The DoGooders

By Simon Yau

History has been influenced dramatically by wars, weather, technological innovation, and myriad other social causes.

Not surprisingly perhaps, magazines rank rather low on that list – probably somewhere between the invention of the unicycle, and Mountain Dew Code Red.

As ubiquitous and accessible as magazines are, we simply don’t associate the medium with being a catalyst for actual change. We regularly read magazines, but often expect little more than a morsel of interesting news to keep our conversational skills relevant at the next office party.

We don’t expect a magazine to change our lives.

But Ben Goldhirsh does.

In the summer of 2005, out in the suburbs of West Hollywood, Goldhirsh and his small group of friends wracked their brains about how to breathe a little life into a big idea. For Ben, the son and heir of Bernard Goldhirsh, late founder of Inc. Magazine, the goal was simple: he wanted to change the world.

Lounging around in their little yellow house, Goldhirsh and his friends found themselves frustrated by the mainstream media. Goldhirsh saw that there were great ideas floating around his college campus, and even in some of his classes. But these ideas were trapped in books; relegated to the ivory towers of intellectual discourse and thesis level essays. Goldhirsh felt these ideas deserved to see the light of day. So naturally, he did what any well-meaning individual with the keys to a multi-million dollar charitable foundation would do. He started his own media empire.

GOOD magazine, a bi-monthly publication, debuted on newsstands in the U.S. nationally in the fall of 2006.  Alongside Reason Pictures – a production company Goldhirsh founded to produce socially relevant films – the philanthropic minded USC dropout has managed to create an independent media platform for emerging and world changing ideas.

Of the various mediums however, it is the print vehicle that has quickly emerged as the backbone of Goldhirsh’s vision. And just as its creators had hoped, GOOD is pushing the envelope in terms of concept, design and social relevance.

“There wasn’t a magazine that was speaking to us on the newsstands,” explains Goldhirsh from GOOD’s California headquarters. Although he says there were a few other publications dealing with relevant content in an entertaining way, none had really taken the initiative to step into the huge void that was present in the media.

“It’s weird,” he says, “because when relevant stuff does come out, it usually does well. If you look at rappers, everybody loves Tupac, or Biggie. But if you look at the artists that those two are influenced by, they look up to guys who rapped about real, relevant issues. Somewhere along the line, the concept of good got soft. All we’re trying to do is give good some teeth.”

To bare those teeth, GOOD threw down a challenging personal manifesto on the cover of its debut issue: “[blank] like you give a damn.”

“That sentence had to do with the notion of taking  ‘good’ out of that soft space and putting it into a powerful, active place,” explains Patrick James, a founding member of GOOD’s editorial staff.  “What we wanted to do was take the idea of GOOD out of this marginalized space, and make it something powerful, and something sexy, and something that could really drive people.”

James describes their target demographic as young people aged 18 to 35 who “care about the world,” noting that “part of the mission for GOOD is providing information and disseminating it in a way that is worth paying attention to… the idea is hopefully that there’s a cross-section between entertainment and relevance. And we hope to be at that intersection.”

Growing organically from the meager brainstorming sessions Goldhirsh had with his pals, GOOD’s humble beginnings belie its production quality and design. “Essentially it’s a bunch of kids coming together, all passionate about this idea we couldn’t exactly articulate in a few words, but with a palpable sense of urgency,” explains James. The staff is growing, currently up to 25, but even after moving out of Goldhirsh’s little yellow house, the backdrop of the magazine is still decidedly grassroots.

“The vast majority of us, everything that we’re doing, we’re doing for the first time,” says James. “But we’re young, motivated, and unwilling to settle for anything but success.”

One of the magazine’s most unique ideas has been its “Choose GOOD” campaign to raise $1-million in subscription fees to be fully donated to charity. Subscribers are allowed to choose one of 12 causes they wish to direct their subscription fees towards, including the World Wildlife Fund, UNICEF, and Ashoka, an organization dedicated to supporting entrepreneurship in developing countries.

