Question for a “Media Agnostic” (reprise)

Given the layoffs at NGM this week,
we thought it would be useful to ask this question again.
(Originally posted on June 30, 2009)

To: Chris Johns, Editor-in-Chief, National Geographic
Fr: Your friends @ Society Matters

Re: Your interview with Advertising Age

adagechrisjohnsWhen discussing National Geographic’s plans for digital publishing, you recently said:

“Everyone here — writers, photographers, map makers, etc. — is media-agnostic. We want to reach people with great stories, period.”

We love great stories too, and we’ve always been big fans of your wildlife photography. But your “media agnosticism” is deeply puzzling.

You’re the Editor of a print magazine, which more than four million people still pay good money to receive. But once you move those great stories to the web — which presumably is okay for a media agnostic like you — people will pay nothing to read them.

National Geographic on paper is still a viable business; National Geographic on the web is not.

If you have a minute, we’d like to ask you one question:

As people continue to migrate from print to digital,
how does a media agnostic like you
plan to pay NGM
‘s staff and freelancers
to produce those great stories?

We’d welcome your thoughts in the comments, below.


photo via Advertising Age

Only Four Days To Get Out

The last day at work for the eight NGM staffers who were laid off on Tuesday will be this coming Monday, November 2, 2009. Which means they’ve been given less than one week’s notice to clear out their offices and say their goodbyes.

That’s deeply disappointing, but not really surprising. After all, if you’d spent a substantial portion of your adult life chasing cheetahs, studying cheetahs, photographing cheetahs, and admiring cheetahs… well, those years in the wild can change a guy.

“There are certain things a cheetah story has to have.
One of the most important things it has to have…
is a kill sequence.

And you’re always looking for that picture.”

— Chris Johns, NGM’s Editor-in-Chief


Here We Go Again

National Geographic magazine laid off eight more staffers today.

Which should come as no surprise, at least if you’re a regular reader of this blog.

And while Gawker covered the news here, they got one critical piece wrong. They quoted someone at the Magazine (we think) saying the reason for the layoffs was “the economy.” What can we do? The economy is such a mess….

But that’s nonsense. Total, unadulterated blarf. “The economy” has very little to do with National Geographic‘s problems. Think about it: If the economy magically rebounded tomorrow — with full employment & zero deficits & tangerine trees & marmalade skies — print journalism would still be imploding. The problem isn’t “the economy, stupid,” it’s structural. And, in National Geographic‘s case, editorial as well.

The good news? As we’ve said before, National Geographic isn’t journalism as much as the official journal of a Society. Which means the journal’s titular head — the Editor-in-Chief — needs to have ideas, courage, creativity, and compassion. He or she must have the ability to stand up and lead — and to tell a compelling, inclusive, inspiring story about something other than, say, cheetahs. He or she needs to articulate a vision of a Society that people want to join.

What National Geographic desperately needs is someone at the microphone who actually has something to say. And unfortunately, the Magazine doesn’t. At least not right now. Which is why eight more creative, talented, hard-working, productive, and loyal Society staffers were laid off today by…


The Elephant In The Room

July 1943: NGM's first cover photo

July 1943: NGM's first cover photo

“So where do you work?” the elderly gentleman asked me.

Tall, gaunt, and grey, he must have been about 80 years old. He worked behind the cash register at a small shop in Bethesda, and whenever I stopped in, he was always there, chatting up the customers.

“I work at National Geographic.”

“Oh,” he said, shaking his head in disappointment. “I used to love National Geographic, but now I hate it.”

“You hate it? Really? How come?”

Eisenhower“Well, during World War II, you gave maps to Eisenhower to help him fight the Nazis. And during the Korean War, you told us about our boys on the peninsula. But now all you write about is global warming and elephants.” He glared at me. “You changed.”

Strange, I thought. People were usually impressed when I’d tell them I worked at National Geographic, but not this guy. So I took a deep breath, and tried to win him over by describing some of the excitement he’d been missing. Stories about Egyptian archaeology… national parks… biodiversity hotspots… ice climbing… endangered species….

“Nah,” said the man, waving me off. “I still hate it.”

Driving home, I kept wondering why the guy was so annoyed, and why NGM’s efforts “to inspire people to care about the planet” didn’t inspire him. What was he thinking?

Maybe this:

from “Swaziland Tries Independence,” article and photographs by Volkmar Wentzel (NGM August 1969)

Back in the day, the Magazine — the official journal of the National Geographic Society spoke to me as if I was a member of a society, part of something bigger than myself. The Magazine made me feel like I was an active participant in a great adventure of a nation and a civilization that might be called America and the West Meet the World. In the pages of NGM, we saw an eye-popping kaleidoscope of differences nations and cultures and people who understood the world in dramatically different ways. (Exhibit A: In some places, women appear in public with their breasts bare.) We saw ourselves as inheritors of a great Story that reached back to Rome, Athens, and Jerusalem. We banded together to defeat Hitler, Mussolini, and Tojo and then helped rebuild Europe. In July of 1976, we celebrated our nation’s bicentennial and the Magazine joined in with a special issue titled This Land of Ours. We knew who we were and who we were not.

