Our Society’s New Vice President for Social Media

After a long search, our Society has finally hired its first Vice President for Social Media:

Robert Michael Murray

Robert Michael Murray

We’re big fans of Robert. We’ve been following him on Twitter for many months, and we’ve found his web site, Boxed Noise, quite engaging. He brings a wealth of skills and experience to National Geographic, and a welcome focus on the ways emerging technologies intersect with culture, society and (especially) human rights.

You can also find Robert on Facebook, LinkedIn, delicious, Friendfeed, Flickr, and Vimeo.

We wish him all the best as he begins his new adventure.

≡  photo via @rmmdc

Adventures In Global Media

To: Tim Kelly, President, National Geographic Global Media Group
Fr: Your friends @ Society Matters
Re: Remembering Who We Are

Ni hao, Tim!

Something odd has happened to our favorite morning show, Today Now:


You gotta admit that’s funny. Of course, it’s not entirely a laughing matter—especially as the National Geographic Society continues its transformation into a global media business. For instance, consider this story….

In late 2006, National Geographic‘s senior editors began planning a special issue on China, scheduled for publication in May 2008, just weeks before the Beijing Olympic games. Editor-in-Chief Chris Johns decided he wanted to include a feature story about censorship in China, and wisely gave the assignment to a world-class writer—Ha Jin, a Chinese expatriate who has won a National Book Award and two PEN/Faulkner Awards, and who now teaches creative writing at Boston University.

Ha Jin

Ha Jin

In May 2007, Ha Jin turned in his 4,000-word manuscript on Censorship in China.

In July 2007, National Geographic magazine announced its new publishing partnership—after many years of negotiations—with the People’s Republic of China.

In the fall of 2007, a senior team from NGS headed for the PRC to celebrate this new business partnership. But a few weeks before the trip, Chris Johns killed Ha Jin’s Censorship in China story.


Tank Man

Tank Man

What was the problem with Ha Jin’s story? It couldn’t have been the quality of his reporting or writing; in the months the manuscript sat on the Editor’s desk, no one ever called Ha Jin to suggest any rewrites. Nor could the problem have been lack of compelling photographs: You start with Tank Man, and go from there.

Here’s our informed guess what happened: Our new Chinese partners don’t want to publish stories about the lack of free speech in their country. So the Editor reassembled our special issue to avoid any tension. As a result, the May 2008 issue features stories on subjects such as architecture in Beijing, water quality, the middle class, and a “village on the edge of time.” Ha Jin’s 4,000-word story became a 250-word sidebar called “Cutting Off Dissent” (which I wrote)—a two-pager short enough to be easily removed, if any one of the Society’s 30 international publishing partners so desired.


from NGM's special issue on China (May 2008)

We think this arrangement is unhealthy for our Society—and our society—for a very simple reason: While people in Beijing will obviously never see Ha Jin’s story, neither will people in Boston, Bloomington, Boise, Baton Rouge. What National Geographic readers in Iowa learn about China is being driven by the Editor’s desire to cater to the needs of our international partners, instead of by the interests of people here at home. (This shift in editorial emphasis has been noticed by long-time Society members. Details upon request.)

Timwe have ideas that we’d love to share with you about how National Geographic magazine can grow in a healthy, sustainable way while still remaining true to the values and vision that made the Society great.

But we’d also love to hear from you. As President of our Society’s Global Media Group, is there anything you can say to reassure folks who worry that National Geographic is becoming International Geographic? Any suggestions about how to convince members—75 percent of whom still read NGM in English—to stop heading for the exits? Any ideas about how we can stop censoring ourselves, even when we talk amongst ourselves?

We’d welcome your thoughts in the comments, below.


Photo credits:
≡  Ha Jin, via Boston University’s Creative Writing Program
≡  Tank Man, by Jeff Widener (Associated Press) viaWikipedia
≡  Minnie & friends, by Fritz Hoffmann via National Geographic

Demotix: What A Photo Community Can Do

Why doesn’t the National Geographic Society have its own version of Demotix?

