Interview with GOOD’s Zach Frechette

by Steve Watson in July 2009
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All Stack subscribers should have received their copies of GOOD this month. It’s a truly original magazine, combining social responsibility and forward-thinking organisations with beautiful design and advice on drinking your own wee. We called Zach Frechette, editor in chief of GOOD, and asked him to talk about the magazine’s growth, advertiser relations and the joy of infographics. The full transcript is below, and if you want it we’ll post the audio file too – let us know in the comments if you want to get more of that sort of thing from Stack.

So I saw in the current issue that you just moved to new offices in LA?
Yep – we just moved right nearby our old offices, but a slightly smaller space that costs a lot less money, and basically it’s just a reflection of these times.

So you’re economising and making things go further
Yeah. A little bit. We like to frame it as we’re streamlining and becoming more efficient and getting better at realising what we’re good at and what we can spend money on, but your interpretation works too.

How many people are you in the office?
We’re about 25.

And how does that split with editorial and advertising?
It’s about half and half. We probably have 10 people who are on the editorial, art, web side of things, and the rest of the company is sort of sales, marketing, partnerships, stuff like that.

For an independent magazine that’s actually a huge operation isn’t it? Compared to a lot of the magazines on Stack who have three people doing everything you’re really well set up.
Totally, and we feel very lucky that we’re able to be set up that way. When we started in 2006 we were a lot more the model of a lot of magazines on Stack, where it was a handful of us – there were five when we started – and we were putting out this magazine that was about things we loved and we thought were interesting and were moving the world forward. But we’ve taken that and we’ve grown it. We’ve grown it a lot on the web and we’ve grown it with events in the real world too, where we’re bringing together people who have a similar mindset and want to meet other people who share their ideas, but do it in a meaningful way, so we’ve been able to grow that very successfully and we’ve been very lucky that we’ve been able to do that.

I think it’s a fantastic magazine – I love it. That growth you spoke about, getting up to 25 people, is that coming through the commercial success of the magazine or have you managed to get investment? How have you done that?
In the beginning it was through investments, but the end of last year and the beginning of this year required us to really (as I was talking about before) work out what we were doing and what we’re good at. And that has really allowed us to streamline our business in a way that now we really are supported by our advertisers and our partnerships with companies that want to be associated with the kind of stuff we’re putting out.

It seems to me looking through the magazine that you’ve really caught a wave with this. There are some weird advertisers in a way – I had no idea Ralph Lauren had a whole line of clothes for a better world. Are you finding there are a lot of companies out there doing this kind of thing and wanting to speak to your kind of audience?
Totally – more and more every day. Even from when we started up until now, we’re seeing the number of companies wanting to talk about this kind of stuff, and wanting to reach the sort of people that are interested in this kind of stuff, grow substantially.

And do you think that’s because you’re getting to be better known or because there are more companies out there aiming for that?
I think it’s a combination of both of those, and then a third factor, which is this general impulse on which we founded the company, which is this idea that there are people out there who now more than ever want to engage with what’s happening in the world and take action to make it better. In the past three years we’ve really seen that grow substantially and come into the mainstream in a way that it wasn’t before – it was somewhat relegated to the fringes for a long time, but now it’s really been popularised and I think the election of Barack Obama is probably the clearest distillation that these feelings of change are real and are being felt on a global level.

Absolutely. I don’t know of any other magazines over here that are doing that in the same way that you are – in the kind of cool, informed, good way of doing it. Are there other magazines in the States that do that?
There really aren’t, and it sort of blows our mind that there isn’t stiffer competition, but you know it’s great for us and it’s great for business, and the fact that the economy has turned south and it’s not a great time to be publishing magazines in general, has allowed this window of opportunity for us to stay open for longer. So we’re excited about it but we welcome more people in this space, we welcome competition, because it’s all sort of appealing to the same end, which is moving the world forward.

You mention the economy going south – have you been in the position to say no thank you to some advertisers if it’s, say, Shell promoting their thing, or do you have the attitude that they’re an advertiser so we’ll let them in?
It’s more the latter – we trust our audience to be able to make that distinction between what is something we’re endorsing, which is something we’re writing about, something we’re covering editorially, something we’re making a video about, and the people who are buying advertisements, who are also keeping us in business. So we basically take the attitude that anyone who wants to be associated with us by buying advertising space, that’s fine – we’ll take anything. If our readers complain we welcome those complaints we welcome those, we put them in a public forum for discussion, and if the noise gets loud enough we’re totally happy to turn the switch off on certain people who our audience and our readers don’t think should be part of what we’re doing.

That’s a very open way of looking at it. I don’t think I’ve heard publishers talking about it like that – they often seem to be more defensive than that.
Yeah, well for us it’s a business reality. We need these people in order to stay in business but we also respect our audience, and we think they both appreciate that this is our business model and this is what we’re doing, and hopefully the good we’re doing outweighs any complaints about what sort of advertisers there are. We hope that they know this is how things work, and you sometimes have to make these sort of compromises.

