“The Good, the Bad and the Ugly”—Interview with GOOD’s Editor-In-Chief: Zach Frechette

Zach Frechette, Editor-In-Chief of GOOD Magazine © Illustration by UNTLD.

Zach Frechette, Editor-In-Chief of GOOD Magazine © Illustration by UNTLD.

The Good, the Bad and the UglyInterview by J. Grabowski
Says Zach Frechette, who put his GOOD Magazine on the map by jam-packing it with arresting, relevant visuals: “There’s so much data out there in government documents and corporate reports. And it’s all so ugly!” I met GOOD Magazine’s editor-in-chief Zach Frechette and creative director Casey Caplowe at the international magazine symposium Colophon in Luxemburg exactly one year ago. They were representing GOOD as part of the exhibiting magazines of this weekend. A while back we had a chat about making GOOD Magazine, being visually compelling, rolling up ugly data and the future of journalism. That was before people were talking about the iPad …

Let’s start by you giving a brief introduction on who you are, what you are doing at GOOD and what GOOD Magazine means to you?
I’m Zach Frechette, I’m the editor and co-founder of GOOD. And GOOD means everything to me. Maybe that’s an exaggeration. But I’ve been with it since the start and it’s been rewarding to grow with it. And I think what we’re trying to do is important so I’m really invested.

As you are also a co-founder, were did you meet the others?
I met Ben, who is the owner, when I was in high school and I also went to college with him as did Casey. Though I didn’t meet Casey until my first day at GOOD. But that was always Ben’s plan to staff the company with people he knew, and liked, and trusted who would work for cheap and be excited about the opportunity

Isn’t it a bit pretentious naming a magazine GOOD? Like, Goody Two-Shoes? Or is it a stroke of marketing genius … doesn’t everyone think they are good?
Maybe. And it was definitely a risk. Because that word, paradoxically, has negative connotations. Nobody wants to be labeled as a “Goody two shoes” that’s an insult, but that was sort of the idea. We felt the the impulse to be engaged with the world, and to make a different, had sort of become a pejorative thing so we wanted to reclaim it and that’s a big reason why we went with the name. One of the things people always ask is “How do you get to decide what’s good?” and the answer is, that we don’t. We see GOOD as always asking that question to our audience we put the information out there and people decide for themselves

How would you describe your journalistic and visual philosophy at GOOD?
We sort of tried to marry the two in thinking about how people consume news and information in general these days and how much demand there is on people’s attention. We wanted to create stories, and a way of telling stories, that was sensitive to these demands. So by making the magazine and website visually compelling and easily digestible, we felt like we’d have a better chance of getting people’s attention. But also giving them real information.


I think you have a real power in telling stories in a new way… although there have been so many before you who tried doing this. Have you ever run into a story that you could NOT tell with your brand of infographics and annotated illustations?
I’m sure there has been. Or there have at least been stories that didn’t immediately present that compelling visual angle. But we see it as our job and responsibility to find new ways of telling those stories so that they can fit into our style of infographics and visual story telling. (I’m trying to think of an example, but coming up blank at the moment). But that’s really the whole point. There’s so much data out there whether in government documents, or corporate reports. And it’s all so ugly. So our job is to figure out which parts are interesting. And how to present it in an interesting way.

A good example could be the whale story, one picture every five minutes, I’m still so impressed by all these little thumbnails and pictures …
Yeah, that was a great one!

Do you always run into these kind of stories, is this evolving all out of the GOOD community? Or are there people who get to know GOOD and offer their contribution?
We’re really trying to grow a community, and figure out what that work means to us because we do work with a lot of people on assignment, and people who pitch us stories and once we’ve worked with someone, we tend to think of them as part of our community. So it’s not a one time transaction, but rather, once they’re connected to us, they continue to share ideas, and contribute things as often as they can. So at this point, we’ve built our community to a place where these stories are pretty much just presenting themselves. Though we do still need to steer the conversation.

You work with different designers, illustrators and photographers. How do you process a bigger story? Is there any kind of procedure? How many people are involved?
I like to think it’s a fairly open and collaborative experience… everyone is pretty much on board, and we’re comfortably tossing ideas back and forth. I like to think it’s a fairly open and collaborative experience. Our edit and art staff is pretty small, about 8 to 10 people depending on how you count. And pretty much everyone is involved at the planning stage. And we try to make sure we’re all excited about the ideas before we move forward with the assignments. So by the time we bring in an illustrator, or photographer. Everyone is pretty much on board, and we’re comfortably tossing ideas back and forth.


Are you still working at the New York office?
I work out of the LA office. But we still have a small New York office

Moved back to LA?
I actually never lived in New York, but when that office was bigger, I was probably there once a month.

Ah, I remember you telling about NY so I thought you were living there for a period of time.
Never living, just loving that place

How do you communicate basically then? I mean with the New York office?
We have a lot of tools at our disposal. Nothing revolutionary, and nothing quite as good as face-to-face. But taken in concert, they work for keeping us connected. IM is probably the most dominant means of communication followed of course by constant e-mailng, regular phone calls, some video chatting and then we use some collaborative software called Basecamp. That lets us centralize where we store shared information like files when we’re working close to deadline.