The Channel Panel: A Tale In Five Tweets

This looked promising—a National Geographic Channel Panel that appeared to be a new attempt to engage The Audience. Some dialogue about programming, a little back-and-forth about content. A virtual gathering where people could help envision the future of National Geographic. In effect, the Channel looked like they were trying a bit of crowdsourcing.

Wonderful, we thought.

Thank you for helping us make National Geographic the channel you want to watch.
Want to decide what’s on National Geographic Channel?
Join our online viewer panel.


Well, it wasn’t so wonderful after all. Here’s my summary via Twitter:


A quota system? Really? Can anyone at NGS explain the logic of this arrangement? Of holding this discussion behind a security wall? Or of the lack of open engagement?

If so, we welcome your explanations in our quota-free comment section, below.

It’s Here: National Geographic Magazine — Aug. 2009

NGMAugust2009coverMy first stop: the Editor’s Note—and not simply because it appears on page 2.

As I wrote in my first post, the Editor’s note is a keystone to the Society’s future because…

“… almost five million people still pay attention to National Geographic. The opportunity to address such a huge crowd is rare—a gift, really—in a world buzzing with distractions. One person—NGM’s Editor in Chief—has the privilege and responsibility of addressing this enormous audience each month via his one-page Editor’s Note. From this virtual podium, strategically positioned at the front of the Magazine, he has the chance to inform, inspire, and lead. The question is: With almost five million people listening, what is he saying?….”

This month, Chris Johns talks about the “plight of the salmon.”

In future months, we hope Chris will begin to use his virtual podium to speak to the Society’s membership about the plight of our Society—4.2 million members and falling fast.

Or, to quote Chris (writing in his Editor’s Note about a threatened “salmon heaven”):

“The direction this narrative takes…
will be determined by management decisions….”

We couldn’t have said it better ourselves.

“Transparency Is The New Objectivity”

“… Anyone who claims objectivity should be willing to back that assertion up by letting us look at sources, disagreements, and the personal assumptions and values supposedly bracketed out of the report.

Objectivity without transparency increasingly will look like arrogance. And then foolishness. Why should we trust what one person — with the best of intentions — insists is true when we instead could have a web of evidence, ideas, and argument?

In short: Objectivity is a trust mechanism you rely on when your medium can’t do links. Now our medium can.”

– David Weinberger in Transparency Is The New Objectivity

Look at this National Geographic story on global fisheries. And this one on Arab Christians. And this one on Gabon’s new national parks. And this one on ancient Persia. Or virtually any article ever posted at ngm.com. Feature story after feature story—thousands upon thousands of words—and not a single article includes links that let us “look at sources, disagreements, and the personal assumptions and values supposedly bracketed out of the report.” (If such linked stories do exist, please let us know in the comments, below.)

Why this glaring omission—especially when the credibility of the Society is at stake?

We respectfully submit that it’s time to add the missing links.

Confronting Thugs Who Kill People

The lead story this week at Society Matters was called Befriending Thugs Who Love The Planet.

As a counterpoint, we offer this heartbreaking story of Natalia Estemirova, a human rights activist in Chechnya who was kidnapped and killed on Wednesday morning.

Natalia Estemirova (1959-2009)

Natalia Estemirova (1959-2009)

A Fearless Activist in a Land of Thugs

When you’ve finished reading the article, ask yourself this question:

Why does our Society honor Mike Fay as an Explorer-in-Residence,
but give no formal recognition and support to brave souls like Natalia Estemirova?


≡  photo credit: Human Rights Watch via The New York Times

Befriending Thugs Who Love The Planet

Mike Fay

Mike Fay

Mike Fay is a renowned conservationist, a National Geographic Explorer-in-Residence, and a man on a mission to inspire people to care about the planet.

Problem is, when the Society’s mission to save the planet becomes the top priority of any society, people can suffer.

