Cover Story: The Pro-Am Divide Narrows (Again)


April 27, 2009

News item: TIME paid $30 for this cover photo via iStockphoto. (New frugality, indeed.)

The photographer: Robert Lam, who says: “Photography is an enormous passion for me.”

Jeff Howe, author of Crowdsourcing, says: Passion is the currency of the 21st century.”

Moral: As passionate photographers continue to master their new digital tools, the gap between professional and amateur photographers will undoubtedly keep shrinking.

Question: Is it time for our Society to dispense with the Our Shot / Your Shot distinction? After all, isn’t one of our goals to showcase great photographs—no matter who takes them?



≡ TIME cover via
≡ Your Shot cover via

If Long-Form Is Dead, What’s Going To Do?

Josh Tyrangiel

Josh Tyrangiel

Josh Tyrangiel, Managing Editor of and Deputy Managing Editor of TIME magazine, says long-form journalism doesn’t work on the web (see video, below). Yet National Geographic magazine still seems to think it does. Each month, NGM’s feature stories are cut-and-pasted onto the Society’s web site (without any links), chopped into ten or more ad-friendly pages, and posted as the “features.”


We’d love to see a video featuring National Geographic Editor-in-Chief Chris Johns, Managing Editor Victoria Pope, or anyone else from the Magazine staff or from who can explain NGM’s overall web strategy and editorial sensibility. Because, right now, long-form journalism still seems to be the center of what National Geographic magazine is offering on the web—and, as Josh points out, it’s not working.

(Special note to Chris & Victoria: We’d be delighted to swing by NGS headquarters to tape such a segment. Interested? Please let us know in the comments, below.)


≡ photo of Josh Tyrangiel via the Aspen Ideas Festival

If You Liked SustainabiliTEA, You’ll Love This

National Geographic launches environmental publication

This new quarterly supplement to National Geographic magazine, to be produced by King Lion Media, “will explore a broader environmental debate and offer information about consumer products.” To which we can only say:

Congratulations, John Q. Griffin,
for launching this innovative National Geographic-branded platform.
Our condolences and apologies to
National Geographic Society members everywhere.

The Center Will Not Hold

How can National Geographic magazine
hope to be the hub of great photojournalism
when great photojournalism
is everywhere?



≡ screenshots via 10,000 Words: 20 photojournalist’s fantastic portfolios

What NGS Could Learn From NPR


To: John Fahey, CEO of NGS

Please read this item. It’s a great piece by Rob Paterson (@ FastForward: The Blog) about how NPR has managed to grow its audience while so many other media organizations are shrinking. You’ll no doubt find some valuable lessons for National Geographic, including the importance of:

a coordinated web strategy: NPR has one (check out their new site here), but our Society clearly does not. Just look at It’s a collection of sites that are awkwardly leveraged around our legacy media products (National Geographic magazine; Traveler; Adventure; etc.) instead of something that feels organic to the web. (Have you ever tried to read an entire NGM story online? The features are usually divided into, oh, 11 separate pages of text so that 11 separate ads can be served—which doesn’t exactly enhance the user experience.) It has an inconsistent design, with one site looking nothing like another one; there’s an embarrassing lack of links; the new “partnerships” with advertisers can only tarnish The Brand; there’s no way to find and meet other Society members online; and there’s almost no organizational transparency: where are the names and contact info for the people who work at NGS? … We don’t mean to be harsh, but needs a major overhaul. And the only person who can demand such a change—and who can insist that NG staffers emerge from their divisional silos and play nicely together on the web—is you. Please help.

opening up a conversation about the future: NPR managers enlisted more than 800 people to help plan for their digital future; whereas NGS has never made any serious attempt to engage all the Society’s stakeholders—including its members—in a sustained, open, and honest conversation about where the Society should be heading. Whatever strategic planning is taking place is happening behind closed doors. And since it’s our Society—member supported and tax exempt—it’d be nice to have you open those doors and invite us in. We can help—if you’ll let us.

Trust: NPR is unambiguously a non-profit, which is one reason why Joan Kroc felt comfortable making a $200 million bequest to that organization. But during the last 15 years, National Geographic has so radically diversified its business that the Society can no longer make a similar claim. National Geographic’s operations are now something only an accountant could fully understand. We have a non-profit side… and a for-profit side (National Geographic Ventures)… while one of our biggest media properties—the Channel—is actually owned by News Corp. Yes, there’s some strategic value in having a diversified media portfolio, but such broad product diversification within the brand can also produce… well, it produces a morass like Please help.

We have a hunch it’s too late for NGS to pursue an NPR-like development strategy. After all, what major philanthropist would consider dropping a huge sum of money on National Geographic when Rupert Murdoch is hovering nearby?

But we still think you could pull off what might be called NPR Lite: Separate the Society’s 4 million-plus members from the rest of the business, and tell the Editor of our official journal to lead us on a real adventure. Open up the conversation about the Society’s future and explore what we might be able to accomplish together that we’ll never accomplish alone; coordinate a coherent mission for the members, and give them a good reason to keep paying annual dues; and build upon the institutional trust which you inherited as President & CEO—but which ad campaigns like SustainabiliTEA can only squander.

