Information Overload Is Real

GOOD is a Los Angeles-based magazine known for its experimental form and its charity subscription model. GOOD’s editor, Ann Friedman, and its Senior Editorial Designer, Dylan Lathrop, sat down with Cora Currier to talk about diverse approaches to journalism, activist media, and consumer culture.

The European: GOOD’s founder, Ben Goldhirsh, once described the magazine’s ideal audience as the “critical idealist” and that part of its mission is “Reclaiming the word good.” What does that mean for a magazine?
Ann Friedman: There’s been a rise in media that is more specifically oriented towards making change, that’s cause-oriented. We fill a slightly different space that’s more about empowering and informing, a space for people who are just looking for a general smart perspective on things that other folks are doing to make change in the world. So, informing that base of person.
Dylan Lathrop: A lot of times altruistic, well-intentioned things are not that great to look at, so its always been built into the DNA of good to try to change that.
Friedman: From a design and editorial standpoint, it doesn’t have to be “eat your vegetables.”

The European: GOOD operates across many different platforms: blogs, a quarterly magazine, a business incubator. What are the journalistic challenges of a multi-faceted platform?
Friedman: We try to use them in a complementary fashion. We just finished a re-design of the quarterly magazine that is explicitly designed to be sat down and read, as opposed to trying to be like the Internet on paper. We don’t need to replicate the Internet experience in print but rather to use print to its fullest capacity. Thinking about the audience and the content of each platform, and not trying to do the same thing across the board is important.

The European: Do you think that this kind of cross-genre approach is the future of journalism?
Friedman: I think that increasingly media properties are brands, and not static. The brand moves across all these platforms, and all of our users, readers, members—they can pick and choose how they interact with us.

The European: GOOD places a huge emphasis on data visualization: flowcharts, graphs, illustration. How did that come to be a focus?
Lathrop: The crux of the magazine was always to fit somewhere in the Venn diagram of creative and entertaining, and impactful and smart. I think for the most part, design has held that together. Really dry things can be enhanced by good design. For example an infographic can contain data that is really tough to get through, and we distill it and put it into an entertaining container, and I think that people really want that. It’s proving to be a really valuable form of journalism.

The European: Is part of just that those graphics are easier to read for our short Internet attention spans?
Lathrop: people want to consume pieces in different ways. There are people who like to read reports, and sift through all of that stuff, but this is for the people that don’t necessarily have that time, or for the more visually inclined. That’s the audience we go for: a little bit of ADD, but not too much.
Friedman: Information overload is real. It’s not just that it is easier to look at an infographic. Often the amount of information being conveyed is comparable to a news story, but it’s a visual that is appealing to me as a reader.

The European: Do you think that from a political and journalistic standpoint, graphic data are as effective as the narrative arc, as story telling?
Friedman: With stories that are more numbers driven—like a classic newspaper definition of investigative reporting—really, understanding how a scandal happens, that’s often a story that’s best told visually: how much money was lost, what unfolded over time. And in an ideal world, it works as a supplement to the human side of how it happened. When I think about something like the ENRON scandal, what was compelling to people was the personal narrative. Yeah, there was an angle about the sheer dollar amount lost, but I think that what drew people in was the human story. On the other hand, we recently did a story about how congress reflects the demographics of the U.S. You could read a list of census data, and read a list of the racial/gender/socioeconomic breakdown of congress, but there’s something that really is deeply more effective about showing that in single image.

The European: This could be personal bias in what I see and what I read, but the graphic representation of data seems especially popular among progressives.
Friedman: You can make numbers say a lot of different things. I don’t think it means that all the numbers say progressives are right. I do think it has something to do with the way progressives like to see the world and like to be presented with things. There’s a long-running debate about why left-wing radio could never succeed in the U.S., and the answer was, lefties like listening to just their news and then they can go form opinions, so there isn’t as much of a market for straight-up opinion. That looks a bit different online, so the radio example isn’t perfect, but there is certainly an appetite for fact-driven stories in progressive circles and data visualization clearly plays to that.

The European: GOOD is oriented towards a slightly younger audience, and it is also run and written by younger people. Is there a noticeable generational difference in voice and approach?
Friedman: I came here from Washington DC-based journalism, which, is to a large extent written by younger people, but is decidedly not for them, and it is constantly fretting about dropping subscriber rates and the like. It’s nice to be in a place where there is a set of assumptions shared between the staff and the intended audience. Particularly when it comes to new media, certain things are just givens for us.

The European: Is GOOD activist media? Is it part of the hyper-local, D.I.Y. school of political engagement?
Friedman: The way I look at it, we are making something for people who already care. We are not here to shake you out of your complacency and activate you to sign a petition. We’re here to inform you, and make you smarter, and live better in the world. It’s not like some kind of political campaign, or P.R. effort, where you’re charged with getting people excited about something when they’re not. The difference between, “we make media for people who are likely to be activists” and “we make activist media,” is a huge one.

The European: GOOD sometimes seems more like a lifestyle magazine for young wealthy liberals. Do you worry about just making people feel good, in an overly congratulatory way?
Friedman: Personally, even as someone who considers themselves deeply political, and someone who identifies with the activist label in lots of ways, realistically, the vast majority of the things I do to change the world involve how I spend my time and money. It’s all my little decisions that add up. There’s more room to be critical about a consumerist attitude about making change, but I also find that its realistic, especially generationally, that people with the means and time to want to change the world for the better are doing so in ways that seem like luxuries by many standards. But encouraging that desire to do good is still super-productive.

The European: Similarly, the magazine’s aesthetic seems like its playing off advertising, borrowing from it. Is that subversive, or also just what people want?
Lathrop: It’s coming from the collective bank of what’s graphically relevant. My visual vocabulary has always been the consumerist culture. I grew up in the Midwest and that was what I was presented with most. So those tactics are engrained in me. So for GOOD, it’s about how we can make this fun, tongue in cheek, irreverent, not just employing a tactic we know. How can we subvert it to make a broader point or how can we pull someone in who maybe wasn’t ready to click? Our image-making is only to enforce the broader editorial bent, thinking about consumer culture and how you appeal to it.

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