“We seek to talk about relevant, socially concerned matters,” James explains, summarizing that the magazine’s editorial philosophy is to shed light on “people trying to change the world.”

Regular sections include biographies and product reviews that fall in line with the same social sensibilities of GOOD, as well a regular section titled “Transparency”: a series of pages containing statistics and information about culture, commerce, and global issues. Often, this information is presented through the use of digital art, using reconstituted clichés such as pie charts and bar graphs. Essentially, “transparency” is the Harpers Index for the MTV generation.

As with all new ideas however, there are inherent risks. Ken Alexander, editor of The Walrus, one of Canada’s preeminent editorial magazines, explains from first hand experience that producing a magazine with relevant content almost always comes at a cost.

Although Alexander has heard very little of GOOD’s foray into the arena of published idealism, he says he is “all for it” to succeed. However, he is pragmatic about GOOD’s desire to also capitalize on that altruism.

“I suspect that there won’t be any profits,” says Alexander bluntly. “If you’re in the business of extricating ideas, you’re not a profit making magazine really.

“Magazines like Harpers, Mother Jones, The Atlantic ... they’re all bankrolled by some sort of philanthropy,” continued The Walrus editor.  “They all lose some sort of money.”

“It’s tough,” says Alexander, describing the high price that comes with being in the business of ideas. “Most magazines are just a vehicle for advertising,” he explains, before concluding with a shot at the disproportionate balance between dollars and sense in today’s magazine industry: “If you like the editorial content in The Walrus, it’s probably because we’re not telling you what shoes to buy.”

Goldhirsh reveals that there was some debate about whether or not to run GOOD as a non-profit organization. “We didn’t want to be just throwing stones from the periphery. A lot of us grew up loving capitalism, and we need to think about how to use the market structure for our benefit,” he says.

“We definitely are trying something different,” adds James. “Positive action and success aren’t mutually exclusive,” he says resolutely. “We want to be making money; we just want to do it in a responsible way. Most of the people here are 26 or younger … and we’re a generation built and raised on the benefits of capitalism, but we’ve also seen it really mishandled. We’d like to find a way to kind of marry profitability and heritability.”

To the magazine’s credit, it’s working.

With an estimated readership of 125,000 and growing, the GOOD word is spreading. And although the magazine’s “Choose GOOD” campaign has currently recouped a mere $273,000 of the $1-million it has donated to charity, the magazine seems to have tapped into an emotional and populist sentiment among readers – partly on the strengths of the print medium.

“A magazine is kind of a fetishized commodity,” explains James. “It’s this little thing that you carry around and you can have an attachment to. You touch it, you can hold it, it’s tactile, and it is something that is portable. People take them on planes, take them out, into the car, at work and just relax. As opposed to newspapers, people feel a personal connection to the magazines they purchase or that they subscribe to, and we wanted to be part of that.”

Citing Esquire of the ’60s and Wired in the ’90s as inspiration for GOOD’s design aesthetic, the staffer explains that there is a long heritage of magazines that GOOD is well aware of, and respectfully hopes to emulate in both style and relevance.

“Nobody really listened about technology, and Wired, at some level, was responsible for ushering in a different perspective regarding it,” explains James. “I guess there’s an analogy to be made with what we want to do with the sensibility of GOOD and positive action,” waxes the staffer philosophically.

“I’m encouraged by the future. But I’m also terrified,” concludes Goldhirsh, describing the need not just for an informed media, but one that urges its viewers and readers to action. “The stakes are incredibly high,” he says solemnly. “Engagement is happening. We didn’t invent it. We’re just helping to push it along.”

And perhaps that’s just the point. Magazines may never change our world. But they hold the ability to influence how we see it. Just as Wired helped gadgets, computers, and mp3 players gradually go from geek-to-chic, GOOD is hoping to do its part by ushering in a different paradigm all its own: transforming the act of caring into the hippest hobby of all. MW