When ‘Society’ Mattered

We might hit this membership milestone again β€” but while going in the wrong direction.

April 1962...

  • J. Walters

    It's not your society, and it never has been. Your angry, and that's understandable but you sound crazy. If you really knew anything about the 'Society' then you know that it's been run by rich white men since 1888. Why would you want to go backwards? They never put black people on their covers unless they are naked and there are few black employees, and most are in some service position. They discussed what the people should look like when putting them on the cover as they wanted to attract people who looked like them. They required women staff members to wear dresses. There were separate dining rooms for senior management. You want to go backwards?

    You are clearly angry and while I have reason to know that you have reason to be, you sound crazy. Do the legwork and write a book but stop stalking them. They don't care.

  • Dear J,

    You won't believe this, but I'm really glad you wrote. No kidding. Because much of what you say is true….

    The Society was, in many ways, exactly what you described. And I have no interest in going “backwards.” I have no desire to resurrect the Geographic of the 1950s or 1960s… or 1930s β€” for all the reasons you cite, and more.

    And yet I do think the Society has given up something critical by going global β€” and by pretending to be “objective.” Namely: the ability to see & appreciate differences β€” especially the political ones. China is not France is not Russia is not Uganda is not Venuzuela is not the United States. And to lose sight of those differences is, I believe, a huge mistake. It's National Geographic, not International Geographic.

    If I had time, I'd love to “do the legwork” and write a book, as you suggest. But the downside of a book is it comes, and it goes. Whereas this blog just keeps on giving. πŸ™‚

    As for the “anger” … hmmm, I dunno. I guess I get peeved when people spout nonsense and no one calls them on it. Exhibit A: Chris Johns and his “120 years of objectivity” silliness. … And I'm not happy when I see NGM embodying a set of values that don't bode well for the Society β€” or our society. But I'm not angry about not working there anymore. In fact, it's mostly a relief: I can finally say out loud what plenty of people have been saying for years in hushed tones behind closed doors.

    As for “crazy” — well, sure, I guess a little. Blogging every few days about what I hope NGS might become, with few signs that management will change course β€” you can call that crazy. It's also been great fun. …. But I hope I'm not crazy on the merits – on the criticisms I make of the Magazine, or the ideas I've proposed about what it could become.

    “It's not your society,” you write, “and it never has been.” Point taken. But the funny thing is β€” it could my society. And yours too β€”Β but without the racism, the sexism, the elitism, and all the other things that make us all roll our eyes about the way they (we) were.

    To sum up: I'm not angry about what's happening at NGS β€”Β I'm fascinated by it. Mostly because it's a wonderful microcosm of the larger world. The nutty ideas that take hold in society also end up guiding parts of the Society. But it's so much easier to address by focusing on NGS because the stage is so much smaller.

    My dad once told me that my job in life isn't to fix the world, it's to clean up my own room. I guess I still feel like NGS is part of my room.

    Thanks very much for writing.

  • J. Walters

    Of course your angry, and you are stalking employees and events and meetings and you have posts to John Fahey, and you are calling people out on this page. They are never going to listen to you. You raise excellent points, but they are laughing at you. You give them something to unite on and rally against. You have become the guy with an electronic sandwich board saying, “the end is coming.”

    You give Chris Johns to much credit and to much shit. He needs to and wants to get paid, too. It's top down, and that means the very top. You know that's true. And remember that it is not your society, never was and never will be. At it's heart it has always been the manifestation of colonizers and your suggestion that you are upset because it is not good for the National Geographic Society or the domestic U.S. society is a twisting of the very same ideology.

    NG has broken the hearts of many current and former staffers who believed it to be something it is not.

    Today's mantra, “how can we monetize this?”

  • Hey J,

    I smile as I read your comment β€” not because I don't take it seriously. I do. But I never thought about myself as the electronic sandwich board guy. It's a great image β€” except I don't think The End Is Near; I still have hope.

    And I'm not a “stalker,” I'm a blogger with a specific beat. But, then again, I guess that's what beat reporters are β€” stalkers protected by the first amendment. πŸ™‚ … As for meetings, I've only attended one meeting in 18 months at NGS β€” a public event in the auditorium featuring the Society's VP of Social Media, who I've wanted to interview. In fact, I'd been asking him on Twitter for an interview for months. You know, for this blog. But he never answered on Twitter (not very social, I guess) β€” and he declined in person. I have to submit all requests to Communications office. And so forth. You know the drill.

    My favorite line of yours: “You raise excellent points, but they are laughing at you.” Now you gotta admit β€” that's funny. Because I'd figure “excellent points” might deserve a response instead of a chuckle. But maybe that's just me. As for the laughter β€” I'm glad to provide folks with some comic relief.

    “How can we monetize this?” isn't a crazy question, by the way. The money has to come from somewhere. But as you know, I don't think the Society will get it β€” over the long term, anyway β€” by selling the brand to Lipton, Sun Chips, and Shell.

    As for Chris Johns, he's not a bad guy. He's a very talented photographer. And he's doing precisely what John Fahey wants him to do β€” otherwise, he wouldn't be editor. But I don't think Chris has any vision for the Magazine β€” and the Society's members β€”Β that extends much beyond cheetah pictures. And best I can tell, neither does John (though I'm ready to be proven wrong.)

    Finally, Geographic never broke my heart. Honest. It gave me plenty β€” and it keeps on giving in new & surprising ways.

    Thanks again for writing. (And someday you'll have to tell me who you are.)

  • Jame

    My point sir, the brand is not now nor has it ever been what it purports to be. There are not now nor where there ever 'members.' This thing you call 'the society' is a business with subscribers, not members. There are no benefits beyond occasional discounts on purchases.

    You will never get to interview anyone there because they view you as a guy with an axe to grind. They don't want your opinions or suggestions, yours, mine or ours. This is not one man, one vote.

    You can't run a business without cash and clearly it has to come from somewhere. Rupert Murdoch, Sun Chips, Shell… private donors who pay to get the opportunity to hang out with NG talent and treat the staff like shit. Branded bed linen, furniture, coffee and now a music business.

    Talk to the members of the board. They get paid, too. Maybe they will give you and interview.

    You are trying to protect something that never existed in the first place.

  • I think we're reaching some sort of convergence, J: As I read you previous comment, I'm sitting here nodding my head in agreement.

    The only point I'd question is “subscribers, not members.” Not because I believe there was an active community of NGS members who years ago convened to swap stories, share a meal, tell a few jokes, etc. It was never that way. But NGS has the potential to do that – especially at a time when every media company under the sun would kill to have a word like “society” in their official name.

    Put another way: NGS is a nascent community that has the potential to be far more than it is.

    BTW: I like your idea about reaching out to Board members. Who do you think we should call first? Or would that qualify as “crazy” too? πŸ™‚

    Thanks for writing…

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