The Siren Song of Global Growth

“Chinese officials remain committed to controlling the flow of information into and within the country. Censorship, Internet police who monitor and guide online discussions, new regulations for the registration of Internet Protocols, and arrests of Internet dissidents are all designed to prevent the Chinese people from straying too far outside acceptable political boundaries. Moreover, foreign media companies have been largely unsuccessful in capturing significant market share in China, and some — such as Google and the media magnate Rupert Murdoch — have scaled back their efforts or pulled out in the face of highly restrictive policies.”

— from “The Game Changer: Coping With China’s Foreign Policy Revolution,” by Elizabeth C. Economy, Foreign Affairs, November/December 2010

Why have China’s “highly restrictive policies” dampened the enthusiasm of Google and Rupert Murdoch — but not of National Geographic? Why did we agree, after years of delicate negotiations, to play by China’s rules, especially when those rules damage our Society’s most precious legacy? Why doesn’t our Society’s official journal shed light on China’s authoritarian challenge to democracy?

We’d love to pose these questions to Editor Chris Johns & EVP Terry Adamson, who appear delighted about our Magazine’s publishing partnership in the People’s Republic of China:

Chris & Terry shake hands with our new partners in the People's Republic of China. (2007)

Chris & Terry clink glasses with our new partners in the PRC.

Chris & Terry stand tall with our new partners in the PRC.

  • Jay

    i had hoped that in 2011 you would stop with the ‘our society,’ nonsense. it’s impossible to take you seriously. you are an angry, bitter and misinformed ex-employee. national geographic is not now, nor has it ever been a bastion of liberal thinking. it is in fact an organization created by a bunch of rich white guys who still run it. they like their people of color naked and on the cover of the magazine. or serving them food in their private dining rooms, or running their elevators or driving the cars of the executives.

  • Jay

    not much has changed. the same mentality reigns. the same people get promoted. husbands and wives run the magazines. husbands get wives work. the president’s son worked for the channel and made more then most of us. but that is the way they want it. if they didn’t then things would change. you are stalking these people. you have the right to a subscription. that’s it. the problem at this organization is not change, it is the inability to change. we don’t need people like you. we need people like robert michael murray.

  • jay

    in a years of brutal budget cuts and staff cuts, i would like to know how much the senior staff makes and how many of them continued to get bonuses. when people stop wanting to read about all things egypt then national geographic will stop sucking up to zahi hawass. you know why they do. are you living under a rock? are you unaware of the state of publishing and the need to remain relevant? are you unaware of the horrible reputation that NG has with so many people under 35 in this country? shame on you.

  • Wow! I’m not sure where to begin, Jay. But before I do: Thanks for unloading. You make some great points — and, believe it or not, I agree with some of them….

    You’re right about The Way We Were: NGS as an organization of rich white guys who liked “their people of color naked and on the cover…. or serving them food in their private dining room.”

    According to Bob Poole’s history of NGS, “Bert [Grosvenor] and other executives worried that without careful monitoring, the expansion of the National Geographic Society could bring unwanted new members into the family, particularly in the capital, where blacks might try to use the library, vote at annual membership meetings, or appear at lectures, alienating the loyal white members. African Americans were excluded from membership — at least in Washington — through the 1940s.” (page 62 of “Explorers House”)

    What you saw on the cover of the Magazine was a mirror of how the men who ran NGS saw the world.

    Re: nepotism — I’ve seen it, you’ve seen it. I’m not sure any organization is fully immune from it. As for salaries & bonuses for senior executives, here’s what’s publicly available as of 2008 (which is the most recent year that information is available on Guidestar):
    http://societymatters.org/ngs-executive-compensation-2008/

    I also agree that “remaining relevant” matters. If Robert Michael Murray can do it, then more power to him. Problem is, he says virtually nothing about what he’s working on, or what he’s planning to do with 4 million Facebook fans, or anything that might hint at how NGS will embrace social online. And given what the Society has become, I think Robert is fighting an uphill battle. I hope I’m wrong, and that he accomplishes great things.

    What I don’t understand is why, in one breath, you want to know about executive compensation, but, in the next breath, you call me a stalker. You want to see Chris Johns’ pay stub — and I’m a stalker?? 🙂 … I’m blogging, Jay. NGS is my (after-hours) beat. The Society is the sole focus of my coverage here. It’s called niche journalism. Hyper-local. “Do what you do best, and link to the rest.” And so on…. (Are White House reporters “stalking” the President?) …. I try to shed some light on one of the world’s largest non-profit educational institutions which benefits mightily from the tax exemptions that you & I grant it. Given NG’s size, stature, history, and reach, it seems to me that someone should be keeping an eye on the place, don’t you think?

    National Geographic remains endlessly fascinating to me because it’s the world in microcosm. If you’re interested in globalization, or media, or the tensions between science & religion, or democracy & autocracy, or environmentalism, or the future of journalism, or education, or countless other topics — well, these all play out at 17th & M, and in the pages of the Magazine. … Although it’s obvious that I don’t like the way John Fahey & his team are addressing many of these topics, I’m not angry or bitter — I’m disappointed. (Hat tip: Mothers everywhere.) I’m also amazed that John thinks that putting cheetah pictures on every digital platform imaginable will provide a sustainable foundation for future growth. As for NG’s global media strategy — well, don’t get me started.

    The other day I read an article about Google’s failure to develop a social strategy. What Google needs, the author said, was an organizational story they could tell that would make people see Google as more than a search engine & a suite of powerful apps. The trick is to pick a few select threads from Google’s history, and weave them together into something compelling that might give the company a way to fend off Facebook in what is, in the end, a battle for advertising dollars.

    I see National Geographic in a similar way. First, figure out what the Society ought to become — and then pick the best threads from NG’s history to weave together into a story that will carry the Society where we all would like it to go. To me, those threads can be found after NGS ends its romance with eugenics, fascism, race theories, etc (say, 1941)… but before the rise of Green NGM & the shift from NG the “journal” to NG “journalism” (sometime in the 1980s).

    In other words: We should tease out a plausible story from an institutional history that’s not always pretty — building on the best parts to create something life-affirming and financially sustainable.

    —–

    In his “I Have A Dream” speech, Martin Luther King didn’t say: The United States was created by a bunch of rich white guys who still run it, who like their people of color naked… etc… Instead, he tried to build on what was good about the country. He didn’t harp on the often ugly realities of history; instead, he called upon Americans to embody the nation’s highest ideals. King gave people a sense of hope & possibility by suggesting the future could be better than the past.

    I’m certainly no MLK. And I harbor no delusions that I can change the world. But I do think it’s still possible to change one small corner of it — a place that has the potential to influence & inspire the rest of the world.

    And what better time to share all this stuff than right now, when executives of legacy media organizations wake up each morning, and ask themselves: Can I make it to retirement before the shit really hits the fan?

    Thanks again for your thoughts, Jay. And someday, if you’re in the mood, I’d love to buy you a cup of coffee. It’d be great to finally meet you.

    best,
    A

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