What NGS Could Learn From NPR

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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 nationalgeographic.com. 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 nationalgeographic.com 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 nationalgeographic.com. 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?

Sincerely,
Your friends @ Society Matters

  • Rob Paterson

    Great points Alan – maybe not too late either in that it is clear now that conventional magazines will not make it. Also that the brand is at risk – the brand being TRUST. Lastly it is also clear that Mr M is no magician and is struggling himself with the web.
    Rob

    • Thanks for your note, Rob. And yes, you’re right, everyone is struggling with the web — even Mr. Murdoch. But I think National Geographic is unusual because it’s a Society—in name, anyway. And right now that word—Society—is one that most media companies would love to be able to claim as their own.

      Our challenge is to capitalize on what we already have in hand, but that requires The Vision Thing—a statement that in Obama-like fashion can describe the unbreakable bonds that keep our Society together. … I haven’t yet heard such a speech from the Society’s leaders, but, as Jesse Jackson used to say: Keep hope alive!

      Thanks again for your comment & for your original post.

  • Rob Paterson

    Great points Alan – maybe not too late either in that it is clear now that conventional magazines will not make it. Also that the brand is at risk – the brand being TRUST. Lastly it is also clear that Mr M is no magician and is struggling himself with the web.
    Rob

    • Thanks for your note, Rob. And yes, you’re right, everyone is struggling with the web — even Mr. Murdoch. But I think National Geographic is unusual because it’s a Society—in name, anyway. And right now that word—Society—is one that most media companies would love to be able to claim as their own.

      Our challenge is to capitalize on what we already have in hand, but that requires The Vision Thing—a statement that in Obama-like fashion can describe the unbreakable bonds that keep our Society together. … I haven’t yet heard such a speech from the Society’s leaders, but, as Jesse Jackson used to say: Keep hope alive!

      Thanks again for your comment & for your original post.

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