits, though: Caplowe had sent an email to staffers telling them to prepare for a mandatory meeting at noon the next day. As the night went on, several staffers confirmed to me, they’d figured out that Friedman, who many said had been frustrated with the fuzziness of the cofounders’ new vision, was going to be fired. Over drinks, tongues loosened and many of them said they realized their jobs were about to change dramatically or even end. At a staff-only afterparty at a colleague’s house, they talked about how proud they were of what they’d done in their short time together.

Friday, almost all of them were fired.

The evolution of GOOD

GOOD has always been a little hard to explain to cynics, from the goofy all-caps name to its twee insistence that a magazine could change the world for the better. It launched in 2006 when Goldhirsh, the heir to a magazine fortune, wrangled buddies from Phillips Academy Andover and Brown University to forge a different type of publication: “New Age meets new money Volunteerism meets the consumerist imperative,” Sharon Waxman described it at the time in a story in The New York Times. Goldhirsh explained the space GOOD was hoping to operate in:

“If you go to any top college and meet the students, they all have these causes. And when they graduate, they have idealism as an ambition. There’s a real gap between that vision and what you can actually do. So we want to integrate living well and doing good.”

GOOD donated its subscription fees to charities of its subscribers’ choosing. It threw parties. Advertising was mostly carrying the difference, Goldhirsh told Foreign Policy’s Carolyn O’Hara the following year. In 2011, GOOD acquired Jumo, a social network that raises money for nonprofits, folding it in with the magazine and GOOD/Corps, its marketing agency, which exists to help brands “transform the values at the core of their identity into actionable solutions that improve their business and the world.”

“I’ve always felt the real potential of GOOD was to connect people wanting to take action with the organizations and businesses that could help them do that, and Jumo is the connective tissue that will allow and enable that to happen,” Goldhirsh told Stephanie Strom at The New York Times.

Relations between GOOD/Corps and the magazine were sometimes fraught. Three former staffers told me Schorr would refer to GOOD/Corps’ clients as “our friends”; Greenwell said “Max would say we don’t want to talk about our friends that way,” when arguing against an editorial decision. GOOD/Corps’ client-friendly mission would appear on its face to present sticky conflicts between the magazine’s utopian impulses (Pepsi, one of GOOD/Corps’ clients, makes a lot of products not exactly in GOOD magazine’s editorial sweet spot) and its need to stay afloat: “It was always a strange relationship when an agency and a publication were run under the same roof,” Greenwell said, stressing that she got along fine with GOOD/Corps’ employees and editorial incursions were rare.

Journalism was increasingly tangential to what the GOOD founders saw as its mission, staffers say. Goldhirsh, Caplowe and Schorr repeatedly cited lifestyle editor Amanda Hess’ November 2011 profile of porn star James Deen as not being on-brand for GOOD (the story, about a community of teenage girls that had coalesced around Deen’s performances, was apparently highly regarded in the corridors of ABC). It was a high-impact piece and a signature achievement of Friedman’s tenure: A young writer tearing a hole in the the world around her and finding redemptive aspects even in one of California’s supposedly least-savory industries. (I used to work with Hess.)

“Why hire Ann if you don’t want really ambitious journalism?” 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 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.”

The GOOD future

Really, GOOD has two audiences — one jazzed about its brand and another that liked the magazine. If you follow journalists on Twitter you heard a lot from the latter after the layoffs: “Not GOOD” was a typical reaction to my story about them. Then on Monday, GOOD posted a video made the week before featuring the by-then laid-off staffers thanking readers for giving GOOD 200,000 “friends” on Facebook. Greenwell says posting the video “demonstrates to me a misunderstanding of what people’s understanding of what GOOD is.” To the owners, it’s a beloved brand that had to make some tough choices, and the outrage on the post was limited to two negative comments.

Goldhirsh wrote an email to GOOD’s remaining staffers Monday to reassure them no further cuts were planned. “We’re profitable through the first half of the year, and this is probably one of the first times in the company’s history where layoffs were made not because of financial pressure, but for strategic reasons,” he wrote. “And this brings me to the second question on deliberation. Layoffs are a really tough call to make. And frankly, it’s easier to make them when financial pressure is the catalyst. But that wasn’t the case here. This was about the direction of the business and the path to manifesting the very exciting potential ahead.”

And yep, that word popped up again: “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.” He wasn’t “prepared to get into real specifics on this just yet,” he wrote.

GOOD’s got a public beta of a new site that combines aggregation and original content; members of GOOD’s community can apparently submit articles to the site that can in turn be voted up by other members. This “GOOD Finder” feature appears on GOOD’s homepage as well. On a post on her own site, Friedman wrote, “Although GOOD is no longer interested in defining itself as a destination for high-quality editorial content, there are a lot of lessons that journalists and media companies could—and should—learn from GOOD.”

As for Tomorrow, Greenwell told me the idea got hashed out over takeout Thai food at her Los Angeles apartment, with former associate editor Nona Willis Aronowitz and Hess, who are both in New York at the moment, patched in over speakerphone and discussing their dream magazine. They’re betting that Friedman’s team was what people loved about GOOD. “We were the public face of GOOD. People were supporting what we were creating and putting out into the world because that was the real thing.”

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Andrew Beaujon reported on the media for Poynter from 2012 to 2015. He was previously arts editor at TBD.com and managing editor of Washington City…
Andrew Beaujon

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