Why did our Society establish a publishing partnership in the People’s Republic of China?

Without Beijing even uttering a critical word,
MGM is changing the villians in its ‘Red Dawn’ remake
from Chinese to North Korean.
It’s all about maintaining access
to the Asian superpower’s lucrative box office.

By Ben Fritz and John Horn, Los Angeles Times
March 16, 2011

Lea Thompson in the 1984 version of "Red Dawn," (via the Kobal Collection & the Los Angeles Times)

China has become such an important market for U.S. entertainment companies that one studio has taken the extraordinary step of digitally altering a film to excise bad guys from the Communist nation lest the leadership in Beijing be offended.

When MGM decided a few years ago to remake “Red Dawn,” a 1984 Cold War drama about a bunch of American farm kids repelling a Soviet invasion, the studio needed new villains, since the U.S.S.R. had collapsed in 1991. The producers substituted Chinese aggressors for the Soviets and filmed the movie in Michigan in 2009. But potential distributors are nervous about becoming associated with the finished film, concerned that doing so would harm their ability to do business with the rising Asian superpower, one of the fastest-growing and potentially most lucrative markets for American movies, not to mention other U.S. products.

As a result, the filmmakers now are digitally erasing Chinese flags and military symbols from “Red Dawn,” substituting dialogue and altering the film to depict much of the invading force as being from North Korea, an isolated country where American media companies have no dollars at stake.

The changes illustrate just how much sway China’s government has in the global entertainment industry, even without uttering a word of official protest. …

Read the whole thing here.

Ha Jin

That story sounds painfully familiar: In 2007, Chris Johns, Editor of National Geographic, killed Ha Jin’s story about censorship in China — just days before NGS executives flew to Beijing to celebrate our Society’s new publishing partnership with the People’s Republic of China.

Familiar, yes (especially to regular readers of Society Matters) — but there’s one critical difference between MGM and NGS.

MGM’s executives must provide a financial return to the company’s investors. If we don’t do business in China, the CEO of MGM could justifiably say, then our investors will abandon us for other companies that will do what’s necessary to access China’s massive market. We must go to China because we have no other choice.       

But the National Geographic Society does have a choice. There are no stockholders pounding the table at NGS, demanding a return on their investment. These is no labor union demanding higher wages for its workers. There is no membership group calling for the Society — a 501(c)(3) tax-exempt organization — to keep expanding. There is no private foundation running the show from behind the scenes.

There’s just John Fahey — our Society’s Chairman and CEO — and the 20 people who serve on National Geographic’s Board of Trustees. (The list at nationalgeographic.com is out of date, so here’s our up-to-date version.) They, and they alone, enjoy the enormous luxury of having a choice — to go to China, or not. They, and they alone, decide whether our Society and our society are better off beneath the anaconda in the chandelier.

Question is: Given what our Society had to sacrifice to get into China, why did we choose to go in the first place?


Intra-marketing (part 2)

Does it matter that ngconnect, our Society’s intranet, is essentially a platform for intra-marketing instead of serving as a virtual water cooler where staff could discuss the past, present, and future of the National Geographic Society?

Yes, it matters. From the 95 Theses in The Cluetrain Manifesto: The End of Business as Usual:

click to enlarge

… 40.  Companies that do not belong to a community of discourse will die.

41.  Companies make a religion of security, but this is largely a red herring. Most are protecting less against competitors than against their own market and workforce.

42.  As with networked markets, people are also talking to each other directly inside the company — and not just about rules and regulations, boardroom directives, bottom lines.

43.  Such conversations are taking place today on corporate intranets. But only when the conditions are right.

44.  Companies typically install intranets top-down to distribute HR policies and other corporate information that workers are doing their best to ignore.

45.  Intranets naturally tend to route around boredom. The best are built bottom-up by engaged individuals cooperating to construct something far more valuable: an intranetworked corporate conversation.

46.  A healthy intranet organizes workers in many meanings of the word. Its effect is more radical than the agenda of any union.

47.  While this scares companies witless, they also depend heavily on open intranets to generate and share critical knowledge. They need to resist the urge to “improve” or control these networked conversations.


Best we can tell, ngconnect is a top-down intranet. It’s mostly about “HR policies and other corporate information that workers are doing their best to ignore.” It’s about selling a message rather than catalyzing a conversation. It’s about seeing employees as consumers instead of as long-term partners.

Which is too bad. We believe a fully networked National Geographic Society — one that connected management, staff, and members — could create the foundation for a sustainable, independent Society that wouldn’t have to sell its soul to survive.

Intra-marketing (part 1)

Many years ago, we received an invitation to a workshop about something called intra-marketing.

We’d never heard the term before, and we didn’t attend the workshop. But we did read the promotional blurb. In short, intra-marketing is the technique business executives use to sell their messages internally to their own employees. For a CEO, it’s similar to regular marketing, except instead of selling goods and services to your customers, you’re selling messages, programs, and policies to your staff.

Our Society’s intranet, called ngconnect, is intra-marketing at work. Its substance and style feel less like a community conversation — of colleagues talking to each other directly — and more like a megaphone for National Geographic’s Communications office (which produces it) to address the staff. The content — adventure contests, TV promotions, links to National Geographic News, and so on — is virtually indistinguishable from what you can find at nationalgeographic.com.

Which makes us wonder: Why is this site kept behind the NGS firewall?

