It had been a landmark year for Ben Goldhirsh – and for his media company, Good Worldwide, and for the world.
The Arab Spring, the Occupy protests and the Internet campaigns to defeat Congress’ Stop Online Piracy Act erupted during 2011, global flashpoints of crackling activism, spearheaded by legions of tech-savvy youths. The media portrayed these happenings as an uprising of a generation that was starting to give a damn, and Good Magazine knew it best.
It had been five years since Goldhirsh had started the magazine, using a portion of the money he inherited from his father’s publishing fortune. Back then, the idea of creating an outlet focusing on the young idealistic types who speak casually about “ethical jewelry” and “tipping points” was untenable.
“The term ‘do-gooder’ was a pejorative,” Goldhirsh liked to say.
Here, in 2011, the damn-givers were not only vital, they were powerful, and the magazine that once seemed foolish had emerged with a clarion voice.
But the next year, Good abruptly changed course. It went from being a media outlet to a kind of progressive social network: a hazily defined hub where do-gooders could connect, share insights about activism and promote causes.
The refocusing, clumsily executed, cost the outlet readers and hard-won respect. Yet through it all, management maintained its righteous conviction that that the changes were necessary, productive and for a greater good.
For six months, they rearranged the company, devising and tearing up organizational flow charts, eventually just firing the editorial staff. That last part played out loudly over Twitter, with many promising to never read the quarterly magazine or the site again. Traffic to its website plunged and other elements of the business, such as its reliance on sponsors and a side business of managing the do-gooder images of corporations, became more apparent.
This fall, Good announced that the Air Force had sponsored a science and technology vertical on its website and was soliciting members’ ideas for drone-led domestic search and rescue missions. It appeared as though Good, which had once decried the military industrial complex, had become part and parcel.
The release arrived “with a clang,” said a writer on the news site BuzzFeed; a blogger for the Columbia Journalism Review placed the move “in the annals of Greatest Sellouts of All Time.”
Good executives maintain the criticism wasn’t fair. In either case, if Goldhirsh was attempting to change the way people thought about Good, he had succeeded.