*          *          *

The decisive moment is slipping by, John. As members keep heading for the exits, the Society’s critical mass is disappearing. Soon we may be too small—and lack any coherent business model for a digital age—to accomplish anything big.

Isn’t it time we begin to address the Society’s problems together, and open up the conversation the way NPR did?

Your friends @ Society Matters


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

NGMSept09After reading Chris Johns’ latest Editor’s Note, you have to admire the courage of photographer Pascal Maitre, who traveled to Somalia five times to complete his photo coverage for Shattered Somalia. “Without a stable government since 1991, the country is arguably the scene of Africa’s worst humanitarian crisis,” Chris tells us. “It’s one of the deadliest places a journalist can be…. To bear witness to such suffering requires the highest measure of compassion and conviction.”

We agree, and salute Pascal for his efforts. We just hope that Chris Johns, a former field photographer who rarely ventures into the field anymore, can show some courage too by documenting another meltdown in progress—the membership of the National Geographic Society.

No, we’re not suggesting an equivalence: our Society is obviously not Somalia; the death of a magazine is of zero consequence when compared to the death of a nation. But given the negative trends at National Geographic (once ten million members strong; now fewer than five million, and heading rapidly south of four million), and given NGS’s lack of any sustainable business model for a digital world—well, we worry the tectonic shifts in media could easily shatter our own Society.

So we implore you, Chris: Please show the same guts and grit as Pascal Maitre did, and begin to publicly address the serious problems National Geographic is facing. Stop publicly ignoring the meltdown around you. And start to “bear witness” in your Editor’s Note to the challenges our Society now confronts. If you do, then we can begin to better understand these problems, and discuss them—and then start solving them… together.

“Ad-supported content is a business model in decay”

All Eyes Up Front

Networks shun stages

As readers of this blog know, we’re not big fans of advertorials like SustainabiliTEA — a co-production of Lipton Tea and National Geographic. But just in case you think we’re being unfairly critical of a business strategy that certainly will generate some quick cash for our Society, we offer some additional insight from Terry Heaton of Audience Research & Development.

In a post called Protecting the Stage, he writes about the death of ad-supported content and why online networks are not a good spot for advertisers.

The owner of the stage can set the rules for the performers on the stage, but when nobody sees the stage, those rules can become a net liability. … The stage is what matters to traditional media. It’s the driver of its pursuit of impartiality. An impartial stage, after all, is home to others, including advertisers, and this is no accident. The purity of the stage for advertisers is a vital concern to the people who shell out millions of dollars to be associated with it. ….[But] the essence of the network is to shun stages, not so much for the acts they bring but for all the marketing messages that tag along. This is — and will be — the essential problem for media, for ad-supported content is a business model in decay.

The “purity of the stage” — that is, the “impartiality” of National Geographic — is not only what Lipton is buying, but it’s also what’s compromised by this ad campaign. Once you grasp the rules of this new game, and read the fine print (“Special presentation brought to you by Lipton”), everything else our Society produces suddenly deserves special scrutiny: Where’s the fine print for this story or TV show? Is this a “special presentation”? an “advertorial”? some other newfangled hybrid? Who exactly is speaking to me?

But here’s the good news: National Geographic isn’t a media company. We don’t have to play by the same rules as, say, The New York Times, or TIME magazine, or the Discovery Channel. Why? Because we’re a Society with more than four million dues-paying members… right?


≡  graphic via Terry Heaton’s blog

Diversity Is Good For Blog Rolls, Too

Here’s the blog roll on the left rail of Chris John’s Editor’s Note blog:


All fourteen links go to National Geographic web pages. And while we realize that NGS wants to keep visitors on its site, most bloggers use their blog rolls to share links to other people and places on the web—sources that inspire, provoke, inform, and entertain.

Why, then, does Chris Johns post only internal links? (If his blog were an ecosystem, it would suffer from a dangerous lack of biodiversity.)

Chris no doubt reads other stuff on the web. We’d love for him to share his sources by sharing his links.


Authentic, Transparent & Human

Jeremiah Owyang

Jeremiah Owyang

Words of wisdom from web strategist  Jeremiah Owyang (with emphasis added):

Most companies ‘hide’ behind their brand….  Things are different now, the internet allows for real people to connect with other real people and have discussions about anything that interests them – void of any shield, crest, or banner. …

What does Authentic, Transparent, or being Human look like [online]?

• Training and entrusting employees to build real relationships using [social media] tools

• Admitting when you’re wrong

• Asking the community for help, working with the community to build better products

• Showing your strengths – and weaknesses – in a public forum

• Showing more of unique side of the employees (that you invested in) in addition to your products, technology, and services

• Realizing the brand is actually owned by the community and not just the MarCom brand police

— from Social Media FAQ #2:  What does it mean to be Authentic, Transparent, or Human?


≡ photo via Web Strategy by Jeremiah Owyang

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