For example, consider Mike’s signature achievement — a huge conservation project in Africa partly underwritten by the National Geographic Society. In 1996, Mike…

flew over the forests of Congo and Gabon and realized there was a vast, intact forest corridor spanning the two countries from the Oubangui to the Atlantic Ocean. In 1997, he walked the entire corridor, over 2,000 miles (3,200 kilometers), surveying trees, wildlife, and human impacts on 12 uninhabited forest blocks. Called Megatransect, the project had the objective of bringing to the world’s attention the last pristine forest in central Africa and the need for protection. This work led to a historic initiative [in 2002] by the Gabonese government to create a system of 13 national parks in Gabon, making up some 11,000 square miles (28,500 square kilometers).

Mike’s amazing trek — and his role in Gabon’s “historic initiative” — was documented in National Geographic magazine. It was turned into a National Geographic video and a DVD. It was commemorated in a two-volume boxed set published by National Geographic. The Megatransect warranted all this attention because it was a very big deal: Those 11,000 square miles of new national parkland represents ten percent of Gabon’s total land area. But to save all that pristine wilderness, Mike needed the blessing of El Hadj Omar Bongo Ondimba — Gabon’s former President-for-Life.


Omar Bongo, the former President of Gabon

President Bongo was one of two autocrats who dominated Gabon since its independence from France in 1960. Reigning as head of state for 41 years, Bongo holds the record as Africa’s longest-ruling dictator. When he died in Spain last month at the age of 73, he left behind dozens of expensive properties in and around Paris, a $500 million presidential palace, and a grim legacy for Gabon’s 1.5 million people.

According to a 2008 report prepared by U.S. State Department, Gabon’s human rights record has been “poor.” The report cited the “limited ability of citizens to change their government; use of excessive force…; harsh prison conditions; arbitrary arrest and detention; an inefficient judiciary susceptible to government influence; restrictions on the right to privacy; restrictions on freedom of speech, press, association, and movement…; widespread government corruption; violence and societal discrimination against women, persons with HIV/AIDS, and noncitizen Africans; trafficking in persons, particularly children; and forced labor and child labor.”

President Bongo was no Thomas Jefferson.

Which brings us back to Mike Fay and Gabon’s new national parks. In an interview with Women’s Wear Daily in 2006, Mike provided a candid description of why the iron-fisted rule of autocrats, dictators, warlords, and strong men can be a blessing… if you’re a conservationist, an elephant, or a tree:

Women’s Wear Daily: But don’t a lot of the countries you’re working in have dysfunctional governments?

Mike Fay: Yeah, but wherever you go on earth, humans organize themselves in some way. I find often the less national influence there is in the management equation, the more successful you are, because you’re dealing with local warlords. You can go right to the guy in charge and say, “Hey, we’re seeing way too much decrease in vegetation here, way too much willy-nilly burning here, let’s do something about it.” That guy can make that decision right there. He doesn’t have to ask the president, he doesn’t have to ask some minister. I think you can make progress more easily there than you can in this country. That’s for sure. [emphasis added]

In other words: Autocratic thugs care about the planet too. They get stuff done. They “make progress.” They don’t get bogged down “asking” anyone for anything. And while Americans and most Westerners would never tolerate such dictatorial bullying in our own countries, our Society seems to give the Omar Bongos of the world a free pass if they “care about the planet.”

We think this is a huge mistake.

We believe that sustainable conservation grows from sustainable societies that embrace human rights, free speech, and democracy. We want the National Geographic Society to champion those values. And we don’t want our Society to look the other way when dictators profess their love of elephants — and then trample their own people.

Most of all, we wonder:

Why does our Society underwrite and celebrate this sort of “progress”?


PHOTO UPDATE (21 July 2009):

President Omar Bongo and conservationist Mike Fay

President Omar Bongo and conservationist Mike Fay


≡  Photo of Mike Fay: National Geographic Staff Photographer Michael Nichols via NPR
Photo of President Bongo via The Daily Observer
Photo of President Bongo & Mike Fay, by Michael Nichols via nationalgeographic.com

What’s Missing In The Mission

To: John Fahey, CEO of NGS
Fr: Your Friends @ Society Matters
Re: Something’s Missing

loraxWe think it’s admirable that you want the Society “to inspire people to care about the planet,” especially since the planet doesn’t care a whit about us.

