Remembering Who We Are

fireworks_clipart

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

Would National Geographic publish a story like this today?

TheBritishWay

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.


  • Glenn Hodges

    Alan,

    Your question is a good one: In becoming International Geographic, is the society forced to hew to least-common-demoninator storylines that translate easily across partners’ borders? If you’re right, I think that’s a shame. But I’m not sure the answer is as simple as “remembering who you are.” The downside of the NG approach of old was the cultural imperialism—the pith-helmeted explorer slumming it with the natives (esp. the topless ones) for the amusement of the good white people back home. Obviously, that’s not a perspective the society wants to reappropriate. In your vision, how does National (vs. International) Geographic avoid being parochial and patronizing?

    And when you’re done with that one, a follow-up: Do you REALLY want to see more stories on model airplanes? More hagiographies of Thomas Jefferson? Propaganda for war bonds? Next to stuff like that, “inspiring people to care about the planet” looks like a pretty worthy cause. So what kind of story do you actually want to see in the magazine? Put on your Editor’s hat: what’s your first assignment?

    And when you’re done with THAT, put up some more kick-ass mountain bike videos. That’s what I’d do with the editor’s hat….

    GH

    • Thanks for stopping by, Glenn. And for your comments & questions…

      I agree completely that there’s no going back—and even if we could, who would want to? Pith helmets & the white-man’s burden may be the Society’s history, but it shouldn’t be its future. So how do you avoid being parochial and patronizing? Simple: Realize that the magic of NGM was always “differences,” and be willing to highlight them.

      Case in point: China (a subject I’ll be writing more about soon). In late 2006, when senior editors began planning for our special issue on the country to coincide with the 2008 Beijing Olympic games, Editor-in-Chief Chris Johns had assigned a story about censorship in China. The author: Ha Jin, a National Book Award winner and a recipient of two PEN/Faulkner Awards. In May 2007, Ha Jin turned in his 4,000-word manuscript. In July 2007 NGM announced its new publishing partnership, years in the making, with the People’s Republic of China. In the fall of 2007, a senior team from NGS headed for the PRC to celebrate the new partnership — and a few weeks before the trip, Chris Johns killed Ha Jin’s Censorship in China story. Coincidence? I doubt it. And the problem couldn’t have been the quality of the 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 photographs: You start with Tank Man—and go from there. …. The short version: Some of our international partners don’t want to hear about free speech, so to satisfy them, we talk about cheetahs instead.

      That’s a huge mistake, and here’s why: People in Beijing will obviously never see Ha Jin’s story—but neither will people in Boston, Bloomington, Boise, Baton Rouge…. What National Geographic readers in Iowa know about China is being shaped by the Editor’s desire to cater to our international partners. And trust me—it’s a major shift of emphasis that’s been noticed by long-time Society members. (Anecdotes to come.) Given National Geographic‘s increasingly global focus, is it any wonder members keep heading for the exit?

      We avoid being parochial and patronizing by remembering who we are: people who cherish the Constitution and the First Amendment, and who realize that those rights and freedoms can easily disappear — especially in places ruled by people who care about the planet, but who aren’t much interested in human freedom. The simple solution is to write about such places — just like we did in the good old days — but not create partnerships that compromise our core values. (If you get John Fahey talking about why he produced the movie U2-3D, he’ll eventually mention human rights. But he once suggested at a staff meeting that it was a struggle at the Society to get that film made. Why? Because some people thought it wasn’t part of the Society’s mission. John prevailed in that one, but I think it’s partly because he didn’t spend his formative professional years communing with cheetahs.)

      Put another way: Last weekend we had a neighborhood July 4th parade. One of my neighbors & good friends dresses up like Uncle Sam every year, and reads the Declaration of Independence out loud as he marches down the street. My kids see him and hear him, and I hope it makes an impression. Is that parochial? patronizing? I think not, especially when it’s for the home crowd. This is our story… my kids’ story… your story — or one important part of it, anyway. It’s worth telling, again and again, to every generation. It should never get old. Especially in a magazine called National Geographic.

      Re: model airplanes and hagiographies about Thomas Jefferson — yes and no. I like the fact that NGM believed its editorial portfolio was broad enough to handle model airplanes. It’s a big, interesting world out there. And yes, I think every generation needs to know about Thomas Jefferson and the ideas that animate our republic (although they need not be hagiographies). Because someone has to tell that story; otherwise it dies.

      As for putting on the Editor’s hat, here’s my first assignment: Send Glenn Hodges to Saudi Arabia, a country we featured in a 40-page cover story soon after 9-11. That story mentioned Wahhabism once, on page 36, I think. This time, ask Glenn to give us a 20-page story about what Wahhabism is, what makes it tick, why it’s central to the kingdom’s history and identity. Why it’s different. Such a story would be a huge service to our members.