Turtle CoverBut now, as you scramble to fill the pages of 30-plus local language editions, you try to talk to everyone, all at once. Groping for a common denominator, you tell us to be caretakers of the planet and huggers of trees. You seem to think that our greatest contribution is not to celebrate and defend human freedom and democracy, but to install compact fluorescent light bulbs. When you decide to unleash all the Society’s firepower on a single subject, you pick something like this. You’ve deemphasized the “National” and encouraged us to be “global citizens” (whatever that means). You no longer talk to us as members of anything at all except, perhaps, of the biosphere. Instead, you see us as customers for products and eyeballs for ads.

I’m as green as the next guy, but what the hell happened to our national adventure, National Geographic?

By the time I pulled into my driveway, I’d convinced myself the old man was stuck in the past, burdened by antiquated notions of loyalty, identity, and history.

But over the past few years, I’ve changed my mind. I’ve looked at what the Society was back then and what it is today and only one conclusion makes sense to me: The old man is right.

*          *          *

The “takeaway” (as John Fahey likes to say): Maybe people continue to give up their memberships in the Society because the Society gave up on them. Maybe the Magazine’s declining fortunes have less to do with the Internet, and more to do with the Magazine’s interests. And maybe the secret to National Geographic‘s success was that, in its heyday, it wasn’t “objective” journalism about the world, but a life-affirming journal about being in the world.

That’s a lot of maybes, but one thing we know for sure: Our story isn’t over yet….

≡ Photo of Dwight Eisenhower via the George Eastman House
Photo of bare-breasted women via Dowbrigade

We’re All Embedded Reporters

“From now on, we are all of us embedded reporters —”
embedded not by the Pentagon
into some Basra armored battalion
but by Best Buy into our daily lives.”

— Bob Garfield, author of The Chaos Scenario: Amid the Ruins of Mass Media,
the Choice for Business Is Stark: Listen or Perish


We wholeheartedly agree. So what would happen if National Geographic approached Best Buy, and said:

We have a good relationship with more than 4 million embedded reporters.
Does the Society’s enormous scale and reach offer an unusual opportunity—
for Best Buy, for Society management, and for Society members?

Yes, we think it does.


National Geographic’s First Global Tagline

“Live Curious”

We worried about pleasing a disproportionate audience,
but the process of selecting a tagline was much easier than we anticipated

— David Haslingden, National Geographic Channel global CEO


Note to David Haslingden:

“Please all, and you will please none.”

— from Aesop’s The Man, The Boy, and The Donkey

More Than a “Blip” (or: The TiVo Tipping Point)

xxx, co-founder of

Dina Kaplan, co-founder of

As web and TV continue to converge, new media start-ups like (“the next generation television network”) are driving traditional broadcast and cable executives nuts. Why? Partly because new distribution channels are now available for free to anyone with a video camera and a computer. But largely because the power that once was centralized is now in the hands of “viewers.”

Consider what this means for television channels supported (for now) by advertising:

According to TNS Media Intelligence, television advertising totaled $64 billion in 2007, or 32 percent of the total spent by U.S. advertisers. Internet advertising, while the fastest growing, still accounted for only 8 percent or $11 billion. Tom Rogers ’76, CEO of TiVo, believes that the $64 billion of advertising on traditional television is about to hit a brick wall, thanks to the digital video recorder technology (DVR) marketed by his company and others. Today, the 25 million households in America with a DVR can skip ads. While the majority of homes still do not have a DVR, the market is approaching a tipping point. “Most analysts expect that number to go to 50 million within the next two to three years,” Rogers says. “At that point two–thirds, or more, of the American homes that advertisers care most about will be avoiding their commercials.”

The National Geographic Channel (U.S.), which launched in 2001, has become a valuable part of the Society’s media portfolio, even though NGS holds a minority stake. (Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp is the Channel’s majority owner.) But if Tom Rogers is right, then what happens to our Society when that tipping point is reached, and the Channel’s business model — cash for eyeballs — “hit[s] a brick wall”?

Tim Kelly? Are you out there? We’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments, below.

Something Doesn’t Ad Up

adage-logoThis just in: National Geographic has been ranked #10 on Advertising Age‘s Magazine A-List for 2009. Which is a nice follow-up to Chris Johns being named Editor of the Year by Advertising Age in 2008.

eyecartoonAd Age is clearly impressed by the wide range of advertising vehicles available for rent at National Geographic, where millions of “eyeballs” gaze upon magazines, television channels, web sites, exhibitions, games, mobile products, and much more. Ad Age also knows it takes the right kind of Editor to make this publishing relationship work (for advertisers, anyway).

In other words: Advertisers are happy with National Geographic. NGM’s Publisher is no doubt happy. Which makes the Editor happy. Even the Society’s new VP for Social Media appears to be happy with Ad Age‘s “awesome” announcement.

Happy is good. We like happy. Problem is, millions of people aren’t happy with the current relationship. In fact, they seem rather pissed — and that’s a huge problem for our Society:

The Battle Isn’t Just At Kruger

You’ve probably already seen this clip, but we wanted to share an update:

Battle at Kruger is a wildlife video shot by David Budzinski,
a tourist from Texas on his first visit to Africa.

David tried to sell his amateur video to National Geographic,
but was turned down because he was… an amateur
As of today, his video has been viewed
more than 46,769,284 times on YouTube.

From The Department of Doing Things Differently

NO NEW POSTS will be published here after February 6, 2014. THIS IS WHY.