John Fahey has writer’s block

From the in-house blog of John Fahey, CEO of the National Geographic Society:

Can less be more?

Published: March 24, 2011

It’s been a while since I used this space to share ideas with you (please don’t check to see how long!). I think it didn’t quite work as I had hoped, in part, because I reserved its use for relatively large topics — those that might have interest across all parts of the Society. It felt a bit ponderous and heavy — not easily sustainable.

What I plan to do now is shorten it up (think twitter) and use it more often.  It’ll be more along the line of “what’s happening today that may be of interest to you or that may provide some context.” So I hope this works and if you feel like it, tell me what you’re thinking. {emphasis added}

Dear John,

You have writer’s block!

The NG staff editor handling John Fahey's upcoming 8,000-word cover story for National Geographic magazine.

We know because we’ve been there. We feel your pain! And you have all the telltale signs….

You find “relatively large topics” to be “ponderous and heavy.” You can’t write about them (or talk about them) without groaning under their enormous weight. You have unlimited space, yet you still want to “shorten it up.”

It’s as if you’ve been assigned to write a major cover story about the National Geographic Society to be published in National Geographic magazine — 8,000 words, 34 pages (with photos). But after 15 years of very costly field work, you’re sitting in your office, flipping through your notes, reviewing interview transcripts, reading old emails, and thinking: I don’t have a clue what to say.

Stranded in the desert, no wonder Twitter looks like an oasis.

But there’s no turning back, John. Everyone is counting on you. We need your Voice. We need the Big Picture. Which is why we took the liberty of scheduling an emergency appointment for you….

Scene: NGS headquarters in Washington, DC. In the 17th Street building, John Fahey, CEO of the National Geographic Society, steps off the elevator on the 7th floor (Island of the Word People), and shuffles towards an editor’s office.

He’s wearing a blue dress shirt, a blue tie, khakis, and loafers — but no jacket. His hair is (uncharacteristically) messy, and he looks tired. Under one arm is a dog-eared manila folder containing notes, outlines, ledes, more ledes, sketches, doodles, and more doodles — all of his work to date on his upcoming feature story for National Geographic magazine. Working title: Moving Forward: The National Geographic Adventure.

Arriving outside his editor’s office, John squares his shoulders, forces a smile, takes a deep breath, and knocks assertively on the door, which swings open….

  • j jr.

    i am so glad you don’t work for national geographic anymore. you have nothing to do with ‘we’ anymore. further more, you are delusional. national geographic has never, ever been about about parity or journalism without bias. historically, the halls were filled with bias. former military officers, trust fund kids, white guys, women forced to wear skirts, editorial ideas that included good looking white people in ads or on the cover and bare breasted brown women. your rap is weak, inaccurate and petty. your ‘ideal’ of the national geographic society, resides in the dark ages. alive and well with antiquated views of other cultures, women and people of color.

    who’s on the inside feeding you copies of internal emails and john’s blogs? show your displeasure by canceling your subscription. i know it will be tough since it brings with it a hint of membership, and this is what tethers your flimsy connection to THE Society.

    if you really knew what you were talking about, you would know that that word is rarely used now and has not been a part of the logo for years.

    • J – We agree far more than we disagree, except the part about my being ‘delusional.’ 🙂

      We agree that NGM “has never, ever been about… journalism without bias.” Tell that to Chris Johns. And feel free to quote liberally from my Objective Nonsense 20+ part series. NGM, esp during its period of greatest growth, was always biased. NGM is “the official *journal* of the National Geographic Society,” not the official *journalism* of NGS. There’s a big difference between the two. ….

      We agree the halls were filled with bias in all the ways you mention. And please know that I have no desire to revive those values or recreate that era.

      We agree that “Society” is a “word rarely used now and has not been part of the logo for years.” By repeatedly using the word, I’m not saying what is; I suggesting what should be. And for what it’s worth: John Fahey told me in 2006, when I asked him about the value of the word “Society,” that “nobody wants to belong to anything”; by 2009, a staffer told me that JF had changed his tune, and that (paraphrasing here) the only way the Geographic would survive is if it leveraged its identity as a community. Based on that quote, you can imagine JF rethinking his 2006 statement about what NGS is all about… even though his social media initiatives strike me as painfully anemic.

      And while I understand your point about canceling my subscription and moving on, I prefer to dissent from “within.” NGS still has the potential to do great things, even though I don’t see John rising to the occasion — not yet, anyway. … Your suggestion that I turn in my membership card reminds me of a Nixon-era bumper sticker that said: “America: Love It of Leave It.” Back then, my parents explained to me how un-American such a sentiment was; that if you love America, you stay & work to make it better. … At NGS, I tried to do so as an employee, but eventually Chris Johns decided he no longer wanted me in the building. That’s his prerogative. He’s the Editor. But it’s also my prerogative to maintain my respectful critique of what’s happening to NGS. It’s my prerogative as a member. As an American citizen. And as a U.S. taxpayer, who still extends a tax-exemption to an organization that seems to be taunting the IRS, almost begging the Tax Man to rescind that exemption. Why should the left hand of National Geographic be treated as a 501c3 when the right hand is recruiting soldiers for the army and navy of India?

      BTW: I assume you still work at NGS headquarters. Do you ever share your thoughts (above) at the office? If so, what do you say? (John Fahey seems to be asking for feedback.) If not, why not? … I’m not recommending you do so, unless you want to lose your job. But it’s worth considering why your insights would not be welcome, especially since most of what you say is true.