      Want another idea? Stop wheeling out EO Wilson, again and again, in the pages of NGM. Instead, hand the microphone to Wendell Berry, author of Life Is a Miracle: An Essay Against Modern Superstition. It’s a beautiful refutation of Dr. Wilson’s entire worldview. But we never hear it in NGM because EO Wilson is one of the Society’s heroes. Ask Chris Johns & Tim Appenzeller for details.

      A few years ago, David Brooks wrote a wonderful piece in The New York Times. It’s called The Age of Darwin. I highly recommend it. In recent years, National Geographic has embraced the Darwinian “grand narrative” that Brooks describes. My question for you is: Is this the sort of story you want to inhabit? Is this the society – & Society – that you want to live in? Because in the end, it really is a choice.

      As for those “kick-ass mountain bike videos” — I’ve got great news for you, Glenn. Geographic has a venue for that stuff. It’s called Adventure magazine.

      Hope you’re doing well… and thanks again for writing. It reminds me how much NGM lost when you walked out the door.

  • Glenn Hodges

    Alan,

    Your question is a good one: In becoming International Geographic, is the society forced to hew to least-common-demoninator storylines that translate easily across partners’ borders? If you’re right, I think that’s a shame. But I’m not sure the answer is as simple as “remembering who you are.” The downside of the NG approach of old was the cultural imperialism — the pith-helmeted explorer slumming it with the natives (esp. the topless ones) for the amusement of the good white people back home. Obviously, that’s not a perspective the society wants to reappropriate. In your vision, how does National (vs. International) Geographic avoid being parochial and patronizing?

    And when you’re done with that one, a follow-up: Do you REALLY want to see more stories on model airplanes? More hagiographies of Thomas Jefferson? Propaganda for war bonds? Next to stuff like that — inspiring people to care about the planet — looks like a pretty worthy cause. So what kind of story do you actually want to see in the magazine? Put on your Editor’s hat: what’s your first assignment?

    And when you’re done with THAT, put up some more kick-ass mountain bike videos. That’s what I’d do with the editor’s hat….

    GH

    • Thanks for stopping by, Glenn. And for your comments & questions…

      I agree completely that there’s no going back — and even if we could, who would want to? Pith helmets & the white-man’s burden may be the Society’s history, but it shouldn’t be its future. So how do you avoid being parochial and patronizing? Simple: Realize that the magic of NGM was always “differences,” and be willing to highlight them.

      Case in point: China (a subject I’ll be writing more about soon). In late 2006, when senior editors began planning for our special issue on the country to coincide with the 2008 Beijing Olympic games, Editor-in-Chief Chris Johns had assigned a story about censorship in China. The author: Ha Jin, a National Book Award winner and a recipient of two PEN/Faulkner Awards. In May 2007, Ha Jin turned in his 4,000-word manuscript. In July 2007 NGM announced its new publishing partnership, years in the making, with the People’s Republic of China. In the fall of 2007, a senior team from NGS headed for the PRC to celebrate the new partnership — and a few weeks before the trip, Chris Johns killed Ha Jin’s Censorship in China story. Coincidence? I doubt it. And the problem couldn’t have been the quality of the 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 photographs: You start with Tank Man — and go from there. …. The short version: Some of our international partners don’t want to hear about free speech, so to satisfy them, we talk about cheetahs instead.

      That’s a huge mistake, and here’s why: People in Beijing will obviously never see Ha Jin’s story — but neither will people in Boston, Bloomington, Boise, Baton Rouge…. What National Geographic readers in Iowa know about China is being shaped by the Editor’s desire to cater to our international partners. And trust me — it’s a major shift of emphasis that’s been noticed by long-time Society members. (Anecdotes to come.) Given National Geographic‘s increasingly global focus, is it any wonder members keep heading for the exit?

      We avoid being parochial and patronizing by remembering who we are: people who cherish the Constitution and the First Amendment, and who realize that those rights and freedoms can easily disappear — especially in places ruled by people who care about the planet, but who aren’t much interested in human freedom. The simple solution is to write about such places — just like we did in the good old days — but not create partnerships that compromise our core values. (If you get John Fahey talking about why he produced the movie U2-3D, he’ll eventually mention human rights. But he once suggested at a staff meeting that it was a struggle at the Society to get that film made. Why? Because some people thought it wasn’t part of the Society’s mission. John prevailed in that one, but I think it’s partly because he didn’t spend his formative professional years communing with cheetahs.)

