Multimedia ‘Survivor’: Who Wins This Game?


A conversation about digital storytelling (left to right): NPR's Andrea Hsu, Keith Jenkins, and Jacki Lyden; and NGS's Steven Alvarez and Rob Covey.

Here’s a puzzler: If both National Geographic and National Public Radio are now in the same business of multimedia storytelling — as this piece claims — then which company has the better business model to create those stories in the years to come?

Let’s do a few quick comparisons:

• National Geographic has become an increasingly advertising-driven company at a time when advertisers and publishers are going through a painful divorce. Whereas NPR remains a virtually ad-free zone.

• National Geographic dismantled its Membership Center Building in Gaithersburg, Maryland, about 15 years ago. Whereas NPR works hard to build upon its relationships with member stations and their members.

(Sidebar: I recently attended NPR’s first-ever PubCamp, a weekend-long unconference designed “to strengthen the relationship that public broadcasters have with their communities through the creation of collaborative projects.” It was a fascinating two days, not so much for the projects, but for the passion and engagement that can be created when the leaders of a high-profile institution say to the regular folk: We need you. Help us build something new and exciting. You matter.)

•  The National Geographic Society usually avoids mentioning its last name in public (see logo in photo, above) because as a senior NGS executive once told us: “Nobody wants to belong to anything.” By contrast, NPR regularly tells its members: We’re public radio. We belong to you.

•  National Geographic is a .com; NPR is a .org — and wants you to know it (see photo, above).

•  National Geographic establishes partnerships with companies that sell air freshener and bedroom furniture; NPR doesn’t.

•  National Geographic Magazine publishes more than 30 local language editions, including one in mainland China. NPR (best we know) has no plans to revamp its editorial content so it can curry favor with the gatekeepers in Beijing and become a global media brand.

NPR_pictureshowIf NPR and National Geographic are both in the business of multimedia storytelling, then a generation of young people will grow up seeing both organizations occupying the same stage  — often in “partnership” (at right). As a result, the lines that distinguish these two brands will gradually blur in the minds of consumers (NPR is a great destination for stunning multimedia stories….). The business models, though, will continue to diverge.

Our biggest fear? The organization that maintains its dependence on advertising revenue and air freshener will, sooner or later, kill itself.

The good news is we’re optimists. We still think National Geographic could pull out of its death spiral. But the Society — especially the Magazine — needs to do a few things, and do them soon. Here’s our Top Ten List (which is a partial summary of Society Matters to date):

1. Give the Magazine’s microphone to someone who can inspire a crowd.

2. Realize the value is not in the content, which can now be found everywhere, but in building and strengthening the Society’s relationships with and between its members.

3. Publicly admit that the pro-am divide is shrinking by the day.

4. Mobilize the Society’s members to help cover the world and all that is in it.

5. Don’t try to be everything to everyone. Instead, embrace the story that made you great.

6. Stop sucking up to despots.

7. Stand for something.

8. Open up the conversation about the future of our Society.

9. Don’t forget that the Society’s mission — to inspire people to care about the planet — is not the same thing as inspiring people to care about pictures of the planet.

10. When everyone else in the industry is afraid of making the wrong move, don’t be afraid to dance.

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