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.
Today, 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.
In 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.
But 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.
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.