“Delighted”? It sure doesn’t seem that way.

When Cengage Learning acquired National Geographic School Publishing last week, the Cengage team trumpeted the deal on the front page of their website:

In the press release posted at Cengage’s site, John Fahey, Chairman and CEO of National Geographic, said:

“Cengage Learning has been an extraordinary partner to date, and we are delighted to expand our relationship, making Cengage our premier partner in education.” said John Fahey…. “Cengage Learning’s scale, educational publishing expertise, and existing relationships within the international and domestic markets, particularly in the higher education space, enables us to expand the reach and impact of the Society’s mission to inspire people to care about our planet.  The first step in serving that mission is education, and we know the power of compelling images and interesting stories to educate even as they engage learners at every level.”

Dear John

1. If this deal is such good news for National Geographic, why isn’t it mentioned anywhere on the National Geographic web site? Or in the National Geographic online press room? Or via any of our Society’s many media channels? Given your apparent enthusiasm, this virtual silence seems strange.

2. Do you plan to unload other NGS divisions? That is: Will you apply your Cengage-like logic to, say, the National Geographic Book Division? For instance, consider Bertelsmann, owner of Random House, which is comprised of nearly 20 imprints, including Doubleday and Alfred A. Knopf. Doesn’t a massive company like Bertelsmann have the “scale, publishing expertise, and existing relationships within the international and domestic markets” that dwarf our own? Wouldn’t Bertelsmann put the Yellow Rectangle in front of more people? By selling the division, you’d get greater brand exposure AND you could shed the division’s entire staff, along with their salaries, vacation pay, and health benefits. More mission for less money — isn’t that a win-win for you?

3. Unloading our School Publishing Division will probably look good on this year’s balance sheet, but why do you seem to have such a short planning horizon? Why act as though you’re beholden to stockholders? After all, the National Geographic Society has no stockholders. No private investors. No union. No functioning membership organization. What happens to NGS isn’t driven by Wall Street. Or Big Labor. Or anyone else. What’s happening to our Society is being driven by you.

4. How do you intend to protect our Society’s Brand when you keep selling it to businesses that have no long-term stake in protecting or sustaining it? See: News Corp. They ran Myspace into the ground, and are already pistol whipping our Brand, too, for fun & profit. (We assume you don’t stop Mr. Murdoch because you don’t have the authority, or you like what he’s doing to us. Or both.)

5. When can we stop by for the get-together you suggested back in 2009? Our questions keep piling up.

  • Therese

    Very good questions Alan. I have been wondering about questions #2 and #4 for many years. 

    With respect to question #2: What about the magazine itself, the NG Maps Division, the Image Collection, the Book Division (as you mention), the list goes on and on?

    With respect to question #4: Well, executive management doesn’t intend to protect the Society’s brand. They are just banking on the good NGS name.  As long as money is coming in, the executives won’t do anything to stop money from coming in. If they were concerned with their name, they wouldn’t have partnered with FOX.

    • T – You’re right, the list goes on & on. If I were a betting man, I’d wager that in 10 years, NGS will be a fraction of its current size re employees & members. Yes, products will still be produced bearing the NGS logo, but they’ll be pumped out by a constellation of different companies who have nothing in common. 

      It’s a strategy, but it’s one that running on fumes; that is, it’s based on brand equity built up over more than a century, not on anything new that will make people care about NGS. 

      Re: #4 — Your observation reminds me of the challenge John faced when he arrived at NG in the mid-1990s: How do you know if you’re “increasing & diffusing geographic knowledge”? What’s the metric? How can you tell if you’re doing better this year vs. last year? 

      John’s answer: Count the money. Dollars are votes. Customers cast their ballots by buying your stuff, which tells you what’s popular, and what isn’t — whether it’s a magazine, hiking boots, bedroom furniture, a branded cap. So, the Channel works because it’s generating cash. And the value of the Channel has no doubt risen dramatically since its launch. Lots more eyeballs tuning in. 

      But how can you measure the cost — both in dollars & in brand erosion — of doing shows about sex addiction & prison love? Maybe you discover the price down the road, in 10… 15… 20 years. But by then it’ll already be too late. 

      Thanks, as always, for writing… and reading. 🙂

  • Therese

    I couldn’t agree more with all your comments and there are many staffers and ex-staffers who agree as well. Honestly, I find this to be the best of your postings, it really says exactly what many of us have been saying for years.

    I already see a lot of outsourcing and embarrassing quality control issues. All because quality means time and time is money. As long as the money keeps rolling in, we can see the brand name being eroded and in 10/20 years, while current executives are living off their pensions, bonuses, whatever, the company will be gone. It is being run into the ground.

    • Thanks for your kind words, Therese. Coming from a regular reader like you, it means a lot.

      Re: quality control issues & outsourcing — if you can’t increase revenue in a way that’s consistent with the Brand, then you have to attack costs. Which means quality can suffer, or entire divisions can just be sold off. Cost gone! 

      It’s like a fat person losing weight by chopping of his arms: Yes, the scale says Fatty is 40 pounds lighter, but he’s bleeding all over the bathroom floor.  

      This blog / project was never meant to simply bemoan the cost cutting. It’s goal was to share stories, values, a worldview, and a business model (membership built around a Groupon-like network)  that could sustain NGS. But it requires some executive to lead, to step up to the microphone and say: Let’s go this way! … Instead, we get silence — but as the Cengage story teaches us, NG’s actions speak much louder than words. 

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