      Thanks (as always) for the feedback — and the abuse. 🙂 If we ever meet in person, coffee is my treat.

  • j. junior

    You can’t defend yourself Alan. You are not dissenting from within as that would imply that you are on the inside, when in fact you are on the outside. You have touched on a few salient points but you have no credibility as you take pot shots using ammo provided to you by unhappy people still working at National Geographic. To compare a magazine subscription to love of country is unbalanced. Angry. Bitter. Disrespectful. You have a right to express your opinion about the resultant editorial content, but you are taking personal jabs a specific individuals based on private internal communications sent to you by unhappy staff members. That’s hardly respectful. Though you continue to insist that you are a ‘member’ and that this provides you with certain rights, that’s not accurate. If you believe that National Geographic is in breach of it’s tax exempt rights, then contact the attorney general and stop acting like a kid who got kicked off the football team. Many of your ‘advisers,’ were let go too. Interestingly they remain silent.

    Stop acting like a little b*tch. If there is anything serious here, serious news outlets will pick it up and not just ‘citizen’ journalists.

    Yes, many of us have shared our thoughts. No one cares. NO ONE. The economy is bad. We all need the job.

    • A few quick thoughts, J … I’m no longer on the inside the way you are, but I am a member of NGS. Does that mean anything to you? No. Should it mean something to NGS? Yes, I think the members are critical to the Society’s survival. So does NG’s new SVP Amy Maniatis; check out her piece on NGConnect (formerly InsideNGS). She’s clearly trying to figure out how to make membership matter.

      Re: “a few salient points” — high praise coming from you! Thanks.

      Re: “no credibility” — ???? I know the subject. I know many of the people. I try to follow what’s happening elsewhere in journalism. And people send me stuff, mostly, I think, because they’re hungry for an open conversation about these matters. You clearly seem to be.

      Re: comparing “a magazine to love of country” — I’m sorry you don’t appreciate the comparison. Let me put it this way: People who still are working at NGS mostly keep their mouths shut because NGS is still working for them (they have a job). Folks who leave usually just move on, and leave NGS behind. I’m in the middle. What I think & say today is very similar to stuff I thought & said while I was still on staff. Why? Because those “few salient points” you acknowledge really matter. A lot. So I’ve stuck with it, much to your amusement / annoyance.

      Re: personal jabs — no, I don’t. My comments are directed at professionals.

      Re: my rights as a member — as I’ve said before: Just think of this blog as an open letter to the Editor & CEO. The sort of letter you might have sent via USPS in 1990, but which today can be posted in public, with videos.

      Re: tax-exempt status — I’m expressing my concern that NGS is doing stuff that puts the Society’s tax-exempt status at risk.

      Re: “serious news outlets” — I’m sorry you think what makes something serious is the messenger instead of the message. I obviously have more faith in “citizen journalists” than you do.

      Re: “b*tch” — it’d be nice if you stopped calling me names. Such language is, to use your words, “angry, bitter, disrespectful.” You’re better than that.

      Re: “no one cares” — I had much the same feeling while I was on staff. You’re in a game of musical chairs, and, for your sake, I hope you keep winning. But even when the economy improves, the problems that are eating away at NGS will not go away. The current model is badly broken, even if, short term, NGS can make money by turning over large swaths of prime-time TV to Heineken, Porsche, and Coca-Cola. I’d recommend you read Why Newsroom Layoffs Continue Despite Business Improvements — especially the remarks by Glenn Frankel.

  • j. junior

    i will stop comparing you to a little b*tch if you stop acting like one. he’s why. your message is fraught with commentary and tactics that sounds and looks like behavior. where you have pointed out issues that would be questionable for any company, your style undermines the “salient points.” and i think you are better then that.

    national geographic is no better and no worse then most large, legacy institutions. how many people learned that it is not what it appears to be, once we got here? how many stay because it’s human nature, and we need the job?

    i am not interested in a dialogue with them. they asked for one and though they said they wanted to change their behavior, they have not. i do not, nor do you have the right to tell them how to run the company. membership does not promise that. citizenship in this country gives us the right to vote our voices but it does not promise to deliver.

    it’s maddening to see so much of our lives reduced to marketing schemes and lawyers. news corps it seemed was antithetical to the very ethos of ‘the society.’ but ‘the society’ in and of itself, the very term itself and the suggestion of, recalls a different time. it was not a reflection of the world around them, it was a rich, white man’s club and becoming a ‘member’ suggests an elitism reminiscent of the cosmos club where black men and women served and women were not really scene.

    what are you trying to save? pretty pictures? exotic animals and naked people? like america perhaps you cling to the idea of what it could be.

    point away, i say. but not sniping or with barbs. these are just people who believe that they are doing a good job, and the founders and board of directors does not disagree.

    the fed’s have not found a tax problem.

    where this an organization that was innocent of lying down with dogs then this move to partner with despots and countries with human rights attrocities in their records would be shocking. but it’s not.

    you would not know the subject if people o n the inside were not feeding you information which you then use against them. is that investigative journalism or sour grapes?

    i do find you amusing. and you do know me.

  • > “perhaps you cling to the idea of what it could be.”

    Yes, I do.

    (P.S. The coffee offer still stands. 🙂 )

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