Mind experiment: Imagine 6.7 billion people vanished from the face of the Earth tomorrow. You think the cheetahs would even blink?

Planets don’t “care.” People care. Which makes us wonder: Do you ever regret phrasing National Geographic’s new mission statement in exactly those words (above)? Do you ever worry that being the Lorax is too small a role for the National Geographic Society? And: Do you find yourself regularly having to explain and amend that mission statement? “Yes, yes, of course — we care about the planet and its people.”

We ask because we just read an interview with you from last year. You were at the Sundance Festival to help promote U2-3D, National Geographic’s 2007 3D concert film starring Bono & his band. In the Q&A, the interviewer quoted your amended mission statement, but what we really caught our eye was your answer:

u2-3dQuestion: You’ve been quoted as saying, “National Geographic was created as a nonprofit to inspire people to have a lifelong appreciation for the planet and its people. Our mission hasn’t changed.” Does U2 fit that ideology?

John Fahey: They do in a number of ways. They make great music and they stand for quality and the Geographic stands for quality. Some of the principals [sic], philosophies, and values that this band seems to have are similar to the values that the Geographic has. I’m really intrigued by the fact that these guys want to stay ahead of the game. They want to be out in front and this is a place the Geographic hopes to occupy in the future. National Geographic wants to be more cutting-edge than it may have seemed in the past. (emphasis added)

Why are you so reluctant to spell out those principles, philosophies, and values? You know what they are, and so do we — but why be so vague? Why not just say it: U2 and Bono champion social justice and human rights — and gigantic crowds around the world applaud them for it (and buy their music).

Of course, you already know this. At a staff meeting last year, you briefly alluded to your struggle to convince other senior NGS executives that a U2 concert film was consistent with the Society’s mission. I don’t have exact notes, but you said something like: Various members of my senior staff thought that a film like this wasn’t a good fit for National Geographic. But I felt that one of the messages of U2 is human rights, and that’s something that is part of our mission. We’re about inspiring people to care about the planet and its people.

We think it’s time you made this explicit. We recommend that you amend the Society’s mission statement, and add those three words: “… and its people.” Post it on the web site. Publish it above the Magazine’s masthead. Tell Editor Chris Johns to talk it up in his monthly Editor’s Note. Let everyone know that our Society won’t remain silent when human rights get trampled, even in a mad rush to save the planet — or to mollify publishing partners whose values don’t generally align with our own.

In the end, the mission is less about the planet, and more about our adventures on it. For we believe that if we find a way to take good care of each other, then the cheetahs will no doubt take care of themselves.

I’ve conquered my past
The future is here at last
I stand at the entrance
Of a new world I can see
The ruins to the right of me
Will soon have lost sight of me
Love rescue me.

U2 & BB King
Love Rescue Me
recorded in Sydney, Australia, on November 18, 1989


Remembering Who We Are


With July 4th fireworks still echoing in our ears, we’re wondering:

Would National Geographic publish a story like this today?


We seriously doubt it.

A National Geographic story like this one about “our joint civilization” — written by Sir Evelyn Wrench, founder of the English-Speaking Union — is possible only if the Magazine’s readers share some sort of collective identity. Not long ago, they did: From 1888 until 1995, National Geographic was published only in English, and most Society members lived in the English-speaking world.

NGM_International_NameplatesToday, National Geographic is published in English and… Bulgarian, traditional and simplified character Chinese, Croatian, Czech, Danish, Dutch, Finnish, French, German, Greek, Hebrew, Hungarian, Indonesian, Italian, Japanese, Korean, Norwegian, Polish, two Portuguese language editions, Romanian, Russian, Serbian, Slovene, two Spanish language editions, Swedish, Thai, and Turkish. Coming soon: Ukrainian and Lithuanian. And possibly Arabic.