≡  Megaphone man via On The Radar

Zahi Hawass, National Geographic Explorer-in-Residence Emeritus, is still making news in Egypt

Wednesday, July 27, 2011 – 14:59

Since 2002, revenue from overseas exhibitions of rare artifacts has gone to the family of toppled President Hosni Mubarak, an Egyptian antiquities official alleged Tuesday.

Abdel Rahman al-Aidy, head of the Central Department for the Artifacts of Central Egypt, said during a press conference on Tuesday that the attorney general had yet to take action on 21 reports Aidy filed calling for an investigation into well-known former Antiquities Minister Zahi Hawass and his aides.

He said he had prepared a list of the “five chief corrupt figures at the Supreme Council of Antiquities,” and added that he will file a report against them this week.

Meanwhile, Hawass has denied the accusation, saying a King Tut exhibition in the US generated US$70 million for Egypt, funds he said were used to finance the construction of the Grand Egyptian Museum. ...

Read the whole thing here.

John Fahey answers (some) questions re: Cengage

Dear John (Chairman & CEO of NGS),

Thanks very much for answering a few questions from the staff re: the sale of NG School Publishing to Cengage Learning. (See Q&A below, from the NGS intranet.)

If you have a minute, we’d love to ask a few more questions:

John Fahey

• Do you plan to sell off other parts of the National Geographic Society? If so, which ones — and when? If not, why not?

• If our ownership stake in the National Geographic Channel is only around 30 percent, then how do you realistically maintain editorial control of what’s on “our” Channel? After all, it isn’t ours, and never has been.  … Put another way: Do you ever tell News Corp, the Channel’s majority owner, to stop broadcasting shows that debase our Brand? If so, why should they listen?

Why did Michael Rosenfeld, the longtime president of National Geographic Television, and Steve Burns, a veteran producer, recently leave National Geographic?

• Would you be willing to sit down with us for a 90-minute interview?

Thanks for considering this.

All the best,
Your friends @ Society Matters


≡  Comments re: John Fahey’s post on the sale of NG School Publishing to Cengage Learning (via the NGS intranet):

… I’m open now for any questions!


  1.  [KG]
    Posted July 7, 2011 at 4:18 PM

    Hi John,
    As you can imagine, many staffers are wondering how this change will affect the jobs of our friends and co-workers in School Pubs. Will they become Cengage employees now?

  2.  seth
    Posted July 8, 2011 at 7:53 AM

    What percent will NGS own?

  3.  jfahey
    Posted July 8, 2011 at 8:10 AM

    Those details haven’t been worked out yet although the current NGSP staff will become employees of Cengage Learning.

    I should have mentioned that the transaction will settle around July 31. We need to wait for approval from the US Justice Department which we believe will be forthcoming.

    The vast majority of employees will continue doing the work that they’re currently engaged in.


  4.  jfahey
    Posted July 8, 2011 at 8:20 AM

    Hi Seth,

    We’re retaining a 10% equity interest in the business.
    To give some context, this compares with 30% for the NG Channel in the US and just under 30% for NG Channel International. We have no ownership interest in all of our international magazine partnerships except for Japan which operates as a 50/50 joint venture. Interestingly, our level of engagement in the Japanese issue of the magazine is no different than all the others despite our ownership position.


  5.  [MG]
    Posted July 8, 2011 at 2:25 PM

    Hi John, I’ll be interested in hearing how this partnership develops. As one who hasn’t worked in NGSP, I would also love to see some of the books they have and will be creating. Maybe they can have a “show and tell” some day.


Community matters @ Magnum

In the hope of making its archives more usable while also engaging its many online followers, Magnum is initiating a collaborative annotation project. For the trial run, Magnum is looking for 50 volunteers who are passionate about photography and want to help shape its site into an online community.

Magnum offers some give with its take. Participants also get to see important photos that have rarely, if ever, been viewed. They are also permitted what amounts to a sneak preview of new work from Magnum photographers in the field. And they’ll be helping an agency that is essentially a nonprofit — if not by design — because it has focused so much of its energy on the core mission of documenting world events.

“People who would balk at doing this for giants like Getty or Corbis would be happy to help this particular collective of photographers and preserve part of photography’s cultural heritage,” Mr. Carter said.

Read the whole thing here.

Could National Geographic pull off something similar? Or would people “balk at doing this” because our Society has become a “giant” with a much, um… broader focus.

We still believe NGS could “shape its site into an online community” — but only if NGS executives come to understand the prerequisite for building a community, online or off: We have to be able to discover who else is actually in it.

In memoriam: Susan Smith

≡  via NGS

At NGS, Zahi Hawass is officially history

See National Geographic’s official page here.

According to last week’s story in The New York Times:

… National Geographic says it pays Mr. Hawass to advise it on major discoveries and help shape its policies on antiquities issues. It says it has never received preferential access to archaeological sites or discoveries.

If that’s really why our Society was paying him, then why have we suddenly stopped?

Even though he just lost his job as the chief gatekeeper for Egypt’s antiquities, Hawass is still fully capable of providing us with expert advice for $200,000 per year.

Our partner, Rupert Murdoch (part 5)

News Corp & NGS: Joined (painfully) at the hip

Boycotts like this one make us wonder:
Do John Fahey’s “brand controls” really work?

News Corp is the majority owner of the National Geographic Channel.

FYI: We have no connection to this Facebook campaign, and don’t want to join it. As card-carrying members of the National Geographic Society, we prefer to work for constructive change from within. But that’s not easy when National Geographic’s Chairman & CEO refuses to talk to us — and to pretty much all other journalists.)

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