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

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