Good Magazine: A Publishing Spin on CSR

Geoffrey Precourt

This is one of a series of edited extracts from the American Magazine Conference 2008. Other articles cover:

For full coverage of the American Magazines Conference 2008, visit our conference blog.


Independent magazines spring from honest wells of innovation in the American publishing business. They're not focused-grouped out of Time Inc. or advertiser-driven extensions from Hearst. They often begin around a kitchen table with an individual and a group of friends who share a passion for an idea and decide to build a larger audience around their shared common point of interest.

The kitchen table in Ben Goldhirsh's house was unlike any other. Bernie, Ben's father, was an MIT engineer (Wikipedia claims he had a hand developing ballistic missiles) with an entrepreneurial tick who enjoyed sailing so much he launched (if you'll pardon the expression) Sail magazine in 1970. In the course of exercising his entrepreneurial muscle, Bernie realized that the publishing industry was missing a trick or two in its coverage of small businesses. So, he sold Sail in 1979 for $10 million and founded Inc., a magazine for that entrepreneurial audience the senior Goldhirsh had discovered with his focus group of one.

About the same time Bernie was birthing Inc., son Ben was born. Bernie's business magazine turned out to be one of the most enduring of independent magazines; father Bernie sold it in 2000, only when his own health issues demanded he put his attention elsewhere. 

But, it was clear Ben had learned something from the kitchen-table school of magazine development. Bernie died in 2003, but Ben already had picked up his father's passion for publishing. In 2006, at the age of 26, he published the first issue of Good, a magazine that filled another void in magazine publishing: engagement in social causes.

The title had its critics: One magazine consultant told the New York Times, "This sounds a lot to me like vanity publishing, a bunch of kids sitting around with something they think is a really good idea, and one of them has a lot of money." 


Ben's 21st Century vision had been every bit as prescient as his father's instincts three-and-a-half decades earlier. By the time marketers and publishers discovered the empowerment that association with social causes could bring to brand identification, Ben Goldhirsh was already there. 

At the opening session of the 2008 American Magazine Conference's annual assembly in San Francisco, Jonathan Greenblatt, Good's ceo, discussed four trends that should ground the authenticity of cause-related marketing-for both a magazine and its advertisers: 

From Gap's efforts to tie into concern over HIV/AIDS (and maybe sell the occasional T-shirt) came the outraged response of an organization that didn't share the same interest in a brand that may have its charitable heart in the right place but also has a tarnished history of hiring under-aged workers in third-world markets:


"Yesterday, companies would underwrite a local orchestra or a little-league team," Greenblatt added, "but there would be no direct connection with the company." A new CSR (Corporate Social Responsibility) initiative ends us as a Corporate Spin and Rhetoric nightmare when "food companies espouse healthy products that really don't do anything for your health."


When businesses and social responsibility march in linked step, "an economy of integrity" benefits marketers and consumers alike. As profitable initiatives, Greenblatt cited four "ethical brands": Method Products, the Body Shop's new Lush line, Ethical Homes and Ethos Water--the last a company he started in his son's bedroom (a variation on the magazine kitchen model) that takes a percentage of its net profits to help feed the 1.2 billion people throughout the world who live without  clean water.


The value propositions for marketers of such products, he continued, are "richer and more vibrant than anything we're accustomed to. They offer the opportunity to trade up, not just to trade off."


The community of products that surround the publication--including regular inserts into the New York Sunday Times, information cards distributed at Starbucks stores, Good-community events, a variety of Web-related activities that include a dedicated presence on YouTube--"utilize marketing  to inform and inspire customers. And, in doing so, the magazine has moved from an old publishing model (manipulate the consumer) to a new vision (engagement in the vision of the brand). "We're not just talking to a person who takes the magazine out of his mailbox at the end of the month. We're building a participatory group of shareholders."

And, by refining and understanding that audience--by creating a community--Good is confident it has the audience for its first magazine spin-off: Good Business will launch as a "beta issue" 32-page supplement to the November/December 2008 issue. Like its parent publication, Greenblatt said, GB will be bottom-up in its reliance on audience-driven editorial initiatives.

Drawing a series of intersecting PowerPoint circles, Greenblatt positioned Ben Goldhirsh's magazine at the point of overlap of entertainment and relevance; of stimulating and socially conscious; of the New Yorker and Wired magazines; of idealism and pragmatism; of community, engagement, and action. "We're going to the place where magazines need to go-where we can capitalize on our integrity and be an authentic participant in an on-going discussion with our customers. And, in doing so, engage and drive action."

Good magazine is true to its mission in the new ethical economy: By offering their regular readers a chance to apply their subscription fees to a charity of their choice, the bi-monthly magazine has managed to reinforce its authenticity and credibility with its core audience and to "drive trial as we build a community that already was there but needed a voice.… We're creating communities to engage in good."

The result? Some $1 million in circulation revenue turned over to charity. Bryan Welch, publisher and editorial director of Ogden Publications, observed, "This certainly is a different model for our business. They give 100 percent of their circulation revenue to charity. And the irony is that any number of publishers, instead, used to give 100 percent of their circulation revenue to (the subscriber-solicitation service) American Family Publishing.

About the author:


Geoffrey Precourt is the US Editor of WARC Online.


You can read his reports from American Magazines 2008 and other recent marketing events at WARC's conference blogs.