I found the water issue fascinating – there are lots of things in there I’d never heard of. There’s lots of stuff out there in the periphery that you’re kind of aware of and lots of stuff in the mainstream, but there are things in the magazine that I hadn’t really heard before, so I was wondering how do you decide what you’re going to base a magazine on?
It’s pretty informal. We kind of take pools around the office and solicit ideas, we talk to our network of people for ideas, we talk to the people we’re covering, and sort of get them to brainstorm ideas and tell us what’s on their minds, and then every six months or so we kind of sit down and take all those ideas and dump them on the table, and we sift through them and say, ‘okay, what are people talking about now, what’s on people’s minds?’ And then it’s a voting, discussion, argument process, and eventually we narrow it down to the topics we cover.

One of the things I hadn’t been aware of before were these vortices of tiny plastic bits floating in the ocean. I’d heard of plastic pellets getting washed up, but I didn’t know about these junk zones of… stuff.
Yeah – I mean that stuff is crazy.

And it’s kind of depressing because it’s just all there – do you keep an eye on the magazine to make sure you don’t have too many stories that are really depressing, or that berate people or beat them about the head with something?
Very much so – when we first started that was something we were keenly aware of that a lot of the coverage of things in the world was very negative, and so we wanted to steer away from that, but we also didn’t just want to be, ‘yay, happy, let’s just celebrate anyone that’s doing anything positive’. We wanted to exist somewhere in the middle, making people aware of the problems that exist in the world and making them aware of the people that are trying to solve those problems, but then also holding that second group accountable, those problem solvers. So it’s not just anyone who wants to be doing good – it’s the people who are doing good in the best, most efficient ways. So we try and strike that balance and we try and have the magazine be an honest assessment of what’s going on, but not an overly negative one and wherever possible highlighting solutions that are really working.

Have there been any issues that with the benefit of hindsight you wish you’d just left alone because you ended up opening this can of worms on something?
I can’t think of anything. I’m sure if I combed the issues there would emerge some things that we didn’t cover in exactly the right light, but I think we’ve done a good job of just putting stuff out there, and I’ve really got to hand it to our audience for calling us out on stuff that they don’t think we did as well as we could.

Do you have any examples of that off the top of your head?
Yeah sure. I don’t know if this made it to the UK, but Bono and The Gap they partnered up on this thing called the Red Campaign, so there were products in the Gap stores, and when you purchased products that were part of the Red campaign, some of that money would go to charity. But they spent tons and tons of money advertising the fact that they had this campaign, so there was this kind of backlash that said, ‘why are they spending, like $100m advertising the campaign to get people to buy clothes and give some money to charity – why don’t they just give that money to charity?’ And so we covered this initiative in the magazine where instead of the buy red campaign we created the buy less campaign, so the idea was don’t go out and buy all this stuff, just give the money to charity instead. That created a lot of interesting debate, both in our own office internally but also online and in the letters we had sent to us, because it’s an interesting issue, and it’s not a black and white issue – there’s lots of nuance to it and lots of different opinions, and it was great to see that play out and I’m glad we could provide a forum for that to happen in.

One of the things you’ve become renowned for is your infographics – how did that come about?
That was an idea that started very early on and it’s based on one of our founding principles, which was the idea of transparency. We felt that there’s a lot of information out there that’s obscured in one way or another – either it’s deliberately hidden or it’s buried in complex data sets and it’s just not naturally available to the public. But if you can find a way of taking that information and presenting it in a clear and individual way you have a much stronger tool for understanding something and educating people. And we just started doing that, so it’s great fun and it worked out really well for us. We work with different artists and designers every time, and the response has been fantastic. I think you see it all over now – the infographic as a medium for communication is one that is growing very rapidly and I’m very happy we were on the leading edge of that.

And you carry that sort of transparency through the whole magazine, for example with the infobar at the bottom of each page. I really like the way that sometimes you’ll use it to add more information, or you’ll comment on something on the page, like the message in a bottle where you say, ‘okay we know that’s kind of littering the oceans’ – I think it’s a really great way of using the space on the page. It feels really dense.
Yeah, and we think that’s just playing to the reality of how information is consumed these days. There are so many stimuli out there and that’s just how people consume information, so we want to make our magazine consumable in the same way.

Can you talk about what your next issue is going to be?
Yeah – I’m really excited about our next issue. It’s going to be called the GOOD 100 – it’s the first one we’ve done but I’m hoping it’s going to become a regular annual thing. It’s 100 of the most interesting people, ideas and institutions that are moving the world forward, and it’s been so much fun soliciting these names, these ideas, these businesses, these non-profits, from as wide a network as humanly possible, then have them trickle into my inbox and assemble them into a giant spreadsheet. And we’re just finishing assembling that spreadsheet and we’re going to start parsing them and voting them and figuring out who’s going to make it into the magazine.

And when’s that out?
That’s going to be out in October.

And are there any plans for that to make it over to the UK?
We don’t have any permanent distribution plans for the UK at the moment, but if anyone wants to subscribe you can just contact us on the email address on our website and we can send subscriptions out to the UK.

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