      Put another way: Last weekend we had a neighborhood July 4th parade. One of my neighbors & good friends dresses up like Uncle Sam every year, and reads the Declaration of Independence out loud as he marches down the street. My kids see him and hear him, and I hope it makes an impression. Is that parochial? patronizing? I think not, especially when it’s for the home crowd. This is our story… my kids’ story… your story — or one important part of it, anyway. It’s worth telling, again and again, to every generation. It should never get old. Especially in a magazine called National Geographic.

      Re: model airplanes and hagiographies about Thomas Jefferson — yes and no. I like the fact that NGM believed its editorial portfolio was broad enough to handle model airplanes. It’s a big, interesting world out there. And yes, I think every generation needs to know about Thomas Jefferson and the ideas that animate our republic (although they need not be hagiographies). Because someone has to tell that story; otherwise it dies.

      As for putting on the Editor’s hat, here’s my first assignment: Send Glenn Hodges to Saudi Arabia, a country we featured in a 40-page cover story soon after 9-11. That story mentioned Wahhabism once, on page 36, I think. This time, ask Glenn to give us a 20-page story about what Wahhabism is, what makes it tick, why it’s central to the kingdom’s history and identity. Why it’s different. Such a story would be a huge service to our members.

      Want another idea? Stop wheeling out EO Wilson, again and again, in the pages of NGM. Instead, hand the microphone to Wendell Berry, author of Life Is a Miracle: An Essay Against Modern Superstition. It’s a beautiful refutation of Dr. Wilson’s entire worldview. But we never hear it in NGM because EO Wilson is one of the Society’s heroes. Ask Chris Johns & Tim Appenzeller for details.

      A few years ago, David Brooks wrote a wonderful piece in The New York Times. It’s called The Age of Darwin. I highly recommend it. In recent years, National Geographic has embraced the Darwinian “grand narrative” that Brooks describes. My question for you is: Is this the sort of story you want to inhabit? Is this the society – & Society – that you want to live in? Because in the end, it really is a choice.

      As for those “kick-ass mountain bike videos” — I’ve got great news for you, Glenn. Geographic has a venue for that stuff. It’s called Adventure magazine.

      Hope you’re doing well… and thanks again for writing. It reminds me how much NGM lost when you walked out the door.

  • Glenn Hodges

    Great answer, not just because differences are as important as commonalities, but because differences make good stories. I’d love to see that story on Wahhabism, or a conversation between Berry and Wilson on ngm.com, which seems to have so much untapped potential.

    I’m still a little leery about the potential jingoism of celebrating Western values over other values, though. Having a clear point of view may be important, but not at the expense of empathy and humility, and those are often the first things to go. (Exhibit A: the Bush Jr. Administration.) I’m not arguing that we sanction tyranny in the name of tolerance, or blandly proclaim that all cultures have a moral equivalency; I’m simply raising a caution flag. We need to remember that the animating ideas of our republic have included conquest as well as democracy, slavery and as well as freedom.

    As for your question about what story I want to inhabit: I’m not sure I want NG to choose a single story for me. I want to hear E.O. Wilson’s argument AND Wendell Berry’s. I want the Darwinian narrative AND the historical one. Does it have to be one or the other? I understand that these narratives conflict, sometimes at the most important levels. But shouldn’t a Society dedicated to the expansion and diffusion of knowledge be more concerned with getting the contenders in the ring than with picking winners? The project of human understanding is still in its infancy, by my lights. Trying to get the story nailed down at this point seems like folly.

    Thanks for expanding on your points, and for raising these questions. I think they’re important, whatever the answers.

  • Glenn Hodges

    Great answer, not just because differences are as important as commonalities, but because differences make good stories. I’d love to see that story on Wahhabism, or a conversation between Berry and Wilson on ngm.com, which seems to have so much untapped potential.

    I’m still a little leery about the potential jingoism of celebrating Western values over other values, though. Having a clear point of view may be important, but not at the expense of empathy and humility, and those are often the first things to go. (Exhibit A: the Bush Jr. Administration.) I’m not arguing that we sanction tyranny in the name of tolerance, or blandly proclaim that all cultures have a moral equivalency; I’m simply raising a caution flag. We need to remember that the animating ideas of our republic have included conquest as well as democracy, slavery and as well as freedom.

    As for your question about what story I want to inhabit: I’m not sure I want NG to choose a single story for me. I want to hear E.O. Wilson’s argument AND Wendell Berry’s. I want the Darwinian narrative AND the historical one. Does it have to be one or the other? I understand that these narratives conflict, sometimes at the most important levels. But shouldn’t a Society dedicated to the expansion and diffusion of knowledge be more concerned with getting the contenders in the ring than with picking winners? The project of human understanding is still in its infancy, by my lights. Trying to get the story nailed down at this point seems like folly.

    Thanks for expanding on your points, and for raising these questions. I think they’re important, whatever the answers.

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