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GOOD Founder Ben Goldhirsh Talks About Launching a New Platform and Firing Editorial Staffers

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Fri, Sep 28, 2012 at 7:00 AM
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When word hit the street back in June that GOOD Magazine would be transforming its website into a "platform" -- oh, and it was firing the majority of its editorial staff -- readers and media-watchers were shocked, and CEO Ben Goldhirsh wasn't talking.

That was then.

"I didn't feel comfortable speaking about the direction without having the product alongside," Goldhirsh explains. That direction, Goldhirsh is now pleased to reveal, was away from a one-sided relationship (writers talking at readers), and toward a two-way conversation (anyone can participate). The platform finally launched last week, albeit with new writers, editors and "curators."

Hence, all those firings.

"What was important was to have everyone on board with the direction. That was a fundamental need," Goldhirsh says. It seemed pretty clear-cut to him at the time: staffers who weren't on board would be given the axe.

He was surprised by the strong negative reaction on the Internet.

"For me, it was hard because I felt like people questioned our character -- that somehow we were making these moves to increase the profit or cut costs," Goldhirsh says. (The magazine, after all, was founded expressly to promote do-gooderism and, yes, good news.) "It was hard. But it was on us: It was a poor job that I did in terms of communicating."

He says he still thinks highly of his former employees. "I think the folks who are no longer here played a fundamental role in getting us to where we are now and, frankly, all of them worked extremely hard, and were all really smart, and all executed their job well, and I think they're all doing great stuff now."

What kinds of stuff? Well, former Executive Editor Ann Friedman now pens a column at the Columbia Journalism Review, and writes for New York magazine's The Cut. Senior Editor Cord Jefferson is West Coast Editor at Gawker. Business Editor Tim Fernholz is at the Atlantic's new business publication, Quartz. Lifestyle Editor Amanda Hess is blogging for Slate's XX Factor.

And the Kickstarter-funded Tomorrow Magazine, the 112-page dead-tree magazine the spurned staffers have been working on all summer, hit virtual newsstands yesterday. It's retailing for $12.

So, what is Good's new direction that Goldhirsh and his colleagues are so excited about? First and foremost, it's a social platform -- users can create a profile, follow each other and share interesting stories. Just as on the old site, there are still original articles and infographics, produced by its new writers and editors. Unlike the old, though, there is also lot of aggregation.

"In our old days as a media company," Goldhirsh says, if another outlet did an important story, "it was like, 'Crap. I wish we did that article.' But we shouldn't care, from a mission perspective, who put pen to paper. We just want to make sure the content gets to eyes, and then to the brain and then to the feet."

On the new platform, articles are just the way to start a conversation -- Goldhirsh sees the real point of Good as turning the conversation into action.

"Look at our city: We've got challenges in L.A. that we are having a hard time stemming," Goldhirsh says. Take issues like public education, transportation or juvenile justice: "We have not moved the needle as much as needed in any of those areas and it's because the status quo is wicked heavy."

Ideally, the new model would work something like this: The site publishes an article about L.A. Unified School District Superintendent John Deasy struggling to negotiate a new contract with teachers. A reader is inspired by the article, and she shares it with her followers, and makes a pledge (using the "to-do" feature) to support the superintendent in union negotiations. Her followers can join her in the pledge, and spread the cause among their followers.

In Deasy's case, Goldhirsh says, "It's him and the ten people he works with facing down one of the most powerful organizations in the country. How is that going to go unless we can get involved a support him pursuing a more logical contract?" The platform is designed to give readers armed with information the means to organize and take action. Or, at least that's the hope.

Listening to Goldhirsh talk about GOOD's new platform, one thing that's striking is the way it seems designed to manufacture precisely the type of action that occurred this summer when GOOD fired its staffers -- tweets and blog posts publicized the firings, which started a conversation, which turned into action: fired writers and editors were offered other jobs, and the Kickstarter campaign for Tomorrow Magazine was funded three times over.

Maybe everyone wasn't going in such different directions after all.

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