In 2011, I was hired as an executive editor to reinvent a semi-known media brand, both online and in print. My bosses at GOOD magazine were young guys, one of them a millionaire, who weren’t exactly startup dudes but spoke the language fluently. They alternately professed their deep commitment to meaningful journalism and made unreasonable demands about our traffic and output. With a seemingly endless cascade of PowerPoint presentations and all-hands meetings, they changed their minds repeatedly about what we were really there to do. Less than two years later, right after a party celebrating the magazine’s achievements, I was fired along with the whole editorial staff I’d brought on board. Sound familiar?
It’s been difficult for me to read the news about the mass exodus at The New Republic and the implosion at First Look Media and not feel a certain level of affinity with the editors involved. Of course, GOOD was neither a magazine with a 100-year history nor a new upstart founded by someone from the tech world. But it was a media company with a new, and increasingly common, type of owner: A guy with little patience, lots of money, and ever-changing expectations.
At GOOD, I had all of the job responsibilities you’d expect of an executive editor: hiring writers and editors and designers, assigning articles, maintaining the budget, and keeping an eye on traffic. But I spent an equal amount of my time in lengthy meetings explaining every editorial choice to my bosses. When we had a slow week, or even an average week, they announced the company was “pivoting” to a new strategy. The owners had incredibly high expectations for each strategic change. “You will all see this plan on March 16th,” one of my bosses wrote in an email. “You will have [the] opportunity to chime in as it gets locked. It will be fucking awesome. Will make you love GOOD more and what you are doing with your lives.”
I can’t say that proved correct. They constantly requested revised organizational charts and visual representations of our editorial decision-making process and slideshows about how our journalism would change the world. (It’s been a few years, and I still can’t open PowerPoint without rolling my eyes.) They wanted me to recruit “thought leaders” to contribute unedited op-eds for free, like LinkedIn does. They purchased Jumo, a languishing social network, from Chris Hughes—the Facebook cofounder who would later buy The New Republic. For awhile, they directed the whole team of software engineers to build something called GOOD Finder, a way for people to share links on our website. When I pointed out that such a link-sharing platform exists, and it’s called Twitter, they questioned my commitment to GOOD’s core mission and told me to direct the editors to step up their “sharing.”
I defended the value of our less traffic-generating editorial output at meetings with the advisory board, where a woman who’d previously been employed by Demand Media questioned how I’d ever be successful without publishing hundreds of articles a day. Later, my bosses requested a detailed plan for how everything we published could be boiled down to either “learning” or “doing.” I’m still not sure what that means, and I had a hard time hiding my disdain. At one point I wrote to the editorial staff, “I am considering taking an acting class to survive until they abandon this idea and move on to a new iteration.” I’m not sure which of my bosses’ ideas I was referring to.
I’ve seen all aspects of my experience at GOOD reflected in the media news cycle the past few weeks. At The New Republic, Hughes’ recently hired chief executive Guy Vidra told the staff he wanted to disrupt and break shit—which apparently meant firing editor Frank Foer. At First Look, editors were in the process of hiring more journalists when “Omidyar told employees that he was ‘re-tooling’ the company’s focus and building a laboratory environment to foster the development of new technologies for delivering and consuming news,” focusing more on “products,” as opposed to ‘“content.”
Granted, there have always been publishers who enjoy meddling in editorial affairs. Former New Republic owner Marty Peretz frequently inserted himself in the magazine’s pages. The real thing that separates next-generation media owners from old-school benefactors is that the new guys get bored really easily. In an era when even great editors need space and time to find the right balance between resource-intense reporting and click-driving diversions, impatient owners pose a serious problem.
If I had to guess, I’d say Chris Hughes (and my former bosses) probably did want to enable great journalism at first. Then the dust settled and the articles about the acquisition faded away, and he started spending more time with the numbers… and before you know it, the company is on its third major “pivot” in a year.
When I was finally able to acknowledge that I was never going to be given the time and space to do the job I was hired to do, the realization was paralyzing. If I quit, I was sure the editorial staff would be forced to comb the internet for feel-good links and curate op-eds from Richard Branson’s chief innovation officer until, one by one, they eventually found jobs elsewhere. If I stayed, people would come to associate me with this strange mashup of incomplete projects and half-baked ideas only loosely related to journalism.
And so it was a relief when my bosses fired most of the editorial staff en masse. “I failed to align (Friedman’s) vision with where I thought the company needed to go and I failed to successfully handle the delta between those visions in the way that won’t leave a bad taste in (the staff’s) mouths,” my former boss told the LA Business Journal last year. All of the editors found homes at other media companies, or successfully struck out on their own. The whole social-networking vision didn’t pan out for GOOD, though. It’s since changed course and is styling itself as a magazine again.