Although the editors of these 30 local language editions are contractually permitted to publish content they create themselves, they don’t have the budgets or resources to generate enough words and pictures to fill their magazines. As a result, the Editor of the English language edition, based in Washington, DC, is responsible for creating content that will be received as warmly in Beijing and Bangkok as it is in Boston.

Less About People, More About the Planet

What sorts of stories does NGM produce for this global audience? Fewer stories like Sir Evelyn Wrench’s celebration of “our joint civilization,” and more stories like “Places We Must Save: World Parks at Risk” (October 2006); fewer stories like “America Remembers: Vietnam Veterans Memorial” (May 1985), and more about global warming; fewer stories that celebrate the defense of human freedom (“Your Society Aids The War Effort,” February 1943), and more stories that celebrate the defense of fish (“Global Fisheries Crisis,” April 2007). These days, our Society’s official journal speaks less often about the importance of history in shaping and strengthening our civic life (“Architect of Freedom: Thomas Jefferson,”   February 1976), and more about people as environmental stewards of planet Earth (“Hotspots: Preserving Pieces of a Fragile Biosphere,” January 2002).*

Instead of National Geographic, we’re now reading International Geographic. That’s a big difference — with big consequences.

Long Way Down

When the Society was founded in 1888, its mission statement was: To increase and diffuse geographic knowledge.

ngslogoIn 1988 — the Society’s centennial — the mission was still the same, geography was defined in its broadest sense (no kidding: “Model Airplanes: To Dream, to Build… And Then to Fly,” July 1986), and membership had soared to more than 10 million people.

Around 2005, the Society’s mission statement was rewritten to better reflect the Society’s global point of view. The new mission: To inspire people to care about the planet. Membership today: Roughly 4.2 million people a 60 percent decline from its 1980s peak.

Yes, we know: Many magazines and newspapers are also in a terrible tailspin, largely due to [insert your favorite internet-related explanation here]. But while the Editor of National Geographic obviously can’t control The March of Technology, he does control what’s published in our Magazine. He determines what to say each month in his Editor’s Note. He has the microphone. He is the voice.

nosediveBut given this stomach-churning decline in NGM’s membership — a nosedive that shows no sign of reversing course — we respectfully submit that it’s time to say something different.

How To Fly Again

If we keep telling great stories about critters, lovely landscapes, and climate change, we’re cooked. Members will keep doing what they’ve been doing for years: Leaving.

But if we begin talking again about what binds us together as a society and as a Society — then there’s hope.

Sir Evelyn Wrench said “Western civilization… is a tremendous theme.” We agree wholeheartedly. We also say that Western civilization is an amazing real-time adventure that we’re watching and living. It’s a drama in which we are the actors, all of us blessed with speaking parts.

Perhaps the best news — especially for the National Geographic Society — is that an army of digitally-armed Davids is awaiting the call to document their adventure, and, in the process, help tell our society’s story too. But someone has to make that call. Someone with a microphone has to mobilize and inspire the troops. Someone has to lead.

Otherwise, we’re really not Society “members” at all. We’re just customers… eyeballs… consumers slouching in our Barcaloungers, munching Cheetos, while we stare glassy-eyed at the latest batch of National Geographic cheetah pictures.

And we can do so much better than that.

The Take-Away

Remember who you are.

(Okay… maybe quoting The Lion King isn’t the most sophisticated way to wrap up a post. But when our kids were little, we saw this movie roughly 5,000 times, so it’s not easy to forget. Plus, when you get a chance to enlist the voice of James Earl Jones to deliver your closing line, you take it.)


(Hope you had a happy Independence Day.)

* As we noted in an earlier post, National Geogaphic’s web archive goes back only to 2005, which is why we’re unable to link to any stories published in the Magazine from 1888 through 2004.

NO NEW POSTS will be published here after February 6, 2014. THIS IS WHY.