This managing tool?
Yeah, it’s great. It’s really clean and intuitive.

You’ve received all kinds of recognition from the ‘zine scene and the publishing world. What do journalists say though? Do they take you seriously?
It’s a mix and we’re actually torn ourselves about what makes the most sense. We still put time and resources into traditional journalism because that gives us credibility, and we think it’s important. But as I said before, we’re also trying to respond to the needs of the modern information consumer which often means shorter stories, turned out more quickly. I think the basic principles behind journalism—unbiased reporting, accuracy, good story telling—are still all very important to us. But I also don’t think anyone is going to mistake us for the New York Times nor do we have the resources to be competitive as a real news-gathering organization.


Do you also write for other magazines or publishers?
If I had more time I’d like to, but we’ve been generating a lot more of our content in-house these days, a result of shrinking editorial budgets, so there’s not a lot of room for other pursuits.

There is a lot of discussion about the future of journalism and the consensus usually is: ‘It’s a little bit of everything’. You already mentioned some of your views. But what do you think the near future will look like?
I think we can expect a lot more content coming from people who are not professional writers. But it doesn’t mean the stories are less good, or less credible. In fact, the opposite is true. I was having dinner recently with a food writer who couldn’t believe that he still had a job. He was telling me about a restaurant he got to review in China. It’s this amazing place, where they only have four tables, and only one seating per night. So it’s very exclusive, hard to get a reservation, etc. etc. He got to go, and it was of course incredible, and he wrote a story about it. But what he told me, and i found this revealing, is that there are probably a million people who would have loved to go to that restaurant. And of that million, probably 100,000 would be willing to write about it. And maybe 10,000 of those would be willing to do it for free. And maybe 1,000 of those would be able to write really elegantly about it. So it’s hard to see how there’s a market to pay this one guy to do it. When there are thousands of people who could do as good a job or better, and for no money, it’s just a question of building the tools to figure out how to find those 1,000 good reviews in the sea of a million crappy ones.

That’s an interesting story… you’re absolutely right!
And you can apply that to almost anything. Business, politics, art, etc. etc.

That’s what I wanted to ask … when it comes to more complex topics, does the principal still hold?
Totally. People know so much about so many obscure things. And so many of those people love to talk about it, they just don’t have the right outlet for doing so. Once that becomes easy for them and we see this happening more and more, with blogs at first, and now even more easily with Twitter. You see the amount of information, and the amount of quality information, increases sharply. Of course, the other side of that coin is that the amount of bad information increases. Which is why I think there’s still a role for media companies to act as curators of this information.

Yes, curation is really to the point. With some stories I still find it difficult to filter the right information. Which source can you trust? Actually that is what you are doing with GOOD?
That’s certainly what we’re trying to do. Extract the basic information. Yeah, we’d like to act as a filtering tool, to help the best stuff rise to the top.

That’s what I love about your infographics, they are always to the point. Even I’m here in Europe, I find myself drawn-in to American issues by the graphics…
Ha-ha! That’s awesome!


You see a lot of magazine concepts, a lot of great concepts from around the world. All of us can tell the difference between and American magazine and a European magazine at a glance, even if we couldn’t see the language the type was set in. How would you describe that difference?
I totally agree, and I wish I understood it better but I’m not really able to articulate it. The one thing that always strikes me is that it seems like European audiences are still far more fond of print than American audiences. Which is sad, both personally and professionally, for me. But I’m trying to go with the flow but I love the magazines you guys have over there they are still treated as works of art, and coveted.

So many magazines are dying in the States right now? They are struggling here too, but newspapers are really in trouble. I think some magazines have a bit more relevance still.
Yeah, that’s similar to over here. Newspapers are really the ones that are scrambling but we’re losing tons of magazines too. And it’s just a topic of constant conversation. I can’t imagine it’s terribly different where you are.

I guess, some of the magazines are getting more like books, something more valuable. Have you ever been approached about custom publishing projects for big companies? What do you think of custom publishing?
We do it all the time. It’s often the only way we can get money to do ambitious projects that we otherwise wouldn’t be able to fund. So while it’s not always ideal for us to all of a sudden have a “client,” it’s been a great way for us to create great content for our readers, and for companies to be associated with the content. But the key is making sure we agree on the parameters up front and making sure that it’s not just a fancy ad.
We work for companies like Toyota, IBM, Mini, Lexus, Whole Foods …

Thanks for the nice chat … !
(Autumn, 2009)

This interview was associated with a lecture I gave at an academy event of the media company KircherBurkhardt. You can download a PDF of the slides here: GOOD Magazine — For People who give a damn. After a short introduction of “Your Favourite Magazines” by some friends and colleagues, I show the prolific and eclectic world of GOOD Magazine.

Learn more about the world of GOOD on their website, get daily input on relevant issues (not only US related content), tons of infographics, pictures and reports to explore … or subscribe to the magazine while your money goes directly to a non-profit organisation that is working together with GOOD.

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